Tuesday, May 18, 2010

israel and american jews: what future?

There has been an interesting debate in the NY Times and other publications on the increasingly frayed relationship between American Jews and the State of Israel. On the one side are those, mostly liberals, who suggest that the issue is Israel's own behavior, which is thought to be inconsistent with "Jewish values" in one way or another. On the other side are those, more often than not conservatives, who think that the demographic decline and naive political liberalism of American Jewry is to blame. Who is right, and is there a third, more enlightening view?

To understand what is happening, one has to know a little bit about the American Jewish community. In many respects this resembles the Protestant community but with smaller numbers and different proportions. The largest groups, Reform and Conservative, are something like the liberal Protestant denominations: a generally low level of observance/attendance and an emphasis on social action, which in practice means charitable activity and vaguely liberal causes. The smallest but most rapidly growing group, the Orthodox, is more like the evangelical Protestants, with a higher level of belief and participation, a large missionary contingent (albeit exclusively to other Jews), and increasingly conservative politics. One important difference--a difference many non-Jews seem to miss--is that the proportions are different: whereas evangelicals and Main Line Protestants have achieved a rough balance, the Orthodox remain a clear minority among American Jews, although demographic patterns suggest that this will change dramatically in the next generation. Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to say who is Jewish at all, with a large number of half- and quarter- and three-quarter Jews living in a bewildering variety of mixed families.

Israel has also changed. From a country dominated by a Western-oriented, socialist elite, it has become at once more multicultural and more traditional, with large religious and nationalist contingents (not necessarily the same thing) and a variety of subcultures, including Mizrachi (what used to be called Sephardic) Jews, Russians, and Arabs and other who are not part of the Jewish majority, at all. There is irony aplenty in these changes: the country, which used to be somewhat superior and rather closed-minded, has actually become much more diverse, with an optimistic, growth-oriented outlook that contrasts with the persistent feeling of decline that characterizes much of the American Jewish community. Still, it is an Israel very different from the "little country that could" of American folklore, and particularly jarring for those raised on the Jews-as-underdogs, liberalism-as-gospel approach prevalent among North American Jews. Accusations of Israeli human rights violations, and the coarseness of Israeli politics generally, are especially difficult for the latter to stomach.

So an American Jewish community, in demographic decline and wedded to what is essentially a social gospel religion, meets an Israel that is demographically growing but more and more politically conservative, and primed by education to think of galut (Diaspora) Jews as weak and somewhat feckless. While a core remains as attached to Israel as ever, a larger number either disengage completely or attach themselves to the small but vocal minority of Israelis--the left, the internationalists, the Tel Aviv elite--who tend to share their dim view of the Israeli majority and encourage them in more radical opinions. (It is not unusual to see pro-Palestinian or even pro-boycott manifestos adorned with Jewish names.) Conservatives, in turn, circle the wagons and begin to see any criticism of Israel as disloyal, even though the same or worse things are regularly said in Israel.

What is to be done about this situation? I don't have an easy answer, but I'll tell you two things I recently witnessed, one of which seems to me the wrong approach and one to contain seeds of the right one.

The wrong approach, I think, is to become overly defensive and politicize the issue more than is already the case. This is admittedly a difficult temptation to resist, since much of the left/liberal critique of Israel is very hard to swallow--especially coming from other Jews--and the temptation to punch back well-nigh overwhelming. Nevertheless, it seems to me a mistake, especially if one wants to involve young people who are likely to be turned off by this approach. Several community groups that I have been involved with have taken this approach, and proceeded to turn out large numbers of the faithful without really reaching anyone new.

A better approach was suggested by a recent visit to the Hillel House at a large university. In addition to a vareity of religious services [it was a very big campus], the center displayed literature from a wide range of Israel- or Jewish-related groups. Those who were traditional could participate in more religious activities; those of a liberal/human rights orientation could get in touch with like-minded Israeli groups; environmentalists could take biking trips to Israel, and so on down the line. The approach, in other words, was inclusive and optimistic: be left, be right, be outright weird if you wanted to be, but do it in an Israeli context and be part of the larger Jewish community. And, of course, go to Israel, with a subsidized trip from the Taglit (birthright) program if you qualified, otherwise on your own. And learn some Hebrew before (or once) you got there.

It may seem wimpy to talk about biking trips when Israel faces the range of political and strategic threats that it does today. But one has to think also about the long-term. An idealized vision of Israel as a "righteous victim" or an outpost of American democracy, however psychologically pleasing to American Jews, is both inconsistent with reality and unappealing to the younger generation. The real country--diverse, contentious, but with something to appeal to all ranges of political and cultural outlooks--is likely to be a better advertisement for itself. American Jews, in short, need less Israel advocacy and more Israel: and people with the vision and long-range outlook to provide it.


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