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Do Israeli and American Jews Need Each Other?

Starting in 2005, American readers of the Israeli daily Haaretz noticed something new in its pages: well-informed, jaunty analyses not only of American politics and diplomacy but of American Jews and American Judaism. The paper's correspondent was clearly a native-born Israeli, but, in decidedly un-Israeli fashion, he not only was genuinely interested in understanding American Jewry from within but regularly had insightful things to say about it.

Relevant Links
Involvement, Responsibility, Partnership  Meir Kraus, Yogev Karasenty, Dov Maimon, Yehudah Mirsky, Jewish People Policy Institute. How Israel can strengthen Jewish identity in the Diaspora while deepening Diaspora ties to the Jewish state.
Two States for Two Peoples?  Bambi Sheleg, Eretz Acheret. Is American Jewry on the wane, and other thoughts on the relationship between Israel and the largest Diaspora community. (Hebrew)

Now, three years after the end of his stint in the U.S., and having established himself as a leading journalist on both sides of the Atlantic, including as the author of the popular Jerusalem Post blog, Rosner's Domain, Shmuel Rosner has gathered the fruits of his reporting and research in a Hebrew volume aimed at his native audience.

Despite its flip title, Shtetl, Bagel, Baseball is an excellent tour d'horizon of current trends in American Jewish politics, demographics, economics, and religion. The subtitle, "On the Dreadful, Wonderful State of America's Jews," well conveys the author's dual approach: a characteristically skeptical, Zionist take on the future of American Jews coupled with an un-Zionist willingness to be charmed and dazzled by their accomplishments and relentless experimentation. In the latter respect, Rosner (a friend and colleague) certainly parts company with the more doctrinaire versions of classical Zionism's "negation of the Diaspora."

By virtue of its size, wealth, organizational heft, and socio-cultural and political salience at the nerve centers of the world's leading power, American Jewry is unlike other Diaspora communities. Moreover, despite its genuine problems, it alone can plausibly claim to offer a political and cultural alternative to Israel as the chief locus of the Jewish future. And that is what makes Rosner's book so welcome an entry at this particular juncture in history. For while Israel has long been, for large numbers of American Jews, a significant if not indeed a central feature of their identity, younger Jews seem to be charting a course whose arc increasingly tends away from the Jewish state, as from fixed ethnic and national attachments generally. Meanwhile, as far as most Israelis are concerned, American Jewry scarcely registers at all.

Rosner is well equipped for the task. An avid student of American history, he is also an obsessive consumer of reports, policy papers, polls, and press releases. His book, although alarmingly thick with statistics and studies, is saved from dreariness by his acute skills as an analyst, his peppery style, and the generous helpings of on-the-scene reporting he serves up. Refreshingly, though New York, Washington, and other major centers are never far from view, Rosner offers compelling reportage from such places as Corpus Christi, St. Louis, and San Diego.

Among the issues Rosner surveys: the arguments over just how many American Jews there are; the complexities faced by intermarried couples and the synagogues and communities trying in one way or another to include them; the high cost of communal membership and Jewish education; the growing popularity of the concept of tikkun olam; the hypothesis of an inexorable drift of the young away from Israel; the uneasy relation of American Jews to the evangelical Christians who love Israel and say they love Jews in general; stirrings of fracture in the religious denominations; the damaging effects of Israel's religious politics, and the rabbinate's state-sanctioned de-legitimization of non-Orthodox movements on Diaspora feelings of solidarity.

Naturally, American politics is at the heart of this book, and party affiliation is at the heart of that. Rosner observes that even today it doesn't take much for an American politician to be "pro-Israel" in the eyes of American Jews. A declared commitment to Israel's existence is enough to ensure that most will vote according to their general socio-cultural predilections, which is to say, Democratic. Conceivably, a mass shift toward Orthodoxy could change this, but demographically speaking, that would be a long way off.

On the religious issues, Rosner perceptively notes that the debates roiling all three major movements reflect the steady dissolution of familiar lines: Orthodoxy is torn between an increased ultra-Orthodoxy and a distinctively traditionalist brand of feminism; Reform between greater spirituality and ever more radical revisions of identity and tradition; Conservative Judaism among the truth-claims and expressive tendencies at work in the movements on its left and right flanks.

Rosner touches on theology only to the extent that (as in the claims entered by proponents of tikkun olam) it affects social and political attitudes. And he hardly deals at all with culture, with the literary and performing arts where American Jewry has created an idiom and sensibility all its own, or with the world of the public intellectuals. He does mention Philip Roth, but only in aid of asserting that American Jewish writers are in general obsessed with Israel.

Yet Roth's obsession, though genuine, is at best sporadic, and it is also exceptional; the striking thing about American Jewish letters is how little room there is for Israel in the works even of those (like Saul Bellow and Cynthia Ozick) deeply and publicly committed to it. Indeed, the other writer Rosner discusses, Michael Chabon, presents Israel (in The Yiddish Policemen's Union) as that which gets in the way of Jewish identity. In general, the American Jewish creative imagination still seems wreathed in the memory of Yiddish and in the aesthetic and moral values of irony and political distance: a place where Israel has a hard time making itself heard and perhaps even making sense.

This deep but subtle disjunction emerges in Rosner's recounting of an exchange some years ago with the American columnist (and IDF veteran) Jeffrey Goldberg in Slate. Describing American Jews as "self-deprecating and violence-averse" and Israelis as self-confident and humorless, Goldberg quips: "Who needs jokes when you have F-16s?" But, Rosner points out, you do have F-16s, or at least your country does.

Implicit in this exchange between two friends is Zionism's enduring challenge to Diaspora sensibilities: namely, the Jewish assumption of responsibility for society as a whole. It is a challenge that American Jews can meet only if they take their own wider responsibilities as Americans just as seriously. Israel, Rosner writes, "hasn't made life easier for Diaspora Jews, it's made life more complicated. It forces them to make an unpleasant choice—to stay or to go—and forces them to justify that decision . . . not just to themselves, but in a way that will sound appealing to the generations coming after them."

The statement goes to the core of Rosner's fundamental perspective. He clearly loves American Jews and clearly finds them fascinating. Yes, he writes in his conclusion, "they don't live here. But I love their caring about Israel. I'm not convinced that they've lost interest . . . . Almost none of them actively want Israel to fail." But, as a Zionist, he also continues to see things in classically binary Zionist terms. One center or the other will prevail. In what he calls "the great relay race" of Jewish history, only one team of runners can win, and you have to place your bet.

It need not be that way; indeed, throughout most of Jewish history, it hardly ever was. Nor is it quite that way, or yet that way, in our own time. In one of the paradoxes noted by Rosner himself, even as American Jews remain leery of Israel's claims to Jewish cultural and spiritual centrality, the one seemingly successful effort in recent years to engage young Jews short of religious revival has been to send large numbers of them to, precisely, Israel. America, for its part, has much to teach Israelis about how people of vastly different persuasions can somehow live together, how religion thrives precisely when it keeps its distance from city hall, and how Jewish identity not only takes its lumps from but can also flourish in the endless experimentation of freedom.

It comes down to this: for the two Jewish centers truly to engage one another on all levels, each would have to reach out fully to the other while fully holding its own. Sadly, the likelihood of that happening is a bet against very long odds.  

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yochanan Hardisty on April 29, 2011 at 12:29 pm (Reply)
The growing divide between Israel and the American
Jewish Community will continue to grow.The majority
of American Jews fall into two camps.The secular and
the Reform Movement.Politically,Israel is held hostage
by the Orthodox and the land grabbing settlers.We Amer.
Jews are progressive and do not believe it is OK to
discriminate against Israeli Arabs as most Israelis do.
We remember when we were discriminated against on a
daily basis.The Israelis spit on our progressive shuls
and our democratic values.Yet Israel begs for our
financial and political support What a joke.
Jacob Arnon on April 29, 2011 at 12:38 pm (Reply)
Yehudah Mirsky review of Rosner’s book picks up on most of the issues separating American Jews from those of Israel is also correctly states that each community can learn from the other some fundamental on social and personal issues.

However, my only criticism is that the review and perhaps also the book seem to present a static picture of each community. This may not be fair since the book doesn’t explore either the socio historical dynamic that made each community possible.
Seen in its historical context, each community experienced history, both internal and external, quite differently.

Israeli Jewry is sense of identity is contiguous with the identity of diaspora Jews who strove to create genuine self-supporting and inward looking communities in a hostile environment. Of course there are crucial differences: unlike diaspora Jewry the Jewish community in Israel is able and ready to defend itself and it does need to defend itself. Diaspora Jewry almost always relied on foreigners to defend it and the consequences were almost always detrimental to the community.

My main point about the Jewish commonwealth is that people who live there do so as members of a community and not merely as individuals.

This is not the case for American Jewry. Most Jews came here to get away from hostile communities in Europe and elsewhere. They also came here to get away from conflict and if that meant giving up their Jewish cultural identity it was a price many were willing to pay.

This is what separates these two communities. Why can’t Israeli Jews get along with their neighbors ask some puzzled American Jews. It seems to them that if Israelis would be willing to give up some of their Jewishness they might just be able to have peace. It also doesn’t help that American Jews for the most part know very little about either Jewish or Middle Eastern history. They assume that all problems can be solved by some give and take on each side. This is a bourgeois viewpoint. To judge all conflicts in terms of individual actors and no in terms of communal dynamics.

Finally, the American Jewish bourgeois solution to may not be tenable in the near future (another couple of generations or two at most). As other communities enter American life (Hispanic, Asian, Muslim, etc) they will increasingly find themselves defined as members of some group and not as individuals. The presence of groups like the tea party (though the talk for now is on economics) is a sign that the European American identity is under threat. I don’t expect that their economic or social ideas will prevail with this generation but as non-European American communities become ever more visible and vie for power the conflict over what it means to be an American will become more urgent.

Rosner’s view of American Jewry as described by Mirsky is described in 1950’s and 60’s terms when there was a consensus of what it meant to be an American. They see American as it was then, and assume that it will remain so in 2040.

I wish I could agree with them.
Jacob Arnon on April 29, 2011 at 4:14 pm (Reply)
yochanan Hardisty “The Israelis spit on our progressive shuls and our democratic values.”

I am not sure who you are talking about. Are you an American Yochanan?

I have never seen any Israeli spit on “our progressive shuls” or democratic values. There are also laws in Israel against discrimination of its Arab minority. (That there is friction is understandable given all the years of conflict. However many Israelis stand up for the rights of Arabs in Israel. How many Arabs stand up for the rights of Jews in Egypt, or Syria, or Jordan or any other country?)

Some Israelis are critical of Jewish American life just as you are critical of Israeli life. Why are you so critical of Israeli democratic self expression?

In any case if you want to see people spitting on America look at Europeans. We saved them from German and Soviet domination yet they still hate us.

yochanan Hardisty on April 29, 2011 at 5:32 pm (Reply)
In reply to the above comment about me.I was born in the US.Also I am a Israeli-Citizen,Served in the IDF,a veteran of theYom Kippor War.Currently living in the US.
In poll after poll in Israel,Israelis have said they
would not rent or sell homes to Israeli-Arabs.Here in the US years ago my father,mother could not buy a home
in my home town because they were they were Jewish.Now
the shoe is on the other foot as Israelis discriminate
against against Israeli-Arabs in the same manner.
Our Reform,Conservative Rabbis are not recognized
by Israel.The Israeli Orthodox Taliban with their iron hold on the Israeli government discriminates against
Liberal,Progressive Shuls in Israel.Those who are
converted to Judaism by our Reform Rabbis are not allowed to get married in Israel.
And yes the divide is growing between Israel and
our American Jewish Youth.We used to see a Israel that
planted trees.Now the settlers cut olive trees down
while the police,IDF stand by and do nothing.The
children of imported workers,workers who pick the crops,and do the dirty work,their children, who were born in Israel, are now being deported.
Like many of my fellow American Jews,I will wish, pray Israel well and extend my support to Israel.
Yet I will temper my support with the knowledge that Israel does not respect my stream of Reform Judaism.
Jacob Arnon on April 29, 2011 at 6:40 pm (Reply)
yochanan Hardisty “In poll after poll in Israel,Israelis have said they would not rent or sell homes to Israeli-Arabs. Here in the US years ago my father,mother could not buy a home in my home town because they were they were Jewish. Now the shoe is on the other foot as Israelis discriminate against against Israeli-Arabs in the same manner.”

No, Yochanan not “in the same manner.” Jews never committed acts of violence against non Jewish Americans.

The Arabs have been at war with Israel for many generations. And as I sad above it’s not surprising that many Jews feel bitter towards Israeli Arabs. Each time some benighted Rabbi in Israel talks about not selling houses to Arabs many voices are raised in the media against them by Israeli leaders. Even some Rabbis join in the condemnation of those who would discriminate Arabs.

This though is not the end of the story since not just discrimination but hatred of Jews is omnipresent in the Arab world. Yes there too there are some brave Arabs who speak out against this but they can be counted on one’s fingers. .

As for religion, I am with you. I wish the State would not intervene in religious affairs. I also wish that Reform Judaism would be accorded the same dignity as Orthodox Judaism. However I am not religious and don’t consider Reform Judaism as “progressive.” (I am no fan of Orthodoxy, btw.)

Only a minority of settlers engage in violent behavior towards the Arabs. Still, the settlers on the West Bank they should be given economic aid by the Israeli government to buy homes within the green line.

Bottom line though is that Israeli Jews are threatened daily with violence by Arabs and see many “progressive people” around the world not caring about the fate of the Jewish State.

The State isn’t perfect but it’s much better than most countries in the Middle East and even some countries in the West were fascist parties have been gaining support among the electorate.
YB Novak on April 30, 2011 at 12:42 pm (Reply)
I agree with most of the comments here. At the end of the day we are all Jewish, even if you do not accept the authority of Reform/Conservative Rabbis.

The Jewish people are a small community [just 13m worldwide] and every day we face more and more challenges from groups that want to exterminate us. We should be united for our own future and put differences aside. We can't afford to engage in this nonsense of Orthodoxy vs Reform/Conservative anymore because we have too many enemies around us. We have to stand for Israel and Judaism TOGETHER.
David Reuveni on April 30, 2011 at 1:06 pm (Reply)
Sad that an enligntening review of what sounds like an interesting book should be hijacked by a troubled and conflicted Hebrew claiming to speak for "a stream of Reform Judaism".

Hopefully Mr. Rosen's book will be translated into American adn become available to Jewish American readers.
Cathy on May 2, 2011 at 11:49 am (Reply)
In my opinion, as an almost 84 year-old....having lived in a Christian Community most of my life....a Jew is always a Jew and if he forgets or decides to convert....his Jewishness stays with him because Belief in G-d is the Core and what we teach...luv and belief in G-d....a responsible female, devoted to this Column.....
Radman on May 5, 2011 at 8:28 am (Reply)
Too bad he didn't visit Baltimore...
Based on my personal observations and seemingly based on what Rosner is saying... Israelis need a Birthright program that brings them to the US. It would be an eye opener in their conception of their religion and their People.

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