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June 19, 2016 12:48 pm

Why Don’t Israeli Jews Care About Their Counterparts in the Diaspora?

avatar by Zvika Klein

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From an ACCESS AJC event at the global conference. Photo: Facebook.

From an ACCESS AJC event at the global conference. Photo: Facebook.

There is nothing that Jews like to do more than take part in conventions and conferences; some even find particular expression to their Judaism in them. In addition, the amount of fund-raising events for Israeli causes can easily fill up the calendar of every Jew involved in community life.

But what, exactly, do many of these conventions discuss? The panels usually debate inner communal issues and the connection — or lack thereof — of the younger generation with Israel. The most popular and controversial panels in recent years have dealt with “the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora,” or explaining Israeli politics and matters of religion and state in Israel.

As an Israeli journalist, I can tell you that a news item debating the establishment of an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall plaza will barely be covered in the Hebrew press, while it is the main headline on American-Jewish sites. The same goes for synagogues. Diaspora synagogues, especially liberal ones, argue for an egalitarian Kotel, while Israeli synagogues have other, more pressing matters to talk about.

I recently attended a panel on this exact topic during the Global Forum of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which has just celebrated its 110th anniversary. Its was titled: “What Divides Us? What Unites Us? Israeli and American Jews.” I was asked to represent the Israeli side, and Adena Philips, chair of AJC’s young generation global project, ACCESS, together with Avi Mayer, a Jewish Agency spokesman.

We were joined by Alan Cooperman, director of religion research at the Pew Research Center, who briefed the audience on the results of the 2015 survey on Israeli Jews and 2013 study on US Jewry.

The Pew surveys show that four out of 10 American Jews visit Israel, and a similar proportion of Israelis visit the US. However, this does not mean there is a connection between the sides.

“There is a simple explanation to these findings,” I explained during the panel. “Most Israelis who visit New York don’t visit synagogues of different denominations, the Jewish Museum or the JCCs, but rather two very specific outlet malls and, of course, Times Square.”

In Israel, I argued, “The synagogue where you pray or don’t pray is Orthodox; the words ‘Reform’ or ‘Conservative’ may be considered as a curse — and at the best it’s simply an unknown Diaspora word.”

My message was very clear, and members of the audience didn’t all enjoy to hear what I had to say. Although the America-Jewish media covers what is happening in Israel on a daily basis, the Israeli media is just not that interested in Diaspora Jewry, except in two cases: when there is a rise in antisemitism or a big wave of aliyah. When I told them that Makor Rishon is the only Hebrew media outlet that employs a full-time, in-house, Jewish-world correspondent, they thought it was a joke.

To me, I explained, the Israeli approach is very egocentric. For years, we Israelis have been used to receiving billions of dollars from American-Jewish organizations, such the Joint Distribution Committee or the Jewish federations. Since the establishment of the state of Israel (and even before that) and to this day, American-Jewish organizations have devoted a significant percentage of their budget to Israel. From an Israeli perspective, those who “chose” to live in the Diaspora send money to “relieve their guilt,” and those of us living in the Holy Land feel “deserving” of the money from our brethren in exile.

Don’t get me wrong, the Israel-Diaspora relationship indeed exists. But is unidirectional. Unfortunately, very few Israelis live and breathe this connection, while there is no shortage of American Jews who follow daily events in Israel. Of course, there are American Jews are who criticize Israel, but at least they have an interest in what is happening on the other side. I wish it were the same in Israel towards the Jewish world, but it’s not.

“If it were possible to send every Israeli on a reverse Birthright trip to the Jewish communities in the Diaspora, the reality would be different,”  an Israeli friend living in New York recently told me. Unfortunately, her idea is not practical; I have not yet found a wealthy businessman who finds importance in spending hundreds of millions of dollars on an initiative that consists of free trips for Israelis to Jewish communities for 10 days. There is no doubt that such an initiative could change Israeli public opinion on issues regarding religion and state, and certainly reconnect Jews overseas to Zionism and their roots.

According to the PEW survey, 41 percent of Israelis define themselves as secular. I’m sad to note that many of those secular Israelis are much less involved in Jewish life than liberal Jews abroad who are called “Reform” and “Conservative” in a derogatory  way – even though the Israelis calling them that have no idea what those terms actually mean.

Any Israeli who has lived abroad can testify how his or her Jewish identity was strengthened as soon as they came in contact with a Jewish community in the Diaspora. Suddenly, a secular Israeli will permit himself to visit a synagogue, and maybe even marry according to Jewish law — by choice.

Jewish Agency emissaries who come from secular backgrounds usually depart Israel for the Diaspora feeling that they know what Judaism is, and act as though they are on a mission to “save” Diaspora Jews. But ironically, in most cases, it is in the Diaspora that, for the first time, they realize what being Jewish actually means.

There are currently several leadership programs dealing with an attempt to build bridges between Diaspora Jews and Israel, but so far they haven’t been successful at affecting the mainstream. Israel will be more Jewish if we renew the ties with world Jewry, and as a result, the Jewish communities will more Zionist and deeply rooted.

Zvika Klein is an award-winning Journalist. This op-ed was originally written in Hebrew on the news site nrg and newspaper and Makor Rishon newspaper.

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  • Jay Lavine

    The real problem here stems from the use of the word “secular,” an Israeli abomination, part of the secular/religious dichotomy reflecting a tendency toward divisiveness and toward seeing everything in black and white. It’s a kind of put-down. Jews understand that there is a diversity in forms of religious expression (I wouldn’t even say “levels of observance,” because that can be a kind of put-down also).

    What does “secular” mean anyway? To me it means an avowed atheist who has totally abandoned or rejected his religious heritage. I wouldn’t even call such a person a Jew. As far as I’m concerned, someone who considers Judaism to be a way of life for himself, whatever that might mean to him, is a Jew, without need of any embellishing adjectives.

    Unfortunately, for many people who call themselves Jews, it’s a mere identity or culture. In essence, I think this is what is behind the difficulty American “Jewish” communal organizations have in attracting young adults. Focusing primarily on money and on Israel just won’t cut it.

    Finally, I would add that use of PR-style aggrandizing adjectives like “award-winning” is very problematic from a Jewish standpoint.

  • Michael

    Wow. Such an interesting perspective!

  • Leslie Ruth Benjamini

    I am an American Jew who heart and soul has been invested in Israel my whole life even before marrying an Israeli who immigrated to the USA (who is now deceased). Long before I had any relatives in Israel, albeit by marriage.
    This article was enlightening and very painful to read. If Israeli’s for one minute think I (& and I can only speak for myself, although I suspect I speak for many of us) have sent money to assuage any guilt for not living in Israel and living in the relative comfort of the US, they are dead wrong.Had I had any choice in the matter I would have been living in Israel for the last 60 years. Unfortunately my grandparents chose to come to the US and not Israel, I did not have any choice where I grew up. I have made many trips to Israel, love the place, feel at home there and would do anything to live there. Unfortunately life sometimes gets in the way of what we want. At 71 years old I don’t think Israel wants me unless I come with a lot of money. So maybe there are misconceptions on both sides. I don’t know.
    I think we are one nation wherever we live. I live and breathe what is going on Israel and I am pained to hear you don’t care about me.

    • A Zionist

      That is simply not true. Israel wants YOU and every Jew. When I made aliya, many young Israelis asked why I chose to move here from London. They could not understand why anyone would give up living in London, New York etc. Of course, young Israelis want to see the world, but I explained that eventually you will understand that Eretz Yisrael is the only place for Jews – whether you are Haredi, Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Reform, Liberal, Conservative, Masorti, Reconstructionist (I hope I have included everyone, if not, I apologise), whether Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, Sefardi etc

      Forget the differences because they may seem important, but they are not.

      Am Yisrael Chai

  • Bob from Vienna

    Actually the question should be asked in reverse — especially with the examples given. The answer is that Israeli self-hating Jews (if they exist) see prayer as sacred and are respectful;?while US self-hating Jews (of which there are many) see only opportunity for political oneupsmanship, and have little self respect let alone respect for others

  • Let’s put secular Israeli Jews into context:

    Social Survey 2009: Religiosity Of The Jewish Population In Israel
    Poll carried out by Central Bureau of Statistics January-December 2009 –
    7,500 people age 20+.

    For details in Hebrew

    In 2009, the Jewish population aged 20 and over:
    8% Ultra-orthodox, 12% Religious, 13% Traditional-religious 25%
    Traditional-no-so-religious 42% secular

    72% reported that they visited the synagogue last year.

    Among secular:
    24% visited the synagogue last year on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.
    82% always Passover seder participants
    67% always light Chanukah candles,
    29% always light Shabbat candles
    26% always fast on Yom Kippur
    22% are very careful to eat kosher food for Passover
    17% always say kiddush on Friday night
    10% always make sure to eat kosher food.

    Secular Israeli Jews know there are holidays because they are our national holidays – Succoth, Shavuot, etc. Purim is noted by secular kids in Israel for days as they dress up in costumes, etc.

    Are secular Israeli Jews involved in “Jewish life”? They are living an incredible page in Jewish history no less profound than most pages of the Tanach.

    • Stella

      So well said. There is something amazing and liberating to live in a Jewish State where most national holidays are Jewish holidays. Its in the air! You feel it and take part in it even when you are a secular Jew. In Diaspora you need to make extra effort to live and feel Jewishly (not to mention the more Jewish you or your kids want to be the more money it’ll cost you), be connected with the community, JCC or Shul, that’s why it looks like the Reform Jews of Diaspora are more “Jewish” than the secular Israelis.

  • Dani

    This is an excellent article. Truth hurts but that’s the way it is. Something similar can be said about Argentina and other countries in the Diaspora. Talking about the US, I would add that more that half a million israelis live in the US with no connection to anything Jewish there.

  • Larry Robins

    This is an interesting article and perspective. As an American Jew, I want to see the survival of Israel and the Jewish people there who live in a hateful and violent part of the world. I do not expect Israelis to care about me as they are the ones fighting for their survival, not me.

  • i can not blame them if they are members of Israel One Fund Jay Street , BDS supporters

  • y brandstetter

    For a jew to remain a jew in the diaspora he must make a xonscuius effort throughout life. In Israel all the Jew has to is to be. No effort required. That is a profound difference.