Dissatisfied With the Present, Israel Supporters Try to Affect the Future

Participants from the Washington area wrestle with the relationship between Israel and American Jews. Photo by Avi Gerver Photography, courtesy of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington

With Israel’s 75th anniversary a month away, American Jewish communities and longtime Israel supporters are worried.

This year, Israel, the fulfillment of millennia of Jewish aspirations, seems to be locked in an existential struggle as Israelis march in the streets by the thousands to protest the current government, its plans to remake the judiciary and its most extreme leaders.

“It’s easy for American Jews to sympathize with the people in the street,” said Masua Sagiv, scholar in residence at the liberal Orthodox Shalom Hartman Institute.

The demonstrators’ beliefs are similar to those of most American Jews: liberal, inclusive and with God as a private or communal matter, not a concern of the state. “These groups in Israel are seeking what American Jews have,” Sagiv said.


Meanwhile, in Washington and the rest of the United States, a generational change is altering the way Israel is viewed. The attitude is more critical, and the vocabulary used about Israel is new and often harsh.

How will American Jews continue their relationship with Israel? And how will Jews respond to the changing views of Israel here?

Those were among the questions discussed at an introspective gathering on Sunday, as a half-dozen speakers and 150 participants met at a hotel in the District to consider whether the world’s two largest Jewish communities have a shared destiny or are taking separate paths.

Organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, many of the day’s speakers were drawn from the Shalom Hartman Institute. Takeaways include:

The relationship is long term

American Jews need to move from a consumer relationship with Israel to a covenantal relationship, said Erica Brown, vice provost for values and leadership at Yeshiva University and director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership.

“When Israel is the underdog, when it’s the Startup Nation, we act like consumers,” she said. But Israel is more than a product that Jews can purchase and return if not absolutely satisfied.“Israel is the central and defining project of the Jewish people.”

What might it look like if Jews had a covenantal relationship with Israel instead? Brown quoted the prophet Hosea as the model: “I am betrothed to you forever, in good faith” (2:19).

Learn how to talk

A successful relationship means being able to talk about sensitive issues — Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example — particularly with young people, said Amira Ahronoviz, CEO and director general of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

“We want to be able to equip students in thinking and learning,” she said. That means introducing young Jews to all types of people in Israel and the territories, including Palestinian Israelis and West Bank Palestinians, settlers and haredi Orthodox Jews.

Escape the English language

“Engage with deep diversity. Not just people from different backgrounds, but with different worldviews,” said Eilon Schwartz, director of the Shaharit Institute, which describes itself as “the think tank for new Israeli politics.

Echoing Ahronoviz, Schwartz asked, “Where is the Israeli Arab you’re not talking with? Where is the haredi Jew you’re not talking with?

“Get used to speaking not in English,” he added. “If they speak English, they’re already Westernized.

“Lower the wall of suspicion,” he said. “The feeling that the other person’s motivations are selfish and bad.”

When asked what Israel means to them, American Jews tend to say it’s the homeland of the Jewish people.

That isn’t enough, Sagiv said. “Israel is Jewish, but it’s also Israeli. And it’s Arab Palestinian.”

As Israel turns 75, one way to mark the occasion, the speakers said, is by a change of mindset about what Israel is. ■

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