Historians are basically story-tellers and though no longer a working historian, I can’t help beginning my remarks with a story about my daughter, Lia.
She was serving in the IDF, in the rugged Golani Brigade, when she volunteered to accompany a Taglit Israel/Birthright group from North America. Her initial reaction was that she had nothing in common with her American peers. They were consumed with college and career paths while her concerns were for the combat soldiers under her charge and the situation in Lebanon and Gaza.
All that changed, though, the day her Birthright bus climbed the hills toward Jerusalem. My wife, who worked for Birthright at the time, received a phone call from Lia who was crying hysterically. “We’re going to Jerusalem!” she sobbed. To which my wife rather bewilderingly replied: “But you live in Jerusalem. You were born in Jerusalem.” And Lia, between her tears, explained: “Yes, but we’re all going to Jerusalem for the first time, and everybody’s crying.”
The moral of the story is, of course, that in spite of the sometimes vast cultural and geographical distances that divide us, we are united not only at the hip but, more viscerally, at the heart. We are a people—a rambunctious, often fractious, creative, and passionate people. Still, we cannot ignore the fissures that sometimes surface in the relationship between Israeli and North American Jewry. Some of those schisms might even seem unbridgeable.
Israel is, of course, a modern society, complete with hi-speed internet, shopping malls, and great rock music. American visitors to our country can almost imagine themselves in their own hometowns. Almost. For the truth is that we experience vastly different realities and look back on disparate histories.
American Jews recall their parents’ struggle for acceptance in a land in which opportunity was often capped by discrimination. They remember the civil rights movement of the sixties and the removal of the last barriers to Jewish achievement. Suddenly, they could be accepted to the best universities and rise to high political offices. American Jews are a success story, and yet their very success generated new challenges of preserving their Jewish identity in a free and open society.
Israelis, by contrast, look back on sixty-two years of statehood in which we have never enjoyed a moment of peace. In the last ten years, alone, we have experienced three armed conflicts, our buses and restaurants have been bombed and our neighborhoods rocketed. We have seen two peace offers to the Palestinians rejected and watched while much of the world refutes our right to defend ourselves, even our right to exist. While the experiences of American Jews made them more liberal and progressive, impelled by our traumas and disappointments, Israelis have become more skeptical of peace.
Israel, too, is a success story, one of the world’s greatest. We have vibrant democracy, a robust economy, more scientific papers, high-tech patents, and Nobel Prizes per capita than any other country in the world. And in spite of upheavals, we have become the world’s largest Jewish community, six million strong. We, too, have experienced young people growing distant from their tradition, but the percentage of religiously traditional Jews in Israel rises every year with varied ramifications for our relations with American Jewry.
American Jews are today more American than at any time in the past and Israelis have become a nation in which young soldiers may feel they have more in common with the Druze and Bedouin who serve alongside them in the army than they do to their contemporaries in American college Hillels.
On the most fundamental, philosophical level, there is nothing new about this. Israeli and American Jewry have always co-existed closely but at times uneasily. Each represented a different response to the pressing questions of modern Jewish life: How can we best fulfill our destinies as Jews and as citizens in a democratic society? How can we best defend ourselves, politically and physically, as Jews? And how can we perpetuate our Jewish spirituality in a rapidly secularizing world?
Israel and the United States both claimed to have the answers to these questions; they were separate—and in certain ways, mutually exclusive—utopias.
America did not conform to the classic Zionism definition of a Diaspora in which Jews were relegated to permanent second-class citizenship and barred from political power. That is perhaps the reason why Herzl never visited the United States and why, out of the more than 200 delegates to the First Zionist Congress, only four were American. Similarly, there is a reason why, out of the nearly three million Jews living in the United States on the eve of the First World War, the membership of the American Zionist Federation was a paltry 10,000. Zionist pioneers were building a new nation while American Jews were seeking their place in an existing one.
Nevertheless, American Jews by the hundreds of thousands came out in support of Israel’s struggle for independence in 1948. They contributed selflessly, massively, to building Israel’s infrastructure, its cultural and medical institutions. Yet still some tension remained. In their 1950 correspondence, American Jewish leader Jacob Blaustein and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion set out the parameters of the American Jewish-Israeli relationship. American Jews would support Israel philanthropically and morally but, in turn, Israel would never question their unequivocal allegiance to the United States.
These arrangements were no mere abstractions. Growing up in a suburban Jewish community in the 1960s and 70s, I participated in Jewish youth movements that made “pilgrimage” to Israel—that is, we went and came back—with the understanding that Israelis were discouraged from recruiting us as olim. In 1967, while Arab armies surrounded the isolated Jewish state, I saw thousands of Jews protesting in the streets—against the Vietnam War. Young American Jews, myself among them, demonstrated for the right of Soviet Jews to move to Israel but our parents rarely encouraged us to realize that right. Later, in the 90s, working with then Israeli President Ezer Weizman, we tried to forge “A New Covenant of the Jewish People” in which American Jews would recognize aliya as one of the guarantors of Jewish continuity and Israel would recognize Diaspora life as a legitimate Jewish choice. Both sides balked at signing.
Today, Israel and the Jewish people face challenges every bit as daunting as those that confronted us in 1948, 1967, and in the Soviet Jewry struggle. There are nearly 60,000 terrorist rockets in Gaza and Lebanon pointed at Israeli homes. We confront boycotts, divestment efforts and protestors on American campuses. We’re engaged in a peace process that could conclude in a viable two-state solution or culminate in a failed Palestinian state that brings our major cities not only within rocket range but in pistol range. We grapple with all this while above us looms the specter of an Iranian regime sworn to wipe us off the map and determined to produce nuclear weapons.
In America, the Jewish community is analogous to the universe, expanding and contracting at the same time. A core of committed Jews, deeply connected to Israel, is growing, but the wider periphery of highly assimilated Jews is breaking off. Numbers of young Jews have indeed become alienated from Israel—not because the American Jewish leadership has failed to tell them the truth about Israeli policies or because the way those policies are portrayed on campus and in the media or even because some of our policies can indeed prove controversial. Rather, it is mainly because these young people have grown distant from their Jewish roots, all of which, at some depth or another, lead to Israel.
How, then, can we meet the monumental challenges facing Israel and the American Jewish community? How can we move beyond the Blaustein-Ben-Gurion paradigm or even Ezer Weizman’s New Covenant? What can we, members of the world’s two largest Jewish communities, expect of one another?
I think it is fair for Israel to expect the American Jewish community to uphold our right to self-defense. It’s not always easy, especially during complex events like the flotilla episode or if Israel has to neutralize Hizbollah rockets that have been placed under hospitals, homes, and schools. But without these actions, millions of Israelis will be targeted with missile-fire. We live in the world’s roughest neighborhood, often wrestling in moral gray-zones, and the choices we make are tough. Stick with us when we make them.
Israel expects American Jews to fight the Goldstone Report, which limits our ability to defend ourselves by branding us as war criminals, and to fight it with the same zeal that you have fought boycotts, divestments, and sanctions.
Israel is a strategic national asset to the United States. We expect American Jewry to refute any charges to the contrary. Indeed, we expect American Jews to appreciate what their own leaders appreciate, namely, that there is only one unequivocally pro-American, democratic state in the Middle East that shares intelligence and develops defensive missiles with the United States and that can field a supremely motivated and trained army in less than 24 hours. That country is America’s ally par excellence.
Let us distinguish between those issues that impact the fundamental security of Israel’s citizens and those issues that are widely debated within Israel itself, such as the conduct of the peace process.
The Israeli government is thoroughly dedicated to peace and, to that end, will have to make agonizing choices, some of which might prove unpalatable to parts of the American Jewish community. All we’re asking is that you respect the decisions the world’s most resilient democracy— the only democracy in the world that has survived and thrived despite unrelenting warfare. Even if you disagree with us, respect the will of the people who will bear the greatest consequences of their government’s decisions.
Over the past year, I have watched with deepening concern as Israel became an issue in the increasingly bitter partisan debates in this country. I want to say categorically that bipartisan political support for Israel is a national strategic interest for the Jewish State. We urge American Jews to ensure that preserving a secure, sovereign Israel remains a bipartisan goal to which Americans of all political outlooks aspire.
Seventy years ago, a militant regime headed by a crazed dictator swore to destroy the Jews and carried out that promise. Since that time, American Jewry has looked back and asked, "What should we have done differently?" Today, there is a sovereign Jewish state capable and willing to defend itself, yet the danger remains ominously familiar. American Jewry must not miss this opportunity to learn from its past. Rally, write letters, speak out. As in the 1930s and 40s, we cannot expect the American public to care about the safety of six million Jews if American Jews themselves stay silent.
Our relations are not, of course, one-way; North American Jews have legitimate expectations from Israel. For example, they can expect that Israel will refrain from unilateral measures that impact the definition of Jewish identity. Israel must understand the different ways you express that identity. Indeed, neither of us should act to alter the ways in which Jewish identity has been defined for many centuries without first speaking with one another.
American Jews can expect Israel to facilitate prayer and ritual observance for all of its communities at the Holy Places and to show respect for the spiritual diversity of American Jewish life. Israel is the crucible of Jewish morality, its greatest testing-ground; the American Jewish interpretation of those ideals must be valued.
American Jews can expect Israel to respect pluralism. But American Jews must also appreciate Israel’s need to balance the principle of pluralism with the principle of democracy, understanding that the major Jewish movements in this country are still small minorities in ours.
In general, American Jews and world Jewry can expect Israel to be the nation-state of the Jewish people, and to feel that they will always have a spiritual, and if they choose, a physical home in our state.
From one another, we must expect open minds and compassionate hearts, patience and a willingness to listen. We must join in the understanding – the blessing – of living in this extraordinary moment in Jewish history. We can scarcely imagine it: a brave and vibrant Jewish state in our ancestral homeland flourishes at the same time that a vital Jewish community, championing Jewish values and Jewish interests worldwide, thrives in the strongest nation on earth. We must cherish the miracle just as we commit to assist one another in meeting our challenges. All of our challenges, ultimately, are shared.
And so, too, is our destiny. Ask the quarter of a million Jewish youth from around the world who have visited Israel through the Taglit/Birthright program; ask the 40,000 young Israelis who accompanied these tours. They will tell you that the experience of encountering Jews—Israelis, Americans, Argentineans, Australians—in the land of their ancestors transcends all distances and cultures. This is the encounter with klal yisrael—the unity of the Jewish people—with hibbat zion, the love of the Land of Israel.
Ask my daughter, Lia, who, though born and raised in Jerusalem, saw our Holy City for the first time through American Jewish eyes and her eyes, like theirs, brimmed with tears. And the reason was simple. On that bus, climbing through the Jerusalem Hills, these young people melded in their common Jewish spirit. All of us, Americans and Israelis, have embarked on the same journey, winding our way through the obstacles, overcoming them as we have so often in the past, ascending.