The J Street conference in Washington last weekend had a panel on the growing rift between American and Israeli Jews at which Rabbi Ayelet Cohen of the New Israel Fund, a liberal Zionist organization, said American Jews are losing interest in Israel, have “shame” and disappointment about Israel, are tired of fighting over Israel, and rabbis are quietly dropping Israel from Hebrew school curricula and no one’s noticing. Here’s her full opening statement.
When I think about the language of a rift, I think about active conflict, I think about moments that have stood out as crisis points between Amerian and Israeli Jews–I’m sure Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, the whole issue around the Iran deal, the Jerusalem embassy. But I think on a daily basis more than active experience of rift, what we are experiencing is a very troubling cooling of interest, of curiosity, of engagement between American Jews and Israelis and vice versa. I think for many of us it’s about despair, it’s about averting our eyes, it’s about misalignment of values.
For many of us, and we see this in many communities of North American Jews, across movements, affiliation, across religious connection, people who were deeply connected to Israel are tired, they are constantly feeling a need to justify why they feel connected to this place, they’re constantly disappointed, experiencing a lot of shame about this place– always hoping that it will rise to the occasion, be something that it’s not.
I think probably a lot of us in this room have felt that way at various points. It’s a lot of work to stay engaged, to keep holding on, to not walk away.
Most people are conflict averse. We don’t want to have fights with our families, we don’t want to have fights with our Jewish schools, we don’t want to have fights in our synagogues, and we see this playing out in so many different Jewish communal organizations. We see this playing out in philanthropy. It’s easier to look away.
And with the current political reality here in the U.S., there’s plenty for us to do here as concerned Jews who want to act for our values. And so while of course that work is essential and many of us are doing that as well, I think for some of us it also is a way of not having to worry about what’s going on in Israel, not having to think about it.
In my work, I talk to a lot of my rabbinic colleagues. What we’re seeing is, in many synagogues, in summer camps, it’s easier to just not talk about Israel. It’s too divisive, it’s too complicated. Politically engaged congregations have so much to do around immigration and other domestic issues– why talk about something that’s going to be so painful, so complicated, and feels further away for a lot of us?
I’ve spoken to some rabbis who have slowly taken Israel out of the Hebrew school curriculum, and no one noticed. As long as we’re still talking about social justice and anti-Semitism and highlights of Jewish history and holidays, nobody notices that Israel isn’t in there. So in that we are creating another generation of American Jews who are even further away and further disconnected from Israel.
Will a transfer of power [end of Netanyahu era] make a difference in terms of the relationship? Look, I think it’s a moment of opportunity for us. We know that the prevailing strategy of the American Jewish establishment has been a complete failure. Lying to smart young people has not worked. Trying to only talk about the good and brand anyone who talks about the bad as a traitor has not worked. It’s backfired spectacularly. Because it’s caused smart American progressive Jews to suspect the good as well as be concerned about the bad, and that’s terrible. That’s actually tragic to me. We have a lot of work to do to really engage.
I know that for rabbis there is a tremendous amount of pressure and intimidation to talk about Israel with less intellectual rigor and curiosity than almost everything else we talk about from the bima [altar]. And we fear and are frequently faced with intimidation and financial consequences when rabbis try to do that. For a lot of my colleagues I know it’s brave to even be here at this conference.
I also think there’s a lot of opportunity in this moment and part of why I like coming to J Street is the opportunity for so many American Jews to spend time with and connect with the Israelis who are the opposition, who are the resistance. All of the civil society organizations– it’s always a treat for me to see so many of the New Israel Fund grantee organizations here. So that Americans can connect with and hear from Israeli activists like themselves who are deeply concerned with what’s going on.
The best thing that we can do are tell their stories, lift up their voices, remind ourselves as an American Jews that there are Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs who are working every day. They do not have the luxury of averting their eyes, it is not an option. So for us to be truly in relationship, we have to look too and have to listen and we can get reconnected and reenergized.