Navigating contradictory geographies
Welcome to the dysfunctional relationship between Israelis and American Jews
American Jews to Israelis: What exactly about shooting unarmed Palestinian demonstrators on the Gaza border don’t you understand is wrong?
Israelis to American Jews: What exactly about preventing a mass Hamas breach of our security fence don’t you understand is essential?
The mutual exasperation between liberal American Jews and Israelis over the weekly demonstrations at the Gaza border — which led up to the May 15 commemoration of what the Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe, marking Israel’s independence — is only the latest expression of our increasingly dysfunctional relationship. To some extent, the drift is an unavoidable consequence of living in radically different geographies. American Jews live in the safest and most accepting diaspora Jews have known; Israelis live in the most dangerous region on the planet.
The divide is intensified by the very different ways in which each community understands and experiences its Jewish identity. According to polls, American Jews regard tikkun olam as one of the main components of their Jewishness. But ask Israelis about the essential elements of their Jewish identity, and tikkun olam would probably not even appear on the list. Many Israelis are, of course, committed to tikkun olam, but tend to think of social justice as a human imperative. What, Israelis might wonder, is particularly Jewish about tikkun olam?
Instead, Israelis would likely define their core Jewish commitments as protecting Israel and the Jewish people and maintaining some relationship with Jewish tradition.
Recently I wrote an op-ed defending Israel’s military policies to protect its Gaza border. In response, an American Jew tweeted his shame with a Jewish state that substitutes geopolitical considerations for morality. Reading his anguished cry, I wondered: What other state would be faulted for placing its security needs ahead of other values?
What, then, is the primary purpose of a Jewish state? Israelis would argue: to protect the Jewish people in its land and offer refuge to diaspora Jews when necessary. Many American Jews would argue: to uphold Jewish values and be an exemplary society.
In truth, Zionism promised to fulfill both visions. The future Jewish state was to normalize the Jewish people and restore us to the international community as a nation among nations. At the same time, it would be a light unto the nations, a secular version of the messianic kingdom.
How would Israel simultaneously be both normal and exceptional? David Ben-Gurion tried to resolve the paradox by imagining a state that would be externally normal in its relations with other nations and internally exceptional, an exemplary socialist society that would be a model for the world.
In a sense, many Israelis and American Jews have torn apart Ben-Gurion’s vision, with each community appropriating either the longing for normalcy and security or the longing for ethical greatness.
My nightmare vision of a dysfunctional Israeli-American Jewish relationship is that each community takes on the attributes of its geography. Israelis become increasingly brutal, while American Jews come to resemble what my father, a Holocaust survivor, called “stupid Jews” — Jews who can no longer recognize existential threats and have lost the instinct of self-preservation. Such a dichotomy would mark the end of our relationship: There can be no shared language or moral sensibility between brutes and fools.
Jews today are divided between very different kinds of anguish over Israel. The first is a sense of outrage that, barely 70 years after the Holocaust, the Jewish people is still besieged, still defending its legitimacy and right to exist, still the eternal other. The second is that, 50 years after the Six-Day War, Israel shows no sign of lessening its rule over another people, and worse, many Israelis have come to accept this anomaly of Jewish history as normal.
Those two expressions of anguish increasingly define the fault line separating the Israeli majority from the liberal American Jewish majority. A healthy Jewish people would recognize that both forms of anguish are essential parts of our being.
We need each other as correctives. The diaspora-Israel relationship should be the checks and balances of the Jewish people.
When the Jewish state turns its back on desperate African asylum seekers, American Jews need to remind us that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, that we are forbidden to be hard-hearted. And when an American administration implements a deal that leaves Iran on the nuclear threshold while empowering it as the regional bully, Israelis need to remind American Jews that we live in a world where genocide against the Jewish people is still possible, that we are forbidden to be naïve.
At the same time, our increasingly harsh judgments of each other need to be tempered by an awareness of the other community’s unique circumstances. Israelis must appreciate how profoundly accepted American Jews are in their geographical space — and respect the choices they have made in trying to balance commitment to Jewish identity with openness to their welcoming environment. And American Jews must appreciate how profoundly insecure Israelis are in their geographical space.
Each community has devised strategies that are appropriate responses to its geography. American Jews are open and flexible; Israelis, tough and security-minded. The Jewish people needs both those responses to effectively cope in a world where we are at once threatened and accepted, empowered yet still vulnerable.