Last week may have been the most fraught period in relations between Israel and American Jews since the cancellation of the Western Wall deal last July by Prime Minister Netanyahu in an effort to mollify his Haredi coalition partners. Among last week’s highlights that raised American Jewish hackles were the passage of the nation-state law over the strong objections of American Jewish groups big and small; the last minute betrayal of gay Israelis – in yet another effort to mollify Haredi coalition members – by excluding them from the surrogacy law after Netanyahu had pledged on video two days before to support their surrogacy rights; and the early morning arrest ordered by the Haifa rabbinical court of Conservative Rabbi Dubi Haiyun for performing an “illegal” wedding. All of these things caused enormous consternation among American Jews, despite the fact that arguably none of them actually impact American Jews directly, and it raises the larger questions of what, if anything, Israel actually owes American Jews, and what can and should American Jews expect from Israel.
That last week’s events were received by American Jews particularly poorly is in some ways odd. Unlike the abrogation of the Western Wall arrangement or non-recognition of conversions performed abroad by American rabbis, the actions taken by the Israeli government last week don’t actually impact Diaspora Jews directly. The arrest of Rabbi Haiyun was one of an Israeli rabbi performing marriages between Israelis. The exclusion of gay men from surrogacy eligibility in Israel affects Israelis and not anyone else. While there are concerns about the clause concerning Diaspora Jewry in the nation-state law, in some ways American Jews were given a greater stake in Israel than some Israelis now have as a result of the law’s passage; after all, a Basic Law declaring to be the national home of the Jewish people and granting only Jews the right to national self-determination in the country means that Jews anywhere have a claim on Israel that Palestinian or Druze citizens of Israel do not. Yet Chemi Shalev wrote over the weekend – correctly in my view – of American Jews that “the nation-state law could prove a bridge too far, a straw that breaks the camel’s back, the last nail in the coffin of their long-held allegiance.”
It’s not hard to understand why. American Jews have become accustomed to Israel ignoring their concerns and requests, but they have clung to a vision of Israel that was rooted partly in fact and partly in fiction. Israel was of course the Jewish homeland, but it was also the only democracy in the Middle East, a beacon of tolerance and liberal values, Ehud Barak’s “villa in the jungle” not only in a security sense but also in a values sense. Sustaining that vision has become increasingly difficult, and it is the shattering of the illusion rather than any policy decisions that tangibly impact American Jews that is creating the essence of the crisis between Israel and its Diaspora kin. American Jews want Israel to act a certain way and look a certain way, and they feel betrayed that their values are not supported by a majority of Israelis or the Israeli government.
In a way, this type of disappointment is even worse than having American Jews’ interests be used as a bargaining chip in coalitional wrangling. American Jewish identity is not wrapped up in being able to have an egalitarian bat mitzvah service at the Western Wall, but it is wrapped up in pointing to Israel as something to take pride in and something to which we feel a close and lasting affinity. The rise of groups like IfNotNow has been driven by tangible Israeli policies toward the Palestinians with which younger generations of American Jews vehemently disagree; at issue is what Israel does. But the much larger segment of American Jews that still feels a strong connection to and pride in Israel is driven by something less tangible but more emotionally resonant, which is not what Israel does but what Israel is. This is why the last week was such a damaging one. The sum total of such a frenzied week is that many American Jews are now finding it more difficult to see in Israel the thing that they thought they recognized.
Does any of this matter? What does Israel owe Diaspora Jews? The answer, sadly, is very little. Many Israelis resent that Americans want Israelis to conform to their own political and cultural values, and take exception to perceived interference in what they view as Israeli domestic affairs. And they are right. Diaspora Jews do not vote in Israel, pay taxes in Israel, or serve in the IDF. We are entitled to our opinions and our disappointments, and we can communicate those until we are blue in the face, but there is no reason why Israel needs to take our concerns into account when making policy decisions. Israelis have the absolute right to have their own state made in their own image, and not be forced to live in one that is made in ours. That American Jews want to see Israel look a certain way is our problem, and there is a strong argument to be made that this should be at or near the bottom of Israelis’ concerns.
But this freedom to ignore the concerns of Diaspora Jews when it comes to Israel will run the other way too, and that is why Israelis need not care what American Jews think, but should. Israelis have long treated American Jews like the gullible donors in Sallah Shabati, too enamored with Israel to see or understand what is going on behind their backs. For decades this dynamic worked for both sides, since Israel wanted American Jewish support without American Jewish hectoring, and American Jews wanted a Disneyland version of Israel that they could support with no qualms. That era is gone for good, and neither side has quite adapted to the brave new world in which they find themselves. Israel takes umbrage at American Jews who want to question what Israel is doing, and American Jews take umbrage at an Israel that looks and acts different from the liberal Zionist utopia they envisioned. Israel can dismiss American Jewish concerns, but it will have to get used to a diminishment in unwavering loyalty and support from American Jews, who do not see any higher or absolute obligation to back the Israeli government. Many American Jews will still identify with and support Israel for all sorts of good reasons, but many will not, and the Israeli government seems to not quite understand that this is a two-way street.
Israel prioritizes its Jewish character at the expense of other variables. The irony of this is that in doing so, it has alienated a non-trivial chunk of Jews who live outside its borders and would rather see Israel prioritize its democracy. Israel has every right to do this, but in doing so, it is in some ways creating a narrower variant of Israeli nationalism that is not necessarily a universal Jewish nationalism. We non-Israeli Jews should not expect that this Israeli nationalism includes us or incorporates our concerns, but Israel should also in turn not be surprised when some Diaspora Jews feel that Israel has betrayed them. Particularly in the era in which we live, where identity-based politics on both the right and the left are assuming unprecedented primacy, smashing the shared sense of Jewish identity carries with it serious risks; risks that go beyond the concerns over Israeli policies, because they speak to concerns that are deeper and more emotional.
My major disagreement with your point is really based on the expected financial partnership that Israel has cultivated and wants. Every day, I get fundraising emails, letters, phone calls, texts for AFMDA, Federation, Israel bonds, Friends of Hebrew U, Friends of X University, JNF, FIDF, etc etc.
There are billions of dollars that may not be from “tax paying” Israelis, but sure help that society function in huge ways. I don’t get solicited for Russian National Fund, or Friends of the French Armed Forces, nor would I donate to them. But as long as major components of Jewish American fundraising goes to support Israel and allow its infrastructure to thrive and survive, how can you even imply that we Americans don’t have a right to want an opinion?
The American Jews the author speak of are a dying breed, more followers of the cult of liberalism than any religion. They seem to reflexively oppose nationalism of any kind, be it Jewish or American. They also live in a fantasy world where they forget the massive differences between America and Israel. The former exterminated the so-called “native people” and imposed Manifest Destiny in building a vast and powerful nation with secure borders. Israel is a tiny nation surrounding by adherents of a religion that does not recognize their sovereignty or even their rights as full human beings. Israel did not use the “American” methods of dealing with the Arabs who had been squatting in Palestine for centuries. Instead she is in a constant struggle with them over their irreconcilable nationalistic views.
Most of the charities mentioned by the commentator do not provide any funds directly to the Israeli government and things like “bonds” are not donations, they are investments paying a good safe return on the investment.
How about we judge Israel by American standards of the 1830s and not 2018? Let Israel pacify its borders and maintain control of its internal security by imposing the Zionist vision on the Arabs who want to live in Israel. Then you can come back and judge Israel in say 30-40 years after that is accomplished?
I am having a hard time knowing where to start with your comments, but I will do so with:
“How about we judge Israel by American standards of the 1830s”….
Do you mean the time of America where much of its territory was not yet settled, states, and so on? Do you mean the time of America when women had no rights? When slavery existed through half the country? At a time where half of Europe wasn’t even emancipated yet? I reject that.
We can only judge Israel based on today’s standard, and to do otherwise is disingenuous or making excuses.
But I fear you stray from the point of the essay and my initial response. Should American Jews (or worldwide Jews for that matter) have a right to voice opinions? Does Israel owe us anything? Your reply didn’t answer that. Unless you are saying that nobody but Israelis have a right to voice opinions to Israeli leaders and society. If that is the case, what of the tremendous support that world Jews and others give to Israel? Is it right for Israel to have its hand out (institutionally, government, societally) yet freely tell us to shut our mouth? Support us but don’t tell us anything?
I believe that by having such a strong financial and other stake in Israel’s entire being, that American Jews have a right and perhaps obligation to speak out . Doesn’t mean that Israel governmentally will listen to us, but then we can choose to support or not. (You are right Bonds are not a donation, but they sure go a far way to alleviating needs of government funding that they may not otherwise have, similar to any bond one buys from any school, municipality, or government). By making donations and/or bond purchases, we essentially become taxpayers in Israeli society because without the external support, either institutions would fail or taxes in Israel would increase to sustain what we support.
And that isn’t a “liberal” or “conservative” view, but rather a quid pro quo for support.
Alan, no one is stopping you from expressing your opinion to Israelis but if you want to condition your financial contributions on their abiding with unrealistic and dangerous practices espoused by people living in a fantasy world, that’s on you.
Yes, Israel should be viewed as young country with many hostile forces on the border and in the country itself. Obviously, Israel is way ahead of the United States at the 70 year point. On the other hand, most of her Arab neighbors are WORSE than the United States was.
At least don’t judge Israel from your safe perch in the suburbs in America. It’s not surprising you may feel complacent, but maybe if some hostile folks moved in your neighborhood and started bullying your kids at school, you would adopt a different attitude. Ultimately, you do need to choose a side because only one side is going to win the rival nationalist claims to all of Palestine. Namely, the Arabs want all of it (they already have more than half) and the Jews want and need a secure part of it, which necessarily includes the West Bank.
Your comments are assuming that only “liberal” or “anti-Bibi” people want to express their views. I am trying to deal with the basics of the essay–should the Diaspora be able to voice opinions to a foreign government, whether they agree with it or not?
From your comments, you sound like you are critical of the Americans who have voiced opposition to Israeli policies regarding security measures, but don’t assume that Americans who voice their opinion are suburban safe dwellers or anything like that. It is getting away from the issue at hand.
My big question is really based on the idea of the government, the NGOs, and the institutions that solicit world Jewry (and other donors, not just Jews). Those funds really save Israeli taxpayers from billions of their own dollars. It is voluntary, it is donation and/or bond purchases, but does that essentially make the donor communities (especially Federations and other “Friends” organizations) taxpayers of a sort? Does it give them a right to voice opinions?
Recent examples may have included the Wall issue last year, the status of non-Orthodox citizens (Jews and otherwise) in Israel and so on. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with security concerns.
This essay and this issue are not to debate whether Israel needs the whole West Bank, part of it, or what a final peace solution may look like. But even sort of on that topic–do people outside of Israel who support Israel have a right to weigh in and expect to be heard? And if those people are liberal and not listened to, what should their response be?
Alan, I though I made it clear. No one is stopping you from expressing your opinions to Israelis, private citizens or world leaders. You will be heard, but don’t expect to be persuasive if you don’t know what you are talking about. If you want to condition your financial support on Israel taking steps it believes are self-destructive, then go ahead and do that. If you really are having cognitive dissonance between your support for Israel as a Jew and your affiliation with progressive causes, perhaps you can take a closer look at the latter and worry less bout the former. You can start with the question why some liberal Jews side with Arab Muslims over their brethren.
Jeff–thank you for weighing in repeatedly. You are assigning my comments to a certain political view and/or spectrum whereas I am trying to discuss the greater issue at hand.
As long as you assign my questions and comments to a specific political view which I have not voiced here, I don’t know how to proceed with discussion. I am not getting into the politics of Israel and what is right or wrong. You seem to want to assign my comments to “siding with Arab Muslims” or “progressive causes”, go ahead but I have not given you any indication of that. I am again focused on what this essay is discussing.
Now if you want to say that 75% of American Jews (and/or diaspora Jews) trend liberally or progressive or whatever other label you wish, don’t paint me with that, since you really don’t know what my personal views are. I don’t understand why we can’t discuss the issue at hand without painting certain political names with it.
There’s no substance to the “issue at hand” as you call it. It is meaningless to ask whether Israel should be obligated to listen to the thinking of American Jews without knowing what the latter are saying and why they are saying it. If my sister kept trying to give me advice about how to raise children for example, I would feel some obligation to at least let hear what she had to say. But if she was a failure as a mother or had no kids at all, or was trying to raise them under completely different circumstances than present with my kids, then I would only listen, and not assign any weight to what she had to hear.
So, yes, the answer to the question posted is “depends on what American Jews have to say and why they are saying it.”
I was talking with two colleagues whose families are Italian and Greek about diaspora life and how country politics/ economics affect them. Their families all share differing opinions, but the politics are not enough to motivate someone to move back or stop donating. They are proud to be Italian/ Greek and leave country decisions to those who live in Italy and Greece. They did feel being a Jew must be more challenging, as Israel is under a microscope with world opinion against Israel.
The issue IMHO is many American Jews disagree with the new basic law, but have not read it. They’ve read articles by the NY and LA Times, but really have not thought for themselves. If they did, they would realize the new basic law really does not move the needle one iota. As to the other items, they should move to Israel if they feel so strongly.
The hemming in hawing seems to be about discomfort American Jews feel when discussing Israel with other liberals/ progressives. Maybe we should talk more about what we know, i.e. life in America where we live.