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The I’s Have It

October 18, 2009

The Jerusalem Post Internet Edition

Oct. 15, 2009


About one thing, at least, the world seems to be in agreement: Israel is the primary culprit in the Middle East conflict, the cause of relentless Palestinian suffering and the primary obstacle blocking the way to regional peace.  USJews

The international chorus of opprobrium is growing by the day. The Hollywood crowd lashes out at the Toronto International Film Festival for its (oh, so sinful) focus on Tel Aviv. The Swedish press breathes new life into the old blood libel.

The Norwegians divest from an Israeli firm because it supplies technology to the separation fence. The Turks refuse to participate in joint air exercises with Israel. The Americans peddle the notion that at its core, the Mideast conflict is really about the settlements.

It’s relentless, this ganging up, but it’s also not terribly new. The momentum has been building for years, and though we may not like it, we cannot honestly claim to be surprised.

What is surprising, however, is a recent – and possibly more ominous – addition to this chorus. A growing segment of the American Jewish community is abandoning Israel.

Here, too, examples abound: Two American Jewish sociologists, Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman, wrote that among American Jews aged 35 and younger, a full 50% said that the destruction of the State of Israel would not be a personal tragedy for them.

In San Francisco, Jewish communal funds were used to support the SF Jewish Film Festival’s screening of Rachel, an Israel-bashing “documentary” about Rachel Corrie of International Solidarity Movement fame.

Noting that the SFJFF was now effectively in partnership with Jewish Voices for Peace, a well known anti-Israel, pro-boycott organization, many prominent Jews vehemently protested. But the film was shown, anyway.

There’s Fast For Gaza, that group of rabbis encouraging us to fast in protest against the injustices in Gaza. But if you search their Web site ( for mention of Sderot or Gilad Schalit, your search will be in vain. Those issues, apparently, are irrelevant to justice for Gaza.

Finally, for now, there’s Jay Michaelson’s column in The Forward, entitled “How I’m Losing My Love for Israel” (September 25).

Michaelson, a spokesman for much of the generation that Cohen and Kelman described, wrote that “I understand why many Israelis feel fed up with the Palestinian problem…. But as an outsider, I no longer want to feel entangled by their decisions and implicated in their consequences. B’seder: It’s your choice to make… but count me out.”

“Count me out” is pretty strong stuff. But if Michaelson is different from most American Jews of his generation, it’s mostly because he’s more articulate. Which leads to the real issue: Why are American Jews abandoning Israel?

That question is the title of a recent column in Ha’aretz by Prof. Jonathan Sarna, perhaps the greatest living analyst of American Jewish life. The problem, suggests Sarna, is that American Jews have been raised on an idealized image of Israel, and that “in place of the utopia that we had hoped Israel might become, young Jews today often view Israel through the eyes of contemporary media: They fixate upon its unloveliest warts.”

But that, says Sarna, is actually good news, for the “fix” is clear.

“By focusing upon all that they nevertheless share in common, and all that they might yet accomplish together in the future, American Jews and Israelis can move past this crisis in their relationship and settle in, as partners, for the long haul ahead.”

I wish I were convinced, but I’m not. The loss of American Jewish love for Israel, I fear, is actually much more deeply rooted. The issue isn’t Israel, or utopia. It’s America, and the “I” at the core of American sensibilities.

Another profound observer of American Jewish life, Rabbi Morris Allen of Mendota Heights, Minnesota, recently wrote with sadness that for contemporary American Jews, life-cycle rituals have become infinitely more significant than the holiday cycle.

Both Sarna and Allen are actually pointing to a shared challenge.Most American Jews are first and foremost Americans. And today’s America is about the celebration of individuality and a future unfettered by ethnic loyalties.

In America, the narratives of immigrant groups are eroded, year by year, generation after generation. In America, we are oriented to the future, not to the past, and if we cling to some larger grouping, it is to a human collective whole rather than to some “narrow” ethnic clan.

That’s the cause for what Rabbi Allen has observed. Because Jewish holidays celebrate peoplehood, a collective embrace of a shared mythical past, they are less compelling for typical American Jews than are life-cycle ceremonies, which focus on the future, my family – and me.

Similarly, the recreation of the State of Israel is truly powerful only against a backdrop of centuries of Jewish experience, and is spine-tingling only if my sense of self is inseparable from my belonging to a nation with a past and a people with a purpose.

In today’s individualistic America, the drama of the rebirth of the Jewish people creates no goose bumps and evokes no sense of duty or obligation. Add the issue of Palestinian suffering, and Israel seems worse than irrelevant – it’s actually a source of shame.

We’re not terribly alarmed, but we should be. These young American Jews, after all, will soon control the coffers of the federations, and will sit on the boards of synagogues. Their generation will either strengthen or abandon AIPAC, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and the American Jewish Committee (AJC). They will be the ones allocating funding to schools, setting curricula and communal priorities.

“Who is wise?” asks the Talmud. “He who can see what is about to happen.” Deep down, we know what’s about to happen. A gaping chasm threatens the American-Israeli relationship, and we’re basically doing nothing. Try to list the serious Jewish educational enterprises addressing this challenge, asking how American Jewish education can counter America’s unfettered individualism, or what Israel could do to help.

Can you name even one? Neither can I.

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