Jews here and there
By Ira Sharkansky
Among the unpleasantness that Israeli Jews experience is the awareness that Jews along with Arabs and others are demonstrating against Israel. Noam Chomsky’s involvement in persuading Stephen Hawking to cancel his appearance at an Israeli conference was a prominent example, consistent with Chomsky’s record and perhaps reinforced by his own denial of entry to the country as an undesirable person.
There are Israeli Jews who have joined the Palestinians’ campaign of BDS (boycott, disvestment, sanctions). They fit the image of man bites dog, but are outnumbered by American Jews—to the left of J-Street—joining the chants on campuses and shouting down Israelis and others trying to speak in behalf of Israel.
While some of the anti-Israel Jewish phenomenon reflects the Jewish syndromes of individualism, creativity, and contentiousness, at least part of it comes from the separate development of Jewish cultures that have drifted from the common roots shared by earlier generations.
Who is a Jew? is a problem with different manifestations, ranging from issues of identity among assimilated Jews and products of intermarriage, and the sizable number who do not pass muster with Orthodox rabbis. Estimates are about 14 million Jews throughout the world, with the largest numbers in Israel and the United States, quarrels about which country has the most, with no other country having as many as 10 percent of those in Israel or the U.S.
The overwhelming majority of American Jews, and about half of Israeli Jews are several generations from the cultures shared by their families in Eastern Europe. Most American Jews come from migrations that preceded the Holocaust, while Israelis of European origin and middle age or older are likely to be the “generation without grandparents.” Half of Israeli Jews come from elsewhere in the Middle East, with family memories shared by only a minority of Americans.
Both communities have developed in their own directions since whatever they shared in the 1940s. While Israel has become a modern Sparta, American Jews are prominent in avoiding a military experience that has been voluntary since 1973. On one of my visits to lecture at West Point in the 1980s, I encountered a Jewish colonel who taught sociology, and provided me with one of his papers showing that there were few Jews in the U.S. military who were not attorneys, physicians, accountants, or in some other profession having little to do with combat.
The David vs Goliath motif—derived from popular culture if not from the Book of Samuel—may explain the appeal of Palestinians’ narrative to Jews who have grown up above the socioeconomic median of the United States and beyond the time when being Jewish was a problem. The families of their Israeli counterparts have fresher memories of Europe or living among Arabs. Most Israeli Jews at the age of American college students are in the IDF, and are likely to have relatives or acquaintances in the military cemeteries. They remember explosions in buses and restaurants, and are exposed to daily reports of tensions between Arabs and Jews.
Intermarriage is not exclusively American, but its much higher incidence in the United States has contributed to the cultural separation of Israeli and American Jews. We have friends who came here as non-Jews on a visit or as volunteers, found a mate, and remained as parents of Israelis. Some have converted, but not others. Perhaps a third of the million immigrants from the former Soviet Union are not recognized as Jewish by the Rabbinate. However, they have lived in Israel for several decades, speak Hebrew as well as Russian. Their children are indistinguishable from secular Israeli Jews.
Most American Jews have been Democrats in their generations since Roosevelt. Many say that they support Israel, but have trouble with the Israeli narratives of what happens in the Middle East. We hear that Barack Obama is the most Jewish of American presidents, due to years spent close to Jewish neighbors, friends, and colleagues in Chicago. However, at least some of the Jews close to him would be outliers in Israeli politics.
It is culture more than religion that separates American and Israeli Jews. It is likely that majorities of both populations would fall somewhere on the secular side of any spectrum designed to measure religiosity. However, differences between American and Israeli Jews who are observant contribute to the political distance between the communities. Most American Jews practice their religion in Conservative or Reform congregations, while almost all religious Israeli Jews are Orthodox. It is the Orthodox among American Jews who identify most closely with Israel, who are most likely to vote Republican, and with an eye to issues concerning Israel.
It is not appropriate to force American and Israeli Jews onto the same political spectrum due to their different national experiences and the distinctive issues in each domestic arena. On international issues shared by the two countries, there are American Jews on the extreme right, as well as leftists opposed to whatever Israel is doing. Meir Kahane and a number of the most aggressive of the settlers came to Israel from the United States with a mission to deal with Jews who were soft on the Arabs. I hear more often from American than Israeli Jews that Israel should solve the Arab problem once and for all, with some of them demanding a wholesale expulsion of Arabs from the Land of Israel.
Some of the differences between the two Jewish communities are more symbolic than substantive. American Jews celebrate holidays linked to national history that mean little if anything to Israelis. American Jews may recognize the religious significance of Passover and—fewer of them—Succoth, but those are not occasions in the United States for the closure of public institutions and weeklong family vacations. Israeli Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Holocaust Remembrance Day are more deeply embedded among Israeli than American Jews.
American Jews worry about a lack of Israeli sensitivity to the political agendas of liberal politicians they support, especially on the issue of Palestine. Israelis worry about Jewish assimilation in the United States, the passing of generations with high Jewish identity that had bought Israel bonds and contributed to Israeli institutions. AIPAC, Birthright, and linkages between American and Israeli universities reach out to younger American Jews. Differences between the national cultures are more shades of gray, rather than black and white. Young American Jews organize pro-Israel rallies and speak out against Israel-bashing by fellow students and faculty members.
What about other sizable Jewish communities? None has more than a fraction of those in the United States. Each has a distinctive national history. During the height of the great Jewish migrations from Europe, the United States more than other countries receiving numerous immigrants emphasized assimilation into a melting pot. Conservative and Reform Judaism became dominant in the United States, as opposed to their minority status among Jews in Israel and elsewhere.
We may all be Jews, but we do not read from the same prayer book if we read from any prayer book. Neither do we agree about whatever are the important issues of politics, or what we should be doing about them.
Diversity of views has been true of Jews for millennia. Now it may be more true, given the freedom of Jews to live as they wish in a variety of countries, each with their own culture and agenda.
Ira Sharkansky is professor emeritus, Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.