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June 30, 2019 11:37 am

US and Israeli Jews: Profound Connections and Alarming Gaps

avatar by James Sinkinson / JNS.org

Opinion

Taglit-Birthright Israel trip participants visit the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, Aug. 18, 2014. Photo:Flash90.

JNS.org – A recent AJC survey contrasting the opinions of American, Israeli and French Jews regarding Jewish issues that affect both the global and regional Jewish communities reveals both heartening and deeply disturbing trends. (We will not focus here on responses of our French contingent, by far the smallest.)

The good news is, Jews around the world still largely regard each other as friends or family and support each other’s survival. The bad news: Israelis and Americans differ radically on some existential issues that shouldn’t divide us.

The survey, conducted in spring 2019 by the American Jewish Committee, asked representative samples of each nationality their opinion on some 21 topics, ranging from their identification with Judaism to American and Israeli domestic political issues.

It’s the political issues that create the conflict between us — and that also highlight a serious disconnect in perspective and values. Let’s take a look at four harmonies between American and Israeli Jews, then look at four differences that portend political strife in the coming months and years.

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When asked how important being Jewish was to their lives, the responses of both Israeli and American Jews indicate a largely warm, embracing relationship with their Jewishness.

Some 51 percent of Israelis say being Jewish is most important in their lives, 29 percent say it’s very important, and 11 percent say somewhat important — that’s 91 percent who strongly value their Jewishness.

For American Jews, the numbers are 45 percent very important and 35 percent somewhat important: While not as forceful a sentiment as that of Israelis at the high end (“most important”), still, the fact that 80 percent of American Jews have strong feelings toward their Jewishness shows a significant sharing of fundamental cultural and/or religious values.

Likewise, another key indication of shared values is found in answers to the question, “Using the metaphor of a family, do you consider American Jews [or, on the other side, Israeli Jews] your siblings, first cousins, extended family, or not part of my family?”

Israeli Jews said they regard American Jews as siblings (31 percent), first cousins (11 percent), and extended family (36 percent) — a total of 78 percent — while only 23 percent answered “not part of my family.”

American Jews are more lukewarm towards their Israeli counterparts, but still warm, scoring 13 percent for siblings, 15 percent for first cousins, and 43 percent for extended family — a total of 71 percent — while 28 percent answered “not part of my family.”

To assess the centrality of Israel, the survey asked each group whether they believed a thriving State of Israel is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people.

American Jews responded with strong affirmation: 72 percent said yes and “only” 25 percent said no. Israeli Jews, unsurprisingly, responded even more emphatically: 91 percent said yes and only five percent said no.

Finally, as a counterpoint to the previous question, the survey asked, “Do you think that a thriving Diaspora is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people?”

Curiously, American Jews felt less strongly about their own well-being, with only 65 percent registering affirmative to this question; 16 percent said no and 17 percent had no opinion (couldn’t care less?).

Most Israeli Jews expressed greater concern for the Diaspora’s survival than Americans themselves, with 74 percent of Israelis answering yes to the question, only 20 percent answering no, and six percent having no opinion.

So far, so good. These results sound like we American Jews and Israeli Jews could be friends. But when we look at American and Israeli opinions about political issues, we see much more divergence, and frankly, reason for alarm.

Let’s start with the 800-pound gorilla in the room — US President Donald Trump.

The survey asked each group, “Do you approve or disapprove of the way President Trump is handling US-Israel relations?”

The contrast in views is clear, and unnerving.

Israelis approve of Trump on Israel strongly (48 percent) or somewhat (31 percent) — for a total approval of 79 percent. (Only 10 percent disapprove.)

This is clearly a vote of hearty support by an overwhelming majority of our Israeli brethren — who obviously see themselves as benefactors of Trump’s decisions on the Iran deal, Jerusalem recognition, the Golan Heights, defunding of Palestinian terrorism, and withdrawal from UNRWA.

Among American Jews, in what seems a triumph of personal distaste for Trump over political logic, only 22 percent approve strongly and 14 percent approve somewhat — total approval on Israel of just 36 percent. Yet 45 percent disapprove strongly — a plurality of disapproval.

A bewildered Israeli might ask: How can you disapprove of all these actions that helped us? What kind of support is that for us? What are you thinking?

On the question, “Do you favor or oppose a two-state solution through the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state on the West Bank,” we see a similar disconnect.

A solid 64 percent majority of American Jews favor the two-state solution — either strongly (33 percent) or somewhat (31 percent). About 26 percent oppose two states — somewhat (12 percent) or strongly (14 percent).

Israeli respondents, however, for whom the question is dramatically more consequential, only support two states by 39 percent — 17 percent strongly and 22 percent somewhat. On the other hand, a majority of Israelis — 51 percent — oppose two states, either somewhat (18 percent) or strongly (33 percent).

The idea of a two-state solution is obviously dying in Israel, but American Jews, relatively disengaged as they are, still cling to the old model of land for peace (which the Palestinians have never accepted).

Another burning issue in both American and Israeli communities is the question of settlements. The survey asked, “As part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, should Israel be willing to dismantle all, some, or none of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank?”

Israeli Jews are divided on this question, but a trend is emerging: Only six percent of respondents favor dismantling all settlements, and 37 percent favor dismantling some of them — a total of 43 percent in favor of some abandonment. On the other hand, fully half (50 percent) of respondents believe Israel should not dismantle any of the settlements.

American Jews, unsurprisingly, still nurture the old model: 25 percent believe Israel should dismantle all the settlements, 41 percent believe some should be abandoned — a total of 66 percent supporting dismantling — and only 28 percent think Israel should not dismantle any of the settlements.

Finally, and perhaps the most telling question, the AJC survey asked, “Do you think it appropriate for American Jews to attempt to influence Israeli policy on such issues as national security and peace negotiations with the Palestinians?”

American Jews, by a firm majority — 57 percent — believe it is appropriate, while only 40 percent believe it is not.

Despite all feelings of solidarity and identification with Jewishness and Israel, American Jews represent a group that is not part of the Israeli polity, doesn’t pay Israeli taxes, doesn’t vote, doesn’t speak Hebrew, and lives thousands of miles and a world away from the Middle East. They want to influence an existential reality that doesn’t affect them, but that affects Israelis profoundly? Is arrogance the right word here?

Understandably, most Israelis feel otherwise. An even stronger majority — 63 percent — feels it is not appropriate for American Jews to influence Israeli policy, whereas only 31 percent believe it is.

Bottom line? It clearly serves both American and Israeli Jews to have a close, supportive relationship — Israel is the ultimate refuge for the Jewish people, wherever they live, and Israel benefits mightily from US financial and international political support. Despite occasional protestations and assertions of disagreement, we are bound inextricably.

However, this profound existential connection has natural limits. Israeli Jews should not tell American Jews how they must practice Judaism — it’s none of their business. Likewise, the failure of American Jews to support the obviously pro-Israel actions of a US president based on party or personal disdain is unconscionable.

Similarly — though every Jew is entitled to an opinion, thank God — the presumption that American Jews have a right to influence Israel’s national or foreign policy flies in the face of justice and good sense. It’s none of their business.

James Sinkinson is president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.

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