People in Glass Houses

Last week’s General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in Los Angeles was organized as a show of solidarity with Israel in the wake of the last summer’s war in Lebanon. The solidarity, however, is wearing thin, and if my own experiences last week are any indication, the future of Diaspora support for Israel is very much in question.

I spoke to a group of about 30 students at the University of Pennsylvania. In the course of the talk, I asked how many were pleased with the recent election results. All raised their hands. Then I asked how many thought that Democratic control of the Congress would be better for Israel. No hands were raised. One student did opine that American support for Israel is bi-partisan, and another argued that American pressure on Israel to be more forthcoming vis-א-vis the Palestinians is in Israel’s long-term interests.

“Correct me, if I’m misstating this,” I said, “but Israel simply did not factor into your voting.” No one protested. The results of my informal poll mirrored those of a 2004 poll that found Israel to be a major factor in the vote of only 14% of American Jewish voters.

And I should note that my audience rank far above their Jewish peers in their level of identification – all are in a program that requires a commitment to some form of Jewish learning at least twice a week, and they are studying at the most Israel-friendly of America’s elite campuses.

JEWISH AGENCY CHAIRMAN Zev Bielski was on strong demographic grounds when he told American Jews at the General Assembly that the future for non-Orthodox American Jewry looks bleak. He was, however, on far shakier grounds in proposing Israel as the solution. For if there is anything that binds the majority of American Jews and Israeli Jews today it is that Judaism has long since ceased to play an animating role in their lives. That commonality, however, provides little basis for a future relationship.

Admittedly Israeli Jews have a statistically higher chance of marrying another Jew than do their American brethren. And their Jewishness is perhaps more real to them, if only because international anti-Semitism has more direct consequences for their lives than it does for American Jews.

But being Jewish provides neither meaning nor purpose to the lives of most Israeli Jews. They live in Israel because they were born here, and speak Hebrew because it is the national language. Preserving a particular gene pool will not provide the missing sense of purpose.

The most incisive critics of last summer’s fiasco in Lebanon, like Ari Shavit, all viewed it as growing out of a deep spiritual malaise. Boogie Yaalon recently likened Israeli youth to a water plant without roots. And Nobel Laureates Yisrael Aumann and Aharon Ciechanover last week expressed their shared pessimism about the future existence of the State of Israel, a pessimism that they linked directly to “the sinking of the Israeli spirit.” Both men saw that loss of spirit as connected to the “general ignorance of the history of the Jewish people.”

Israeli Jews require an account of why it matters whether the Jewish people continue to exist — a description of our national mission, and how and why it is linked to the small sliver of land that we inhabit. Absent that those with the talents and wherewithal to do so will opt for a less threatening place to live. Many already have.

Before Bielski and other Israeli leaders lecture Diaspora Jews on their lack of a Jewish future, they would be well advised to attend to our own house, where the lack of Jewish identity threatens our very existence. Unfortunately, most of our leaders are themselves too far removed from anything Jewish to provide the needed antidote.

Originally published in Ma’ariv, November 23, 2006.

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3 Responses

  1. Ori Pomerantz says:

    I am one of those former Israelis with the talents and wherewithals who opted for a less threatening place to live. Eight years later, I am really happy with my decision to live in the US.

    I also think that Israel is better off without me. Israel will not survive without a population that is willing to pay in blood, sweat, and tears. Israel will not survive without being ruthless when necessary. People who are unwilling to pay the price have no business living in a beseiged western outpost in the middle east.

  2. Chareidi Leumi says:

    “But being Jewish provides neither meaning nor purpose to the lives of most Israeli Jews.”

    This assessment is questionable at best. The vast majority of Israeli Jews, we’re talking in the area of 90%, have a Pesach sedar and observe, to some extent or another, most Jewish holidays. Succas and Chanuka menoras can be seen everyone, even in the most non-orhtodox neighborhoods. Of course there is a hardcore minority of viscously anti-religious Jews here, but that minority does not justify Rabbi Rosenblum’s statement above.

    The truth is that there is an amazing undercurrent of spirituality and Jewishness running through the Jews here. Quite unlike what you find among the vast majority of Jews in the US.

  3. Reb Yid says:

    The reason why Israel did not factor into the voting of the Penn students is simple–by and large, most U.S. Representatives and Senators are supportive of Israel, regardless of party affiliation.

    It’s a non-issue, but not the way that JR would have you believe it.

    On the other hand, there were very clear distinctions between most Republicans and Democrats on other significant issues such as Iraq. Congressional ethics were also very important–and the party that was in control bore the majority of the blame for that (and suffered accordingly at the ballot box).

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