Everyone knows that an ocean separates Israel and the United States. Yet after three days in New York, I realized just how big that ocean really is.
Along with five Israeli journalists, I participated in a seminar organized by the Ruderman Family Foundation meant to help us understand the diverse Jewish community.
We met two kinds of Jews. One group I would define as “classic Jews” — warmhearted Americans whose loyalty to Israel is unwavering, who believe the state of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, who consider Israel’s scenic desert in the south and northern parks to be more fascinating than the Grand Canyon or Yosemite Park, and for whom the sight of Israeli soldiers in uniforms brings tears to their eyes. The classic Jews love Israel and Israelis, and if they have criticism of the Israeli government’s policies or are offended sometimes by the arrogance with which some Israelis treat them, they will not let anyone know. They are loyal Americans with an extra Israeli soul.
The other type are Jews whose Jewishness is an important component of their identity and personality, but it is not necessarily related to Israel. Israel is more important to some, less to others and to still others, not at all. Community, peoplehood, even support for Israel is decided upon by the individual Jew.
Although I knew that U.S. Jewry is no longer a homogenous community, and that the consensus about Israel’s direction is coming undone even among its supporters in the United States, it was interesting and surprising to discover just how much people living in Israel do not understand what is going on with their brothers and sisters in the Diaspora.
For most Israelis, American Jews are the same as those who were living in America after the victory in the 1967 Six-Day War or the Yom Kippur War in 1973. I personally feel that U.S. Jewry “has our back” when necessary, especially if Israel’s security is threatened. But I also understand that if, for example, the government of Israel decided to attack Iran in opposition to the U.S. administration, I’m not sure that U.S. Jewry would have Israel’s back in the same manner.
What impressed me most were the social activists we met, people who volunteer and head large organizations, who attribute their humanitarian work to their Jewish upbringing and core Jewish values. Certainly in Israel this exists, especially in religious circles where gemilut chasidim (acts of kindness) and tzedakah (charity) are emphasized.
But these Jews see their work in Africa or South America as a direct result of the words in the Torah that every person is created in the image of God. Their work is the clearest expression of their Judaism.
As the seminar progressed, it was apparent that Israel’s treatment of American Jews remains stuck somewhere between 1967 and 1973, while American Jewry has spread its wings and evolved.
The Ruderman Family Foundation seminar is a drop in the ocean, trying to connect the two worlds and understand each other; even Birthright Israel is insufficient in bridging this ocean.
I want to propose a model that can help bridge the gap. If tikkun olam is the way to the hearts of young Jews, Israel should generate opportunities for Diaspora Jews who are seeking self-realization via humanitarian activities. Israel could create a center that would send young Jews on social missions around the world. This could attract young Jews, who otherwise may have no interest, to come to Israel and join programs that already exist around the world or in their country of origin.
What a wonderful contribution to the world it would be if Israel were to become a beacon of humanitarianism. More importantly, it could help bridge the gap with those who no longer view Israel as central to their Jewishness.
Nurit Canetti is a publicist, columnist and editor of Ma Boer, a popular program on Army Radio. This op-ed was translated from Hebrew by Ephraim Gopin.