Americans Don’t Know Crap about Israelis and other observations

Eric alerted me to two articles this past week that complement last week’s Jerusalem Post article about the UJC GA in Israel.

The first one is actually a response from a piqued Israeli reporter, Anshel Pfeffer’s pointing out that Americans don’t know much about Israelis.

The second one is a thoughtful analysis by Michael Oren that explores the gap between American and Israeli Jews.

I think there was something else in the Jpost recently as well, although it slipped through my fingers

There are some flaws in Pfeffer’s argument. One person’s comment on the article points out that that Edgar Bronfman is actually Canadian, not American.

Moreover, I don’t think American Jews bewilderment and frustration towards secular Israelis is not just because the Israelis have it together. It does bother me how ignorant secular Israelis are of religion. Moreover American Jews like me are dismayed to find the lack of religious pluralism that they have come to enjoy in the U.S.

It riles me to find that the Israeli government finances Dati institutions while the Reform and Conservative movements receive nothing, zilch, nada. It makes me even angrier to think that Reform and Conservative conversions and marriages are not recognized here.

What also me the most is how derogatory Israelis’ comments can be toward religion and religious people. I think secular Israelis still have very narrow views about religion. They don’t understand that you don’t have to wear the full outfit to practice Judaism. For example, I don’t think Eric’s colleagues know what to make of him–he goes to shul but he doesn’t wear a kippah? How can that be? “Does not compute!”

Of course some of this lack of understanding and inability to see beyond the category of ‘Dati’ can be blamed upon the religious establishment here, which has alienated so many people here by making religion seem repressive, backward and illogical. It seems that religious intolerance goes both ways here. The religious establishment is intolerant of a pluralistic Jewish society and secular Jews are intolerant of anything smacking of religion.

However I agree with the writer’s point that the issue that the Israeli media didn’t cover the GA reflects the broader problem of the wide gulf between Americans and Israelis. Unfortunately he doesn’t go very much into this point–although Oren’s article is a good segway.

Also there is something to be said about the fact that the Israeli Jewish identity is a far less schizophrenic identity than the American Jewish one, and that forming a Jewish identity outside of Israel can be challenging when faced with issues like assimilation, disinterest and petrified institutions.

Not to say that Israelis can’t just kick back and revel in their Hebrewness. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done here too.

The Michael Oren piece talks about American and Israeli’s differing ideas about which country–the U.S. or Israel–is ‘the promised land.’ He starts off by talking about how the Adam Sandler movie Zohan reputes Zionism. The character endorses leaving Israel for Brooklyn and marrying a Palestinian as a way to happiness. Oren also notes, interestingly, that this film, as well Spielberg’s Munich were the product of American filming. Both films seem to imply that the solution to Israel’s problems–i.e. the cyclical violence that seems to have no end in sight–is to self exile to Brooklyn. On the other hand, in Walk on Water, an Israeli film which addresses the same issue, the main character stays in Israel. Obviously Oren does not see self exile as an option.

Oren confirms much of what I’ve read already about the history of American Zionism. Early Zionists like Emily Lazarus and Louis Brandeis supported Zionism but would never have dreamed of moving there. For them Israel was a place for Jews who were oppressed. But American Zionists–unlike Jews in Russia, for example–felt comfortable in their society, so why should they leave it?

American Jewish wariness of Zionism had multiple sources. There was, for example, the fear of arousing accusations of dual loyalty and the desire to integrate into the country whose Puritan founders had fashioned as the new Israel. At base, though, was the belief that de goldene medine furnished the ultimate framework for Jewish continuity, the culmination of a millennia-long search.”

“American Jews might build schools and hospitals in Palestine and replenish its forests, but trading the terra sancta of Cleveland or Brooklyn for that of Petah Tikva or even Jerusalem was widely regarded as sacrilege. American Jewish immigrants to Palestine such as Golda Meyerson (later Meir), Judah Magnes, and Henrietta Szold were therefore very much aberrations, representing a mere 0.3 percent of the pre-state Jewish Yishuv.”

His article reminds me of conversations that I’ve had with friends and family–particularly of how adamantly they reject the notion that Israel is the central location of Jewish culture and peoplehood. On the contrary, I’ve heard “the future of the Jewish people is in the U.S” and also “You don’t have to have a strong allegience to Israel to have a strong Jewish identity (which I don’t disagree with completely).

Part of what drives this idea home to people is the fact that Israel is enmeshed in a seemingly unending conflict. For one thing, people don’t know if this place is going to be around in 50 years because this place will self-destruct from all of the violence. For another, the conflict brings up uncomfortable issues which don’t always paint Israel in the best light. In that respect, Israel seems more like a guilty burden that hinders guilt-free Jewish identity formation. Why identify with a country that is portrayed as violating the human rights of another people on a daily basis? Indeed if Israel dropped of the face of the earth would many American Jews–particularly the younger and unaffiliated crowd–really care?


One response to “Americans Don’t Know Crap about Israelis and other observations

  1. Excellent commentary about the American (US, actually) zionists’ view, that Israel is the place for Opressed Jewry. A fresh view that I was longing to hear for a while.

    Regarding “It seems that religious intolerance goes both ways here”, I believe this is the key issue. There is a chasm open between the secular and religious, but it is just one of the polarizations in Israel.

    Perhaps the real reason behind all faces of intolerance and polarization (that is also a manifestation of intolerance, in my opinion) is the amount of tension and resulting anger here.

    Perhaps the way to fight it is to stop fighting, internally. To simply start demonstrating tolerance. In a behavioristic manner, practicing the opposite of what circumstances dictate, may eventually bring the positive change you write about.

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