I recently asked an Israeli friend why he felt it was important for Jews outside of Israel to have a Jewish identity. His response was that no matter how good it is for Jews in any country in the world, there may come a day when they are told that they don?t belong–that they are not welcome in their ?home? countries any longer. His answer is clearly rooted in our collective history as a people, and is indeed one of the primary justifications for Zionism. But this answer is not enough, I told him, for there must be a positive reason that we identify ourselves as Jews, not just because one day our neighbors may beat us to it in a less than pleasant way. The reality is that people, no matter how cosmopolitan, still need to feel a sense of belonging. What we belong to is the Jewish people.
For my parents and their generation support for Israel was axiomatic. They were born before Israel existed and well remembered the tenuousness of Jewish existence in the years before Israel?s birth. That generation understood Israel?s importance, not only for the Jews living over there, but for the Jews here as well. It was only a strong Israel, they believed, that guaranteed the survival of the Jewish people as a whole in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
For my generation, the heroic Israel that my parents identified with no longer existed. While they had the War of Independence and the ingathering of the exiles, we had the Lebanon War and ?Zionism is racism.? But we didn?t need Israel?s achievements to strengthen our sense of belonging; the anti-Semitism that my parents and their parents knew ?the white shoe firms and the restricted clubs were not part of our American experience.
As time passed, many American Jews became more American and less Jewish. Israel remained important of course, but only insofar as it served as a place of refuge for ?other? Jews ? like those from the former Soviet Union or Ethiopia. Zionism, by the American definition, was not so much a movement designed to restore Jews to their ancient homeland, but rather another cause with which they were involved ? some more so, some less so. Jewish American children, by and large, were not (and are not) encouraged to consider aliya as the ultimate expression of Zionism. We were raised to think that a good Zionist was a Jew who donated money to another Jew so a third Jew could immigrate to Israel, and why shouldn?t we have been? We weren?t strangers in America. This was our home. We were fully accepted into the larger society and many of us had no real understanding of Israel, only that it was a far away place, awash in problems and increasingly a source of controversy as the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza became more and more unrealistic.
Today, it seems that Israelis and American Jews share little common ground, yet our fates remain intertwined. Israeli policies have a direct impact on the security of Jews around the world, as many of Israel?s enemies do not distinguish between Israelis and Jews. But secular Israelis and secular American Jews actually have much in common ? we share the age-old Jewish value of education and have embraced the positive aspects of Western civilization ? a belief in democracy, respect for the individual and a hope for a better future. Moreover, we are both often the silent majorities within our respective Jewish communities. For too long, Israeli settlers have bullied governments into supporting a misguided policy in the West Bank and Gaza. Whenever the status quo was endangered, they threatened civil war or anarchy. The settlers? amen corner on the American Jewish right supported these actions by threatening to withhold political support. This tag team approach worked beautifully because there has been no countering pro-peace alliance of American and Israeli Jews. Indeed, religious Jews have a natural advantage, as they share a common language, rituals and beliefs, no matter what country they live in.
The withdrawal from Gaza proved that the fanatic minority can be defeated when stood up to by the majority. This lesson must be remembered as Israel girds itself for what will likely be the most important struggle in its history ? the disengagement from the West Bank. It is up to the secular majority in Israel to ensure that the Gaza withdrawal is the first step toward a comprehensive peace with all of its neighbors and the emergence of a viable Palestinian state. American Jews have a vital role to play in this struggle as well, and this role can be enhanced by strengthening the ties between like-minded Jews in America and Israel.
Links between liberal, secular Israeli and American Jews can be strengthened through increased contacts between the two communities. Unfortunately, the Reform and Conservative movements are relatively small in Israel and do not provide adequate forums to stage these contacts. Israeli Organizations like the Scouts (Tsofim) and other youth movements, schools and universities can play a role by promoting more exchange and educational programs for young Israelis and Americans. Programs such as Birthright Israel are important, but they fail to provide Americans with ?real? Israel experiences. There is no substitute for true exchange programs whereby Americans would live with Israeli families and Israelis would live with American families.
In America, Jewish organizations, youth movements and camps must do a better job at reaching out to unaffiliated American Jews. It is up to these liberal, American Jewish organizations to be at the forefront of the creation of a secular, Jewish identity, based on Jewish and universal values, the promotion of the Hebrew language and the centrality of Israel. Only thus will the American Jewish community begin producing a new generation of committed Jews who will be able to assist Israel reach its potential and truly become the moral, cultural and spiritual home for all of the Jewish people.