I recently attended a lecture on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was given by Yehuda Kurtzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. The subject was specifically entitled: “Together and Apart: The Future of the Israel-Diaspora Divide.” It was about how diversified we are as a people which goes beyond just the various denominations of the ultra-orthodox, orthodox, conservative, reform, Hasidic, and so forth. And it was about how these two groups of Jews—Israeli and Americans, impact each other now and in the future.
Dr. Kurtzer spoke about how American Jews may have different perspectives than Israeli Jews. I could relate in real time—there was nothing like being an American Jew caught in an Israeli Jew’s reality—hiding in bomb shelters, fearing for our lives as human targets. This was our true account of our harrowing ordeal—the subject of my book, “Blasted from Complacency: A Journey from Terror to Transformation in Israel,” coming out in May.
Israelis safety is continually challenged as part of everyday life with frequent bombings, shootings, stabbings and car rammings—gratefully, unlike in the United States. Instead of going off to college, their graduating high school kids, both girls and boys head into the military likely to risk their lives—I wondered how that affects them psychologically and physically. As both a person and a parent, I’ve grown up on too much chicken soup to deal with such a reality.
Differing perceptions is not surprising since merely as individuals we all have our own perspective that we cling to—how often do we not only take a position, but we take it further and assume that it’s the correct one? What comes to my mind is that it’s important to remember the old adage that assume can make an ass out of you and me.
Rabbi Weider and Lisa Armony of the Rose Project, hosting the event reminded us that talking to our own families can get sticky, with heated debates about this mess called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sometimes families just choose to not talk about it rather than step in that pile of passionate dissension. Yet when has ignoring a difficult situation led to a better answer? When we have divergent opinions and can accept that what the other person presents as their opinion is just as valid, it causes us to grow in many ways and this perspective makes me grateful, if not completely comfortable.
I was in Israel in July 2014 during Operation Protective Edge. We were there for only two weeks and it changed my life. Running to bomb shelters and being human targets profoundly impacted me and I saw with my own eyes how it stressed Israelis.
I think of the traffic jam that, as we headed down toward Eilat, turned out to be Israelis from Sderot, Ashdod and Askelon trying to escape the constant bombing. I think of the mother holding her child in her arms with eyes wide-open looking like she was suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and I stupidly asked as we cowered in the bomb shelter at 1 a.m., the first of three times that morning, if she was O.K. “No, I’m not OK!” she replied with tears in her eyes. “We’re from Ashkelon. We came down to Eilat to get away from constant bombing, but there’s no escape!” She said it with a look of sad desperation. I felt impotent. What do you say to someone with such a tragic existence? Terror’s evil reality was blistered on her face. I muttered an inadequate, “I’m sorry.”
I had also seen businessmen in the bomb shelter so impatient to get on with their day that they didn’t wait the recommended ten minutes until the bomb fragments fell from the sky to the ground destroyed by Iron Dome (Israeli’s anti-missile defense system). This was what protected Israelis, and why you don’t hear about thousands of dead Israelis despite the thousands of missiles attacking them for years.
To me it seemed impossible, but having your lives threatened so often for some became almost mundane—a nuisance. Trust me, I don’t believe I would ever choose to be part of that club. I couldn’t wait to get out of town and on to enjoying croissants while strolling on the Champs Elysee on the next leg of our trip!
And the bombings aren’t just what happened on our 2014 trip, they are continuous. Just yesterday for the first time since 2014, Tel Aviv was fired on by Gaza but so far neither Hamas nor any other Palestinian organization is claiming responsibility. Israel’s response? Attacking 100 Hamas Gaza targets as Israel holds Hamas responsible—and so it goes.
So while I listened to the valid points about the differences in perspective between Israeli and American Jews, I wondered about the effect of Israel’s daily terrorized reality and how it impacts a person psychologically? That to me is a key point that thankfully in the U.S. we don’t have to face—which is not to discount the rising anti-Semitism in the U.S., but constant bombardment from rockets, continuous killings (although some have occurred here) and car rammings are gratefully not usually on our radar screen in the U.S.
Mr. Kurtzer spoke on the growing distance between American Jews and Israel. How American Jewish opinions about Israel are strong and can cause a wedge dividing our communal beliefs—we disagree and fight among ourselves with varied opinions regarding Israel’s actions in the U.S. let alone between the U.S. Jews and Israeli Jews. The thought of this made me sad and concerned—history has shown Israel needs all the help it can get and a family feud is too expensive in so many ways.
He acknowledged that two generations ago Israel was at the forefront of American Jewish strength and unity, yet today Israel is sometimes seen to be irrelevant or an inconsequential piece of American Jewish identity. Israel being worth fighting about vs. being unimportant are two opposing phenomena.
Even when I think about what I have to do to find out what’s happening in Israel to write a blog—it takes effort many might not choose to undertake. Israel is not usually on the front pages of our news—I have to do research and read Israeli papers. This isn’t something the average American citizen—Jewish or not has the time for or commitment to do. In today’s world, our time allotted to tasks has been reduced to texting and sound bites.
Kurtzer pointed to a study performed by a Haaretz correspondent on U.S. college campuses a couple of years ago. It was determined that a small fraction of Jewish college students were actively involved in the importance of Israel, whether pro or con. However, due to the disconnection with Judaism of 90-95% of their Jewish student body as well as the identification that Israel is the point at which many Jews argue, the result is an ambivalence toward Israel. To find the answer, anger points to one solution, apathy and alienation would require an alternate reaction.
To hear the lack of identification with Israel of my son’s generation hurt my heart. My son became an Israeli spontaneously as we felt the percussion of the missiles exploding while cowering in bomb shelters—not a plan I would recommend to insure our kids bonded with Israel although it was effective.
Kurtzer also pointed to 2017 and the “decline of the Kotel compromise” in which the government of Israel reneged on their commitment to provide a nonorthodox section to pray at the Western Wall. The government’s reported reasoning was that politically it would anger ultraorthodox religious parties and that there was no political gain to allow it—what seemed to some in the diaspora like a slap in the face implying Jews’ needs outside of Israel were inconsequential. How had Jews outside Israel become unimportant? Weren’t these the same people that Israel begged to make Aliyah and move to Israel for years? Didn’t the Right of Return require at least a feigned interest lest these people become your neighbor? After decades of American Jewish philanthropy, didn’t Israel owe it to their committed brethren across the pond to show concern about our feelings?
Mr. Kurtzer noted that the lost action of the Israeli government regarding the Kotel compromise appeared on p.11 and the “important” news on the front page was the visit of the Prime Minister of India frolicking on the Tel Aviv beach with Netanyahu. His conclusion was it was more important for Israel’s long-term security to stress the relationship with India than “a number of angry American reform and conservative Jews.” He also pointed out that the U.S. already supports Israel and given the allegiance of the evangelicals, it seemed even with our own people in Israel, the Jews of the U.S. being upset were not such a big deal—ouch!
Part of what created this psychologically disturbing environment was his acknowledgement that as a people both in the U.S. and in Israel, we were both doing alright—if our kinsmen had been able to trade places with us from Minsk or Tunis—they would gladly.
He determined “What’s good for Israel may not be the same as what’s good for the Jewish people.” As a people being “the most fortunate Jews that ever existed in history,” actually created a problem of not feeling obliged to the other. Given our Jewish history of continuous harassment and the rising climate of anti-Semitism, his comments gave me chills and I thought I heard the theme of Jaws playing in the background—God forbid!
He acknowledged that American Jews are still mostly Ashkenazi and Israeli Jews due to a series of immigrations are a plurality of mitzrahi—Jews of the middle east. He made the point if what you claim is your family doesn’t look or sound like you, it may be harder to relate to one another. Add to that the fact of American Jews and intermarriage, adoption, conversion and the complications of myriad denominations of Jews and the question comes up in Jewish religious communities challenging who is a Jew? Oy.
These differences set up scenarios hard to look at, but essential. One example used was when Shimon Perez died, American Jews knew he had been the President of Israel and mourned because he was someone they could relate to. In Israel 50k were reported to attend funeral ceremonies in his honor. However when Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel died, 800k Israelis turned out for his funeral—most of us in our American Jewish audience didn’t know who he was. Why is this significant? Kurtzer would argue that it’s a poignant problem revealing our different perspectives and might mean that “the Israel that we are in relationship to is the Israel that fits into our value system much more than the actual Israel that is there.” Once again, people being people, we may be seeing Jews in Israel through the prism of our own eyes and not reality. A thriving Judaism in both the U.S. and Israel helps create this chasm—not that he would want to create havoc to unify the factions.
So where do we go from here? Kurtzer still acknowledges that Israel needs the help of diaspora Jews, but in a different way. He said the primary financial support for Israel comes from the Israeli government and that the diaspora contribution is a meager 7% of their non-governmental organizations’ gross domestic product. He said, “The primary export that Israel sent to the diaspora Jewry was nachas–pride. Israel exported an enormous sense of pride to the American Jewish people.
He continued that the U.S. election in 1970 following the success of the 1967 Israeli 6-day war “made Jews not pick up and move to Israel, but stand up straight… American Jews started wearing kippot in public. (Feeling) We’re not going to get pushed around anymore.” It changed how American Jews saw themselves.
But in today’s world when many younger American Jews feel that Israel is exporting “equal pride and shame,” it’s a significant problem. Sustained occupation and intifadas don’t play well together. It’s complicated and so will be any solution.
Ultimately Kurtzer proposes that one solution might be rather than looking at our people as a familial-bound, monolithic organism, to acknowledge that we are a people with many different models that need to learn to work together as a partnership.
This may not be as warm and fuzzy as we’ve liked to believe in the past, but after 70 years, Jews in both Israel and the U.S. have changed with the times and national developments. Kurtzer believes that perhaps this model would provide for discerning the realities of multiple players and establishing the mutually beneficial relationships of partner, investment or consumer. He believes that it is past due to renegotiate the relationship between American and Israeli Jews.
In any case it’s clear that once again the importance of staying present with current realities is the only way to evaluate the issues and make proposals to resolve this crucial development. I also believe this evaluation can’t be made devoid of attention to the impact of Israelis living in the intense atmosphere of their lives being at risk at a moment’s notice.
I was grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from President Kurtzer, opening my eyes to even more complexities of life as a Jew in today’s world.
As always, I invite you to Join Me on My Journey . . .