With Israel facing life-and-death threats from Hezbollah and Iran in the north and Hamas in the south, the issue of the eroding relationship between Israelis and American Jews remains just off the front burner. But Israel ignores it at its own peril, experts say. As we were putting the finishing touches on this special report — which takes a sustained look at the state of the Israel-diaspora bond — the actions of the IDF in the clashes with Palestinian protestors at the Gaza border were putting a strain on that connection. As the death toll in Gaza rose, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the leader of the Reform movement, Judaism’s largest by far, sought to walk a tightrope. “Israel has the right, and even the obligation, to defend herself and her borders.” But, he added, “we are alarmed, concerned, and profoundly saddened by the growing number of Gazan dead and wounded.”
The pages that follow, in a sense, stand at that “yes, but” intersection. On a whole host of issues — egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, conversion to Judaism, Israel’s treatment of African asylum seekers, the country’s commitment to democratic principles, even what to call home — many liberal Zionists in America, especially millennials, are saying to Israel: “Yes, we’re with you, but…” In the space taken up by this ellipsis, a relationship is being tested, perhaps as never before.
In a meditation on “at-homeness,” Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, wonders whether “Zionism should not have insisted, as it often still does, that the Jewish people not feel at home except” in Israel. Author and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi puts his finger on what he calls the central fault line running between a majority of Israelis and a majority of American Jews: on one side, the anguish of a still-besieged Jewish people 70 years after the Holocaust, and on the other, the anguish of an Israel, 50 years after the Six-Day War, still ruling over another people.
We look back and we look ahead in this special report. Francine Klagsbrun takes us back to Golda Meir, who artfully cultivated American Jews; there is no such Israeli prime minister today. And Jonathan Mark conjures up his grandparents’ generation — Zionists before Zionism, who lacked a “yes, but” in their vocabulary.
But mostly we stay in the here and now. New York Jewish Week (NJJN’s sister publication) Israel correspondents Nathan Jeffay and Michele Chabin report on the gulf between young Israelis and their American-Jewish counterparts, and the insider-outsider experience of Anglo Israelis, respectively. Jewish Week staff writer Orli Santo considers the pressure the Israel-diaspora crisis is exerting on Israeli Americans in New York. NJJN managing editor Shira Vickar-Fox reconsiders her spiritual tie to the Western Wall in light of the bitter debate over religious pluralism. And NJJN Israel correspondent Gil Hoffman catches up with several Garden State expats to ask them what they like about living in the Jewish state. Spoiler alert: Almost everything.
Finally, Jewish Week editor and publisher Gary Rosenblatt profiles Jacobs, who has become the public face of the liberal critique of Israel. In an earlier life, the rabbi was a modern dancer. It will take a work of sublime choreography — daring, supple, tender, transcendent — to put Israelis and American Jews back on a better footing. Relationships, like dances, are built from the ground up. So, like Miriam, take up a tambourine and step lightly into the breach.