Is it too late to salvage the US and Israeli-Jewish relationship?

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

There was a time when religious and non-religious Jews, capitalists and socialists, Democrats and Republicans, Americans and Israelis, looked past their differences and political allegiances and united for a common good.

It was the time of the fight for the human rights of Soviet Jewry, when the greater good of freeing Soviet Jews from the repression of the “Evil Empire” masked many of those groups’ profound differences.

Of course we celebrate the victory of the downfall of the Soviet Union, freeing millions of Jews and other dissidents from tyranny, but the camaraderie and sense of purpose that illuminated a shared vision for attempting to save a lost remnant of the Jewish people by the free Jews around the world showed what a unity of purpose can do when Jews stand together.

When we are at our best, when we celebrate our commonalities, our shared humanity, our pride in belonging to a unique civilization and tradition that has given so much to the world, we stand as one people and can do great things.

Unfortunately that sense of purpose and unity are largely gone both within the American-Jewish community and in the relationship between much of America’s Jewry and their Israeli cousins.

A recent poll of Israeli and American Jews regarding whom they favor in the American presidential election revealed results that were polar opposites. The overwhelming majority of Israelis favor the reelection of President Donald Trump, despite his personal flaws,  crediting him with moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, putting consequences on the Palestinian Authority’s incentivizing of terrorist activity, and for the first time laid down a peace plan that prioritized Israeli security interests, while creating the diplomatic work for Israel’s first peace treaties with Arab nations in a generation.

On the other hand, American Jews overwhelmingly favor the defeat of Trump, prioritizing domestic progressive or liberal concerns over Israeli security concerns.

It is no surprise there is a profound difference between the two largest Jewish communities’ perspectives. Israelis live as a majority in their own state and are unashamed of their Jewish particularism and the pride afforded to them by their ability to defend themselves after two millennia of persecution directed at Jews.

American Jews live as an accepted minority in a Christian-majority nation, with growing antisemitism cropping up to the right and left.

American Jews have a much more universalistic perspective, identifying Judaism more as a religion they have or had, and are uncomfortable with the survival issues of the Jewish state. This has led too many to not only criticize Israel but even join with boycotters and delegitimizers who share their progressive values.

Too often they define Israel by what they disagree with, whether it is their criticism of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) monopoly on religious affairs, or their simplistic understanding of the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reflexively siding with the Palestinians as victims.

When American Jews see Judaism only as a religion, they miss out on the beauty of their own heritage, that Jews are a diverse people of every color, and don’t appreciate the miraculous fulfillment of their millennial long national aspirations, fulfilled in their lifetimes.

For an Israeli, religion is just one part of the Jewish mosaic. An atheist in Israel can have a very Jewish identity, but for an American who has no religious affiliation and for whom Israel is a tertiary issue, their progeny’s Jewish identity will likely disappear within a generation or two.

Has the divide reached a tipping point where only two generations ago, Jews from America considered Israeli Jews their brothers and sisters but for many, they now only consider them at best distant cousins who they have little in common with. A 2018 AJC survey found only 28% of Israelis consider American Jews “siblings” – and that was more than twice as high as the 12% of American Jews who viewed their Israeli counterparts that way, and Israeli Jews are more than twice as likely as their American counterparts (81% to 40%) to say that being Jewish is “very” or “most” important in their lives.”

SO IS there still a compelling case for American Jews to support Israel? Do American Jews want to abandon 7 million fellow Jews who are in the crosshairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has vowed that its mission is to eradicate the Jewish state as an affront to Islam?

Seventy years ago American Jews we’re not able to save the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis due to a combination of a lack of information, and a lack of influence and power. Today there is no excuse for not knowing the dangers Iran poses to the existence of the Jewish State or the rise of political Islamism in many countries, with its quest to delegitimize and destroy the only nation state of the Jews.

Democracies help democracies, and even if you are a loosely afflicted American Jew, Israel should be important because it advances American security interests.

Is there a way forward?

Let’s start with some respectful tolerance for each other‘s situation. For Israeli Jews, more open mindedness toward unfamiliar American liberal religious movements would go a long way. For American Jewry, an appreciation that life as an Israeli is nowhere as easy as our very comfortable life in America. Americans have not had a compulsory draft putting their children in harm’s way for more than 40 years.

Whether Donald Trump is reelected or Joe Biden becomes president, either will strain the relationship between Israelis and American Jews.

What we need now are organizational, religious and political leaders who prioritize unity as they did during the fight for Soviet Jewry, explaining how Jewish education and Zionism benefit the American Jewish community, while also explaining that tikkun olam, repairing the world, can also embrace Israel’s needs.

The first step is acknowledging the problem, the second is realizing that the relationship must be saved for the benefit of both Israeli and American Jews. The message of the 2018 AJC survey is clear, “If the concept of a global Jewish community…is to retain any meaning, each of its two major components (Israeli and American Jew) must develop a greater appreciation for the priorities and needs of the other.”

The writer is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the US Senate, House and their foreign policy advisers. He is the senior editor for security at The Jerusalem Report/The Jerusalem Post, and has appeared in The Hill, i24, RealClearWorld, JNS, JTA, Defense News, Rudow Iraqi media, and The Forward.

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