Analysis: The US-Israeli Jewish Gap

A well-known sociologist states: If in 1948 the Israeli-American Jewish relationship was one of half brothers/first cousins, we have now become third cousins and have to deal with that fact.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen,

Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

There is an irreversible, growing gap between the Israeli and American Jewish communities. They are slowly drifting apart like two glaciers at the North Pole, separated by the effects of global warming, even though a terrible event such as the kidnapping of three teens in Israel last week leads to the impression of unity for a time.

The historical experiences of the last 66 years are making the American Jewish community more liberal and universalistic in its social and ideological make-up, exactly when the Israeli community is becoming more religiously orthodox and nationalistic.  Both communities find it increasingly difficult to understand the needs, insecurities and hopes of the other. These trends will only become more pronounced in the near future. The partnership that was cannot continue, and must be dramatically redefined.

This article details some of the socio-historical causes for this growing gap, and suggests how the two communities can redefine their relationship

The article concludes by recommending that

1) Both sides should accept the irreversible reality of the growing differences

2) They should therefor  cease trying to remake the other community in one's own image.

3) American Jews must stop lecturing Israel that if only it  would become more democratic and pluralistic it would solve its internal and international problems

4) Israel must adjust to diminishing American Jewish support, and begin to construct an alternative geopolitical strategy.

5) Both sides should try locate and work on the remaining, modest areas of overlapping values and mutual concerns 

6) Both should support their overseas Jewish socio-political counterparts.                      

The growing socio-historical disparity between these two communities can be compared to family relationships that in 1948, with Israel's founding, were similar to those of two first cousins, but evolved over three generations to become like a relationship of third cousins. And third cousins can simply not expect from each other the same degree of mutual understanding and support that first cousins expect.

Why have we become third cousins? Simply because the historical experiences of the two communities have been so different. As with individuals, different life experiences create different patterns of relating to reality. In 1948, when the Ben-Gurion Mapai leadership met the American Jewish leadership it was literally like a reunion of two half brothers/first cousins  from the same East European shtetl. They shared the same Yiddish humor, Eastern European food, and the same secular, social democratic outlook.

And, maybe most important, they shared a similar sense of Jewish peoplehood, recently reinforced by the loss of six million close brethren. But since this 1948 highpoint of a sense of mutual destiny, we are slowly growing different. Not because of good or bad socio-political leadership, but simply because both communities have undergone radically different historical experiences.

Post 1948 historical experiences have caused American Jewry to define their Judaism much less in a sense of historical peoplehood, and more in a sense of self identity and self identification with liberal, universal values. They have become the highest earning, highest educated minority group in America. They have assimilated into every corner of American society (the concept 'minority group' is probably no longer relevant). They strongly identified and contributed to the 60's civil rights and anti Vietnam War movements. Few Jews volunteered to serve in the US Armed forces. They have played prominent roles in the feminist and gay movements.  

These sociological trends are summarized in the old, still true aphorism that says "[American] Jews earn like WASPS, (upper middle class life style) but vote like Blacks (have a very liberal political outlook)"

And finally we have to note the 'elephant in the American Jewish living room', that of a sixty plus percent rate of intermarriage. The consequences of intermarriage are undeniable. Assimilation causes intermarriage, and intermarriage hastens assimilation. Basing a sense of Judaism on a historical sense of peoplehood is no longer meaningful when non-Jews are an integral part of family and community life. An alternative sense of Judaism must be developed, and American Jews have done so over the last 66 years by defining Judaism as 'Jewish heritage experiences' that enhance self identity, and by equating Judaism with liberal, universal social values.

Meanwhile across two seas and continents, the Israeli Jewish historical experience has created a very strong sense of peoplehood, and has created an increasingly vibrant and influential orthodox religious community. This strong sense of peoplehood has been forged by three core experiences, all of which are virtually unknown to, and not experienced by, the American Jewish community.

1) Israel has experienced sixty-six years of ongoing military threat and conflict with its Arab neighbors. Almost every Israeli Jewish family has personally experienced army service, war and terrorism, experiences unknown to the average Jewish American family.

2) Israel has been built by incorporating three massive waves of immigration:

    a) the emigration of post holocaust European survivors (1945-l955);

    b) Jews emigrating from Arab lands (1950-65) and

    c)the immigration of Russian-USSR Jewry (l972-78, l990-2005).

With each wave of immigration, the internal fabric of Israeli society underwent dislocation and rejuvenation.

3) Third, a sense of peoplehood has been enhanced because Israel has been engaged in a non-stop process of nation building. The average Israeli Jew sees in his lifetime his state being literally transformed in front of his eyes. Settlements, and educational and economic infrastructure literally rise out of nowhere, and he feels inner pride and ownership (along with caustic criticism).

These three core Israeli experiences act to create a drama of historical peoplehood, a sense that the average Israeli feels that "I am a real Jewish actor on a real historical stage", a sense rarely experienced by the average American Jew.

Finally, this sense of people hood has taken on a particular conservative-nationalistic-religious character (relative to the American Jewish experience) because

1)the holocaust survivors brought with them a deep distrust of the non-Jewish world, and the holocaust continues to be a dominant element in the Israeli national consciousness

2)the immigrants from Arab countries also brought a thousand year memory of minority group persecution, and a  lack of two hundred year exposure to European intellectual (liberal) secularity

3) Russian Jewish immigrants, having a higher level of Jewish nationalistic identity-self, selectively chose to come to Israel (while those with a weaker Jewish identity chose America and Europe). Russian Jewish immigrants also brought with them the Russian political conviction that raw power is the decisive factor in geo political conflict.

4) Finally religious orthodoxy has flourished and become influential because of both governmental regulation and funding of religious schools, and for demographic reasons (the religious birthrate is over twice that of the secular and over 50% of first graders learn in religious schools). But the core reason is that when you are the majority in your own society religious observance is easier (kashrut is widespread; the Sabbath is an official day of rest) has less stigma, and is simply more enjoyable.

Certain sociologists may disagree whether this Israeli conservative, nationalistic character is reversible or not, but all agree that the country will become in the future increasingly religiously orthodox in the private realm (if only for demographic reasons) , with inevitable repercussions for the public realm.

This relatively obvious, non controversial analysis of the historical disparity between both communities has ben ignored on both sides of the ocean because of vested interests in refusing to see that the status quo is 'a king with no clothes'. The liberal American leadership does not want to confront reality because it gets self righteous enjoyment berating Israeli's right wing for being "primitive, non-enlightened, and totally non-politically correct". They are comforted by the delusion that 'just over the horizon, and just around the corner' an electoral near miracle will occur, and a fitting disciple of Ben Gurion-Rabin-Peres will waive his political wand, and Israel will sociologically revert itself to its pristine, pre 1977, pre-Begin, pre-Likud state.

Similarly the Israeli political establishment is scared to face the inevitable loss of a considerable part of American Jewry's support over the next twenty years, and is scared to start doing the very challenging homework of creating an innovative geopolitical infrastructure that will allow Israel to operate in the international arena without the guaranteed support of its American 'sugar daddy'.

But, after all these trends are considered, we still remain third cousins, and there is much opportunity for mutual projects and cooperation even between third cousins. Even with all the disparity, American Jews, in another twenty years, will still not relate to the state of Israel, and even to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, in the same way that they relate to other international, regional conflicts.

This article now suggests three dimensions for redefining the American-Israeli Jewish relationship, and establishing realistic areas of cooperation.

First, we must all take a deep breath and very openly and non-defensively acknowledge, and emotionally accept, the real, and even growing differences between the communities. Such emotional acceptance of the difference of the other will then become the basis for the first critical step of redefining the relationship, that of resolving not to try to remake the other in one's own image.

Second, we can locate modest areas where there are still overlapping areas of common concerns and shared values. In terms of shared values, the Israeli Jewish leadership, for example, should acknowledge that it can  further its internal political stability by learning from the American Jewish community the socio-political skills of promoting pluralism, social tolerance, and safeguarding minority rights.  Similarly, the American Jewish community 'should give Israel credit' for the elements of liberalism that are an integral part of our social-political fabric. They should happily acknowledge that although we may not get a very high score on the American liberal scale of political correctness, our score is still much higher than that of our regional neighbors with whom we are still locked in a life and death geopolitical struggle.  

In addition to these modest areas of shared values, both sides should be happy to acknowledge a limited responsibility for the welfare of the other community. For example, Israel can contribute to the enrichment of Jewish education in America if they accept the leadership and codes of the local American leadership

Third, in addition to a modest redefining of shared values and concerns, the Israeli and American leadership should give priority to strengthening bonds with their overseas, ideological counterpart. This is already happening. There is an ever increasing arts and academic sharing between American and Israel liberal communities. At the opposite end, there is much support and interchange between American and Israeli Orthodox communities, particularly in the educational realm. And there is also growing interchange between the  American and Israel political conservative establishment, the shining example of this being Sheldon Adelson's intervention in American presidential politics, and his owning of two of Israel's right-leaning newspapers.

In sum:, very real and current historical processes are creating a growing, irreversible gap between the American and Israeli Jewish communities. The American community is becoming more liberal and universal in its outlook, while Israel is gradually becoming more nationalistic and religiously orthodox. If in 1948 the Israeli-American Jewish relationship was one of half brothers/first cousins, we have now become third cousins. It is thus imperative that both leaderships accept the realistic differences of the other, and cease trying to remake the other in their own image. Similarly they must locate modest, but still remaining, areas of shared values and concerns, and independently act to support their overseas socio-political counterparts.