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Source: Haaretz Magazine -

“Different crises” ou, en français: “L’establishment se fissure” (ndlr)

Mercredi, 6 avril 2011 - 18h34

Wednesday 6 April 2011


Even without the political dimension, some say the connection between American Jews and Israel has diminished over the years. According to recent surveys, only 30 percent of American Jews feel deeply connected to Israel and follow what is going on, and the numbers drop even more among young people and especially those who have married non-Jews. At the same time, even among the Reform and Conservative communities there is an elite that follows the news from Israel relatively religiously, and many who have also spent extended periods in Israel (Cohen estimates that they constitute 10 percent to 15 percent of the community ). These are the people who are now suffering an identity crisis regarding Israel.

The problem with Israel doesn’t only center around the peace process and the occupation. For many, internal developments in Israeli society are actually of greater importance. Liberal U.S. Jews are disturbed by the persecution of human rights organizations, the separation of women and men on buses in Jerusalem and local rabbis’ declarations: No fewer than 1,000 American rabbis signed a protest letter in response to the prohibition by Israeli religious figures against renting apartments to Arabs. Two other subjects that have gained considerable publicity among U.S. Jews receive almost no attention in the public discourse in Israel: the Conversion Law, which would grant a monopoly on conversions to the Chief Rabbinate, and has already created a feeling in Reform and Conservative communities that they are being left out; and the arrest, most notably a year and a half ago, by the Jerusalem police of members of Women of the Wall, who wanted to pray with a Torah scroll, as is customary in their own congregations, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Many women in the U.S. Jewish community have joined the protest against the treatment of the Women of the Wall. In the Reform Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, New York, for example, women were photographed with a Torah scroll and they posted the pictures on a special page on the Internet. “There’s a feeling that Israel is moving in the direction of very ultra-Orthodox, very limited Judaism,” says the rabbi of the synagogue, Shira Milgrom. “This is an Israel with which it is very difficult for us to identify.”
Milgrom, who has served in her position for the past 25 years, remembers other times: “Once it was easy, when everyone had their head in the sand and didn’t understand the situation. There are still people who want to talk only about ’Exodus’ and ’the only democracy in the Middle East,’ but younger Jews, students, grew up on other stories, and they have a very tough conflict between the Israel they know and their sense of Jewish ethics. To a great degree it’s a generational debate.”

“There are people, especially many young people, who do not participate in the Jewish community because they feel that the community is afraid to criticize Israel and that silence implies agreement with Israeli policies,” says Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. “On the other hand, when Jews do criticize Israeli policy, we are often met with very vocal, harsh responses. I have experienced this. My synagogue doesn’t avoid events connected to Israel as certain communities do, but we do feel the polarization on the subject, and it’s worrisome.”

“The synagogue in America is not like [the synagogue] in Israel,” says Rabbi Feinstein. “In America the synagogue is a community center and a cultural center. It’s the place where the political discussion has to take place, too.”
Feinstein has served as the rabbi of his Los Angeles congregation since 1993, speaks Hebrew and regularly conducts events that deal with Israel.

“The problem is that when you take the Israeli discussion to America it narrows and becomes very extreme. In Israel you can say things that in America are forbidden, and that’s also true of the Israelis in our community. Something happens to them when they move to the U.S. Their culture of discussion is different and emotions come to the fore. We had harsh quarrels in the synagogue. As far as I’m concerned, as long as I infuriate both the right and the left equally, I know that I’m okay,” explains Feinstein.
Shmuel Rosner, author of the new book “Shtetl, Bagel, Baseball: American Judaism for Israeli Dummies” (in Hebrew, published by Keter ), agrees that discussion about Israel has become more public and more polarized these days.

“The debate about Israel can cause American Jews to get angry and even to slam the door in fury,” says Rosner, a former correspondent for Haaretz in the United States, who is now a columnist and a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute. "In the past, even at the height of the second intifada, it was easy for Jews to understand who was the ’good guy’ and who was the ’bad guy’ in the story, but now the situation is more complicated and confusing, and the complexity leads to polarization.
“It’s important to emphasize that there are no unequivocal data on the subject, for one because it’s hard to measure emotional attitudes. What is evident is a very profound cultural gap between Israel and American Jews. For American Jews political liberalism is to a great extent part of the religion. They have embedded their liberal political values so deeply into their Jewish experience that it’s very hard to tell where politics ends and religion begins. The occupation and the Palestinians are a much less important reason for the sense of distance from Israel, although there are quite a number of people with vested interests, who for their own reasons are creating the impression that that is the main problem.”

Remembering ’the camps’

The U.S. Jewish community is composed for the most part of descendants of Eastern European immigrants, who arrived there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Jews were identified almost from the time they arrived with the left-liberal side of the American political map. They tended to vote for the Democrats already in the 1930s; in the 1950s they were among the prominent supporters of the human rights movement (in the famous pictures from the period, communal leaders are seen marching alongside Martin Luther King, holding a Torah scroll ); in the 1960s and 1970s Jews were prominent in their opposition to the Vietnam War, and according to a 2009 Gallop poll, even today they are the most liberal group in America.
No fewer than 41 percent of U.S. Jews identify themselves as liberals, and only 20 percent - the lowest proportion in their country’s population - see themselves as conservatives. Jews tend to support gay rights, gun control, abortion and even euthanasia, more than any other religious group in the States. For many these are not political values, but a personal interpretation of what Jewish identity means.

“When people on the Israeli right are surprised by the liberal bias of the Jewish community in the United States, they simply don’t understand that this community spent almost 100 years trying to construct a unique political space for themselves,” explains researcher Schalit. “The political experience of the Jews in Eastern Europe was of life under nondemocratic regimes, and what was so amazing about the American example was that Jews managed to change the tradition of the regimes from which they had come [to a point where there were] such liberal and multicultural attitudes. It’s hard to explain how liberal members of the American Jewish community are when it comes to American political issues, how much they believe in civil rights, or why 78 percent of them voted for Obama, although they had questions regarding several of his positions.”

The Bush years “made Israel pay a price in [terms of] its ability to connect to American Jewry,” Rosner observes. “In Israel affection for [George W.] Bush steadily increased, while most American Jews felt total contempt for him. It is very hard for the Jews to identify with someone who considers [former Alaska Governor] Sarah Palin an ally. For them she is almost a demonic figure, while in Israel she receives a royal welcome, and rightfully so as far as Israel is concerned.”
One of the central events symbolizing the profound rift in the community over the question of attitudes toward Israel was the establishment a few years ago of J Street - a liberal Zionist lobby that is trying to promote the two-state solution, and is meant to serve as an alternative to American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the veteran pro-Israel lobby. As opposed to the Jewish Voice for Peace, J Street operates within the confines of the community, and it does not coordinate activities with Palestinian organizations or support a boycott. On the other hand, it is doing something that no other Jewish organization has ever done: lobbying in Washington against the settlements in the territories, to the dissatisfaction of the government in Jerusalem. The result: a serious conflict with the veteran Jewish establishment, which is filtering down to the local communities as well.

“People want to avoid the subject, because it’s so difficult and complicated,” says Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street. “Many rabbis I speak to are unable to conduct a discussion about Israel in their synagogues. They’re concerned for their jobs. If they don’t invite all sides in the debate, someone will get angry and there will be an uproar. If they do invite everyone, then there are threats to funding, and they worry that half the congregation may leave the synagogue.”

Why is the discussion so polarized?

Ben-Ami: “Because Israel is part of people’s identity. When someone criticizes Israel, people who worked all their lives defending the country feel that they are being attacked personally. This isn’t simply politics or policy. It’s not a debate about health care. It’s about who we are as a people and who we’ve been for 50 years. It’s personal. So you see emails that say, ’People like you are the ones who sent us to the camps’ or ’You’re aiding the enemy,’ or ’You’re on the side of those who want to kill us.’ Sometimes we even find ourselves dragged down to the level of personal attacks - so that recently we even apologized for the way we responded to a member of the House of Representatives who attacked us.”

There are some who claim that unless there is a serious attempt to deal with the debate over Israel, the integrity and unity of the entire Jewish community will be in danger. Few articles rocked the Jewish community in recent years like “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” written by the former editor of The New Republic, Peter Beinart, in The New York Review of Books early last summer. Beinart harshly attacked the Jewish establishment and the damage it is causing the community by its automatic support for Israeli policy.

More than just its message, the power of the article stemmed from its timing and the identity of the writer: 40 years old, Orthodox, a prominent American Jewish intellectual and a Zionist from the center of the political map, who has never been considered part of the far left. “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror,” he wrote, “they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”
Dozens of columns and articles were written in response to that piece, and since then Beinart has become a popular speaker, who repeats his message from every possible platform, including in Haaretz Magazine last year. Now he is also working on a book that will discuss the crisis between the Jewish political establishment, the community and Israel. If they want to preserve the connection of the younger generation of American Jews to the Jewish state, the leaders of the local communities must support intellectuals who oppose the current Israeli government, as well as the Israeli civil rights organizations and the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrators, claims Beinart.

“We must find a way to interest them and to give them an opportunity to talk about Israel,” says Rabbi Milgrom. “You sometimes hear from the American leadership a desire to say: We have other objectives for the community, we can’t devote all our time to dealing with Israel.”

“The community is consolidating around two poles,” says Jeremy Ben-Ami. “At one pole are the Orthodox, who are more politically conservative and often have a closer connection to Israel. Around the other are the non-Orthodox, who feel very Jewish, but in a more personal, less religious way. My greatest fear is that the discussion around Israel will become so difficult, so heated, that some of these American Jews will find it easier to walk away from Israel and from the Jewish community. That would be very bad. So the discussion we’re having is not just about Israel or about policy - it’s about the soul of the Jewish community here in the States.” W

Avigdor Lieberman as ’pure evil’

“Some Israeli groups have no respect for American Jews,” says journalist Eric Alterman. “There are things that people here find hard to accept: the arrests of the Women of the Wall, Israel’s attitude to the Reform and Conservative movements, or the religious rulings against renting houses or marrying Arabs. If there’s one thing that shocked American Jews it was the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister. He is a racist; he does not believe that Arabs should have same rights as Jews. And now he is the face of Israel.”
Many liberal Jewish spokespersons would agree with that sentiment. Indeed, more than any other person, Minister Lieberman seems to have become a symbol of everything that puts Jews off vis-a-vis present-day Israel. J Street distributed a video clip devoted entirely to Lieberman and his opinions, and Peter Beinart devoted a substantial part of his article in The New York Review of Books to Lieberman.

“One of the only subjects that even many conservative Jews agree on is the lack of affection for Avigdor Lieberman and the politics he represents,” claims researcher Joel Schalit. “He’s Faust. He’s everything that is bad in Jewish politics for American Jews, even if they aren’t really capable of separating it into components. His political image is threatening, and they see in him something of the racism of the U.S. South. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also had something of that, but Sharon had a good relationship with Diaspora Jewry, and even during a period when many Israelis despised him, in America he wasn’t hated. Lieberman is not a complex figure. For U.S. Jewry he’s simply pure evil. Personally, I believe that Lieberman deserves all the negative baggage that he attracts, but to be honest, people have to ask themselves why he of all people has become such a symbol for them of everything evil.”