One Tribe, Multiple Minyans

Ken Stein

February 13, 2018

Four out of every five Jews in the world live in the United States and Israel; 6.3 million in Israel, 6.7 million in the US.  According to Pew Research Center Studies, 7 in 10 American Jews feel attached or very attached to Israel.  Over its seventy years, Israel has evolved into being a ‘religion’ for American Jews. Israel connects Jews into a collective worldwide family.

After three years of listening to scholars and practitioners engage in the Lisa and Michael Leffell Foundation supported seminars of  “Israel’s Impact on American Jewish Identity,” I have no doubt that Israel has had a profound positive impact upon American Jewish cultural, religious, political, and intellectual life. 

Israel and Israeli topics provide cement for American Jewish identity. American Jews have taken pride in Israel’s accomplishments. Most American Jewish congregations and national Jewish organizations have Israel components.  They include trips and missions, support for educational and social activities in Israel, a variety of teen and adult Israel educational content, and more. Expatriate Israelis are deeply involved in teaching Hebrew to our children, while other Israelis in Jewish camps and on American campuses provide exposure to Israel, its people and problems.  And yet, Israel and Israel-related topics often create disagreement within congregations and national Jewish organizations. 

Sometimes, if the leadership of a national Jewish organization, its nationwide offices, or a congregation invite a speaker to make presentations on Israel-related topics, criticism ensues for the choice of speakers because the ‘wrong’ views are being presented.  If a national Jewish organization takes a public position on some issue central to Israel and its leader(ship), it may be criticized for being too strident, too cautious, or too silent.  Sometimes Jewish organizations work diligently to change or endorse American policies toward an issue sensitive to Israel. Whether the organization fails or succeeds, its supporters are pleased or disgruntled, as the case may be.

At all costs, congregations and organizations do not want members leaving or withdrawing their support.  This past August, one rabbi told me in Washington, “it is better for me not to speak about Israel at all from the pulpit. Rather than raise anyone’s ire, I don’t talk about it much. Besides, some people come to services to get away from the noise of American politics.”

Some American Jews fiercely believe that they “know” how Israel should behave. Some are native Israelis, others have spent extended time or have family there.  Most do not vote in Israel so they use organizational and congregational affiliations to express their views.  Others write blogs, are on Twitter, Facebook, or send endless emails. Those commenting about Israel want its political leaders to reflect their personal positions. These perspectives stretch across the spectrum from orthodox to agnostic, and from progressive and liberal to conservative to anti-Zionist. 

Do American Jews take sufficiently into account that our political and strategic environment is not the one in which Israelis live? Do American Jews know what Israelis want and need?

The two Jewish populations are different in many ways. Jews in Israel are a majority (80%), and in the US just 2% of the population.  Jews in Israel express their Jewishness by being Israeli, knowing the country, serving in the army and speaking Hebrew; American Jews, if they show their Jewishness, affiliate with organizations and congregations. Israeli Jews do not identify their Jewishness with synagogues and congregations, and there are more telling differences.

Again, according to Pew Center Research Studies on an Israeli political spectrum, 92% of Israeli Jews consider themselves in the center or on the right, while 78% of America Jews identify with the center or the political left. 

Yawning gaps exist between Israeli Jews and American Jews on what are perceived as Israel’s long-term problems: 38% of Israelis and 66% of American Jews put security as Israel’s highest priority, while 39% of Israelis and only 1% of Americans say economic issues are most important for Israelis.   In a poll undertaken by the Israel Democracy Institute in October 2017, Israeli Jews revealed their personal priorities: at the top of the list, 26.5% noted reducing tensions in Israeli society, followed by 22.6% for improving the education system.  Only 11.5% said that signing a peace agreement with the Palestinians was a top priority.

While more than half of Israeli Jews polled over the last several years would like an agreement with the Palestinians, a great majority say it is not likely. Among Israeli Jews, 42% say that settlements help Israel’s security, while only 17% of American Jews believe this is the case. 

Stark differences of opinion between American Jews and Israeli Jews exist about who they are and what they want and need. Expressing our opinions about Israel related issues is highly appropriate, as it is their right in this “family” to praise and criticize us.

Regrettably, polarization in American politics has entered Jewish communal life, and with it the premise that everything is a zero-sum game. Toxicity in Jewish communal life is dangerous, reasoned diversity is a virtue.  Jews around the world are one tribe, many minyans.  Managing our issues is difficult, but required. Hanging together is preferable to hanging separately.  For that, patience about and with Israel is required.  At 70, Israel is not perfect. It remains unfinished. And yet, by any measure, it has done pretty well for itself and for us.