Is the Israel-Diaspora relationship unraveling?

David Ellenson: American Jews and Israel were not always joined at the hip.Photo by Jim Heaphy/Wikipedia Commons
David Ellenson: American Jews and Israel were not always joined at the hip.
Photo by Jim Heaphy/Wikipedia Commons

When a 1957 poll asked American Jews if Israel was central to their concerns, 31 percent answered yes. In 1968, after the Six Day War, pollsters asked the same question. This time, 91 percent of American Jews said Israel was central to their concerns.

The poll was one illustration of the changes in the relationship between American Jews and Israel offered by historian David Ellenson, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. He spoke Oct. 28 at the opening of Reinventing Israel, a conference sponsored by American University’s Center for Israel Studies.

In February, before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Washington to argue against the Iran nuclear deal before Congress, he said he would be speaking as “an emissary of all Israel’s citizens … and of the entire Jewish people.”

Ellenson suggested that the two communities were not always joined at the hip as they seem to be now. Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, in a 1950 exchange of letters with American Jewish Committee head Jacob Blaustein, wrote that American Jews “owe no political allegiance to Israel. … The State of Israel represents and speaks only on behalf of its own citizens.”

That exchange grew out of American Jewish concerns of being accused of having divided loyalty if they were closely associated with Zionism and Israel, Ellenson said. The American Jewish approach to Zionism and, later, Israel was laid out in 1912 by Zionist leader and later Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: Diaspora Jews need not make aliyah, and there is no inconsistency between identifying with Israel and the United States because they share democratic, Western values.

“Perhaps this is beginning to unravel,” said Ellenson.

The reasons for the changing relationship were the topic of the conference, “which is concerned with the latest reinventions [of Israel] in the last 25 years,” said Michael Brenner, director of the Center for Israel Studies.

The conference identified three major changes Israel has undergone: the massive immigration from the former Soviet Union; the high-tech industry explosion and the increase in the gap between rich and poor; and the growth of Israel’s Orthodox and haredi populations.

The strain in relations with American Jewry is in large part because of the growth of the Orthodox and haredi communities, combined with the messianism that the Six Day War unleashed and the building of settlements in the West Bank, Ellenson said. These trends challenge the American Jewish view that support for Israel is compatible with American-style democracy, Ellenson said.

The strain particularly affects Jews who don’t remember Israel’s early years. “It’s problematic to many young American Jews,” he said. “The expansion of settlements will make Israel more and more distant to any number of young American Jews.”
(The 2013 Pew Report on Jewish Americans found that 43 percent said that Israel is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them.)

“However unfair some of the charges against Israel are and how proud we are of Israel,” he added, “settlements will continue to be a moral problem in the ongoing relationship between American Jews and Israel.”

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