For all of the era of good feeling in American-Israel relations, there is a disquieting factor that should give us pause. We need not be overly concerned about the White House singing Hava Nagila with less gusto than it now does or about Americans becoming less enamored of the Jewish state and people. The former is nearly a sure bet, while the attitude of Americans isn’t likely to change any time soon.
What is unsettling is far more proximate, as it springs from within our ranks. The disaffection of a substantial part of American Jewry from our traditions, beliefs and practices has been accompanied by the loss of feeling for Israel. As Jewish identity withers away, there is inevitably the corollary withering away of identity with the Jewish state.
This is a development that is scarcely discussed or appreciated, in large measure because our community is in denial about the consequences of advanced assimilation and Judaic abandonment. Too many of us believe – or want to believe – that we can abandon our religious heritage without abandoning Israel in the process. We have convinced ourselves that the transformation of Jews from a religious people into an ethnic or civic group can be accomplished without eroding that which has nurtured us, including the passionate commitment to Israel.
This act of self-deception is psychologically rewarding, which is usually the case with deceptions of this sort. It is also intellectually possible because, after all, in our communal life there are nearly everywhere secular Jews who are deeply committed to Israel. If Jewish leaders can be entirely unreligious – and many are also intermarried – and yet feel passionately about Israel, why can’t the same be true of the rank and file of several million secular American Jews?
The problem with this reasoning is that what we know for certain about American Jews strongly indicates otherwise. There is a wealth of survey data showing that half of American Jews who have disaffiliated are not emotionally attached to Israel. They haven’t been there, do not want or intend to go, and what happens in Israel is of no particular concern. As is evident on college campuses, there is strong hostility among many Jewish students to the notion of a Jewish state, which is also to say that there is greater sympathy for the Palestinian cause than for the Israeli.
The statistics are especially troubling when we consider that a significant proportion of American Jews are yordim or ex-Israelis and their offspring. They have roots in Israel and family there. If their numbers were removed from our population surveys, identity with and support for Israel would be significantly lower.
The extended current intifada and the severe economic and security crisis it has engendered shows how the changing character of American Jewry has profoundly affected the perception of Israel. In terms of what is immediately at stake, the intifada is not 1967 or 1973 and so it is understandable why we have not seen the fervor of fundraising that erupted at the time of the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars. But the danger to Israel today is clear and present. There is now the reality – and not just the prospect – of permanent war, of an intractable Islamic mindset that will not accept Israel’s existence, peace agreements and other diplomacy notwithstanding. The implications for Israel’s physical and economic security are enormous.
Where have American Jews – including those who still identify themselves as Jews – been during the past year and a half? They’ve been mostly stay-at-home, with their checkbooks pointed away from Israel. There was expensive hoopla for one great rally that was canceled by September 11th. There haven’t been any emergency campaigns and the UJA or what remains of it is nowhere to be seen.
This is telling because for decades “UJA” was part of the American Jewish vocabulary, a symbol and link to Israel that transcended the organization’s incessant fundraising activity. My guess is that few Jewish teenagers have a clue as to what the acronym stands for.
As some of us know, the UJA has been taken over by the Federations and submerged in that world’s bureaucratic quagmire, in much the manner that megacorporations take over competitors and then put them to sleep. The Federation world wanted to a) reduce allocations to Israel and b) provide targeted funding to favored projects – the promotion of pluralism is one major example - rather than to give the money more directly to Israel.
Fundraising and support for Israel, including at a time of national crisis such as the country is now going through, is a permanent casualty of the realignment that has taken place. This realignment could not have occurred if American Jews circa 1990 were as deeply committed to Israel as they once were.
While Birthright Israel and other activities are attempting to reverse the erosion of Jewish identity and the attendant erosion of commitment to Israel, they operate in an environment that at least tolerates and often encourages and welcomes the abandonment of our religious life. Experience and logic powerfully point to the conclusion that when Judaism is abandoned there is little prospect that our 2000 year intense commitment to the land of our people will survive.
As we have good reason to be frightened about the sad domestic state of American Jewry, there are parallel reasons why we should be frightened about the state of the relationship between American Jews and Israel.