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Scholar analyzes Jewish divide over Israel
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Scholar analyzes Jewish divide over Israel

Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, said there is currently no issue “more dangerous than Israel in creating conflict between American Jews.”     
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, said there is currently no issue “more dangerous than Israel in creating conflict between American Jews.”     

You think American Jews can’t agree over Israel now? Yehuda Kurtzer predicts the battles are on track to become so epic that people will look back on the current tension between groups like AIPAC and J Street “with great nostalgia.”

Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, believes the gap between left- and right-wing Jews over Israel has never been wider and will become wider still.

What’s more, he said, the gap between the Israeli and American-Jewish communities is growing nearly as quickly.

Speaking April 19 at the annual Israel Segal Memorial Lecture at Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, Kurtzer attributed the tension to a number of factors: generational and political divides, a lack of understanding between the American and Israeli communities, and differing views on whether Zionism and Judaism are synonymous. Such disagreements were only exacerbated during last summer’s Gaza war.

The in-fighting has called into question old notions of peoplehood, he said. Bickering between the Israelis and Americans on religious matters and over government policies has brought out in the open long-simmering issues that need to be resolved, said Kurtzer.

In the first decades after its founding, Israel received united and unconditional support from the American-Jewish community, he said. When some in the American-Jewish establishment were angered by Prime Minster David Ben-Gurion’s strong push for American Jews to move to the new state, he “promised to mitigate his rhetoric of aliya and negation of the exile in exchange for the support of the American-Jewish community.”

When minor differences came up, they were kept within the community. 

“When Israel had been in intense conflict, we sent money and support,” said Kurtzer. “They sent back nachas,” or feelings of pride.

Now, while Israel still enjoys Jewish support in America, young people increasingly see it as a source of tension and conflict rather than pride. American Jews are more willing to state their differences over Israeli policy.

“When we decided to not be all on one side, when we speak of these issues not behind closed doors or in the pages of the Jewish Week, we have said there is no longer a consensus among the Jewish people,” said Kurtzer, who has a doctorate in Jewish studies from Harvard University.

Part of the turmoil can be attributed to something previously unknown to Jews: the unprecedented full acceptance in a society that modern American Jews enjoy, said Kurtzer. “We’re living at a moment when we have seen the two greatest successes the Jewish people have ever had,” he said. The establishment of Israel was accompanied by the development of a successful, comfortable, and influential Jewish community in America. 

“There is something about power and influence in a society that not only accepts you, but where it is considered desirable to marry a Jew and where Jews have penetrated every aspect of society,” he said. 

“Part of the conflict involves two different success stories in two different parts of the world,” said Kurtzer, whose Shalom Hartman Institute runs educational programs in the United States that address feelings of disenchantment and apathy toward Israel. 

One solution to the family conflict is seen in the Bible, he said. When herdsmen working for Abraham and his nephew Lot quarreled, Lot left Canaan to live in the Jordan plain so as not to create conflict among kinsmen.

“The implicit message is sometimes it’s best to part ways to preserve relations with family,” said Kurtzer. “You live in the place you need to live, and I’ll live in the place I need to live. Maybe Jews are supposed to live in different places.”

Politics too has strained relations between American Jews and Israel, and between Judaism and Zionism.

“What happens when these two identities are inconsistent? What happens when Netanyahu comes to speak to Congress, and my loyalty to Israel is in conflict with my loyalty to America?” he asked. “Can we remove pluralism from the whole conversation of peoplehood?” 

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