Photo: Judea and Ruth Pearl, the parents of slain WSJ journalist Daniel Pearl, light a Hanukkia at a Hanukkah reception at the White House in 2007. Ruth died on July 20, 2021, at the age of 85. Source: Jim Young/Reuters
Published in the March 7, 2022 issue of the Jerusalem Report
American and Israeli Jewry are at a crossroads. Together they represent nearly 90% of the world’s Jews. Israeli and America’s Jews don’t understand each other, and with each passing decade seem to be less willing to make the effort required to foster that vital relationship. Too often, it seems they are hearing but not listening to each other’s concerns. Israelis need to appreciatethat they cannot take the support of their American brethren for granted. And the non-Orthodox American Jewish community discounts the role of Israel in its own sustainability.
Israeli Jews will continue to grow in number. In contrast, the number of American Jews, depending on how you define a Jew, will have at best lackluster growth. Israeli Jews marry Jews, secular American Jews most often marry non-Jews, and their grandchildren generally assimilate into Jewish oblivion.
Fewer than 50% of Jewish Americans under the age of 30 feel even somewhat attached to Israel, not a good omen for the future of the US-Israel relationship. Yet overall, “eight out of ten American Jews indicated that caring about Israel is a key component of being Jewish,” according to the latest PEW survey. There is both hope and peril in that survey, as it is not too late to reimagine the relationship and move towards one more harmonious. It will take both par-ties to reevaluate their preconceived notions of the other and take the time to understand why a strong relationship is so crucial for both of their interests.
Can Israeli Jews realize that the support of the American Jewish community is an Israeli national security imperative? And can secular American Jews be convinced that their relationship to Israel may be needed, in order that their grandchildren remain Jewish beyond having a Jewish surname?
At the end of 2021, I was asked to be part of a symposium organized by Moment Magazine addressing the question, “What should the role of American Jews be with respect to Israel today?” Acknowledging the “seismic shifts in geopolitical alliances and the widespread concern that many American Jews are drifting away from the Jewish homeland,” the goal was to elucidate, “What, if any, obligations do we have toward Israel?”
There was also a word of caution, “Be forewarned: wherever you stand on this issue, you may find some responses unsettling or even objectionable.”
People like Michael Oren, Natan Sharansky, Donniel Hartman, and Judea Pearl were on one side of the debate. On the other side of the divide were anti-Zionists like Peter Beinart and his fellow travelers like JVP (Jewish Voice for Peace). Their comments about Israel would have been considered unthinkable for the vast majority of the American diaspora just a few years ago. Moment did a service for the American Jewish community by providing transparency in presenting the full spectrum of Jewish voices who weigh in on Israel.
For my part, I said that the youngest cohort (of American Jews) are the loudest and angriest and have become its full-time critics. They increasingly believe they know better than Israelis what is best, and they are ignorant of the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some have crossed the Rubicon, advocating to end the Jewish state through bi-nationality.
American Jews’ primary role concerning Israel will continue to be advocating for the U.S.-Israel relationship, which is indispensable for American and Israeli national security interests. However, the strength of the connection to Israel is as much about our survival as it is about Israel’s. That is partly due to the multi-generational consequences of a more than 60 percent intermarriage rate.American Judaism is in decline, so we need to get our own house in order regarding our role in the survival of the Jewish state.
All of this came to mind last month when I had an opportunity to write an article with a Palestinian opposition Fatah activist, where we together called for an end to violence against all civilians. Although we profoundly disagreed about political solutions, especially on the right of return, I believed with Judea and Samaria (West Bank) on the verge of an explosion, a call for non-violence by a Palestinian opposition member of Fatah would be a baby step in the rightdirection. Even though I made it clear in the article that I should not be telling Israelis what to do as an American, I thought there were more positives than negatives in publishing the article, especially if it had any possibility of lowering the flames.
However, something just didn’t seem right to me. So before sending the article in for publication, I sent it to a trusted Israeli friend, a well-respected expert on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, to review. He told me, “The most obvious weakness of the article is that you are not an Israeli. I see that as a fatal flaw in the piece.”
And there you have it, the tension between the obligations of being a Jew in the Diaspora who cares deeply for the security of the Jewish state and the more significant fact that I did not put my children in harm’s way as Israelis do. I didn’t make the affirmative choice to move to the only Jewish state in the world. My opinion as an American would not be taken seriously.
No matter how much we diaspora Jews love Israel, the Jews who live in the Jewish State have and should have the final say on their nation’s security. It is also no surprise that Israelis are growing more distant from American Jews then a growing chorus of voices in the diaspora are calling for an endto the Zionist project as racist, apartheid, colonialistic, and an anachronism in history.
A June AJC survey revealed the tension between the two largest Jewish communities globally. When “Asked to use the metaphor of a family, only 11% of American Jews said they view Israeli Jews as siblings; 15% as first cousins; 46% as an extended family; and 28% as not a part of their family.” Yet the potential to strengthen the relationship is still present as “60% of American Jews say that being connected to Israel is important to their Jewish identity, and 75% of Israeli Jews see a thriving Diaspora as vital to the long-term future of the Jewish people.”
But that also means 40% of Jewish Americans don’t identify with Israel or want the Jewish state to end. That is no surprise, as the last two generations of young American Jews have been brainwashed by anti-Israel academics, while anti-Zionism has moved from pariah status to closer to the mainstream in the Democratic party with the emergence of the Squad and Bernie Sanders.
As Peter Beinart wrote, “what I consider to be the very grave and profound injustice that Israel is doing – an injustice that is not just the product of one particular government or political party but that is built into the fabric of the state, and into the way, it functions as a state that is built on Jewish supremacy over Palestinians… Israeli Jews would be better served in a state that provides equality under the law to Palestinians—by which I mean a state that did notprivilege Jews over Palestinians, one that was not constituted as a Jewish state.”
The editor-in-chief of Jewish Currents, a left-wing Jewish magazine not unlike IfNotNow and J Street, sees the relationship between American Jews and Israel only through the occupation of the disputed territories. “The role of American Jews should be to put pressure on Jewish institutions and the American government to push the Israeli government to end the occupation… It’s the root of a broader moral and discursive degradation in the Jewish community, here and in Israel, to decide to accommodate the injustice of the occupation.”
Their progeny will unlikely remain Jewish with such a myopic and hostile focus; they will become irrelevant by sheer numbers. The founder of JVP at the University of California at Davis goes a step further. “There is a moral responsibility for Jews, as beneficiaries of the colonization of Palestine, to reject the terms and revisionism of Zionism and to advocate for Palestinian liberation.” What were once fringe views are now commonplace on American campuses.
On the other hand, former ambassador Michael Oren said, “the first thing American Jews have to do is educate themselves. If a foreigner or an Israeli came to the United States and made far-reaching pronouncements about American security issues or domestic policy without speaking English, without knowing any American history, without understanding the Constitution, or even having read the Constitution, most Americans would take umbrage. Yet large numbers of American Jews do precisely that. They don’t necessarily speak Hebrew or Arabic for that matter; know little about the country’s history and geography; know little about our politics and security issues, which are immensely complex, and yet make far-reaching pronouncements about how Israeli policy should be formulated.”
The comments of Susie Linfield, a professor at NYU, struck a nerve with me. “American Jews often overestimate our importance. Israel isn’t just a replica of the United States, with the only difference being that in Israel, the Jews have guns. Israelis created a new nation, a new culture, a new language, a new identity – which was precisely the aim of the original Zionists. Too often, Americans – on both the right and the left – project our fantasies and obsessions onto Israel and Israelis…American Jews view Israel simply as a cause rather than as a country. For me, the most distressing development—which has been a long time in coming but was most evident in the recentIsrael-Hamas war—is the abandonment by the American left, and particularly the Jewish-American left.”
My friend Judea Pearl said, “The future of American Jewry rests critically on its connection to Israel and its embrace of Israel as the spiritual compass of Jewish identity. Religion used to be the cement that glued us together, but we have given up that cement. Most Jews today are secular, living in different countries and speaking different languages. The one glue that binds us together is our collective memory of our common history. Israel is both the culmination of that history and its custodian, holding and nurturing our precious trust deeds: holidays, language, sites, landscapes, lore, heroes, and miraculous revival. Sadly, half of American Jewry seems to have given up on this last remaining glue and is starting to see Israel as a liability as opposed to an inspiration.”
So why am I, a senior security editor, writing about the relationship of American and Israeli Jewry? Because that relationship is a profound security issue for Israel.
Years ago, I tried to convince Israel’s defense minister that American Jewry’s relationship with Israel is vital for Israeli security. Diaspora antagonism based on issues like “Who is a Jew” and providing a dedicated space for liberal Jews to pray at the Western Wall are not American issues; they are Israeli national security issues.
Universalism without particularism is the death knell for American Jews who need the anchor and assistance of a Jewish state. The progressive anti-Zionist pandemic will condemn America’s liberal Jews to irrelevancy with birth rates low and a high intermarriage rate. Zionism may be the only way to maintain and continue the liberal Jewish story in the diaspora, outside of embracing Orthodox religious practice, which is not likely to happen.
Although Israel needs the help of American Jews for its physical security, American Jews need Israel to help save the Jewish soul. That is why my friend Gil Troy promotes identity Zionism as an antidote for liberal America’s assimilation. But will secular American Jews be open to that possibility?