Bittersweet Impressions from a USA Lecture Tour
Bittersweet Impressions from a USA Lecture Tour

Over the past seven years, I have been going on lecture tours of the United States and Canada during the January-February university intersession. I speak at academic institutions, and at Jewish, Christian and Muslim organizations, appear on the media and meet with politicians. I have had the privilege of giving a talk on Capitol Hill to the key advisors of US Senators and Congressmen.  

This year, despite the hard winter that hit North America, I did my annual lecture tour. From a personal perspective, I felt comfortable at every venue in which I spoke, and my words on the Middle East were listened to with open minds both by traditional and Orthodox Jews and by liberal and secular ones, by Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. Except that this time I listened as well as spoke, learned as well as lectured.

The impression I received this year is that the American public – not just the Jews – are split along the line of Obama supporters and detractors, as never before. To tell the truth, I had never heard such sharp expressions as those used to describe Obama, nor, in contrast, such warm expressions concerning him .  Most striking this year was the attitude – of both supporters and detractors – towards the president on a personal level. In the past, I remember people relating to the government, but now they relate to the president himself.

This split is especially noticeable among the Jews, on the backdrop of the situation being played out within America - Obamacare and the economy, Obama's attitude towards Israel and in particular, to Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Starting in January, as soon as Netanyahu announced his intention to speak in front of Congress, and following the subsequent negative reaction from the White House, people began arguing vociferously about whether Netanyahu should  - must? - warn Congress of the impending danger to Israel, America and Europe from Iran or whether he should obey the American president and remain at home.

However, the controversy is not limited to Netanyahu's speech, it is much broader than that.  The Left liberal groups who attended my lectures made no secret of their hopes of unseating Netanyahu and gave me the impression that they had a hard time identifying with an Israel governed by the Right. The events of  last summer's Protective  Edge operation in Gaza only made those feelings more extreme. On the other hand, traditional audiences had a hard time accepting the possibility that Israel would submit to White House pressures on so many issues and wanted the operation to end with Hamas forced to leave Gaza.

The split among American Jewry is all the more pronounced when the relevant statistics are taken into account: most Jews (78%) voted for Obama in 2008 and somewhat less (70%) in 2012. They provided significant funding for his campaign. Jews who opposed Obama told me things like "I can sort

I actually met someone who was an important figure in his congregation and who severed all social ties with anyone who voted Obama this time around. But I also met Jews who see him as the Messiah and the best thing that ever happened to America and Israel.
of understand those who voted for him the first time because of the tradition that Jews  vote for the Democratic Party, but a second time?" I actually met someone who was an important figure in his congregation and who severed all social ties with anyone who voted Obama this time around. But I also met Jews who see him as the Messiah and the best thing that ever happened to America and Israel. 

Another factor widening the breach in the American Jewish community is the work of liberal Jewish organizations like J Street, Friends of Peace Now and student groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine., all of whom spread an obviously anti Israel message although it is concealed by pro-peace rhetoric.

Bitter arguments rack American Jewry, on the question of whether these groups should be allowed to join nationwide umbrella organizations such as the Conference of American Presidents, whether they should be allowed to participate in pro-Israel public events and whether they can be hosted at Hillel houses on campuses.

Nevertheless, all the Jews I met are concerned about Jewish students on US campuses because these young men and women are forced to contend with waves of anti-Semitism in combination with anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism, that sometimes spill over into verbal violence and strike fear into the hearts of Jewish students. Modern American Judaism finds itself facing a tough dilemma: Jewish parents want their children to attain the best possible higher education, preferably in Ivy League colleges, but perversely, those prestigious institutions have the most pervasive and problematic  anti-Jewish, anti-Zionist and anti-Israel atmospheres. Parents secretly worry that their offspring will not be able to take the hatred, will succumb, suffer psychological damage and then join the other side, raising their hands against Israel and Zionism - and in the long run, turning their backs on Judaism.

This brings us to a massive problem that is rarely brought up, the intermarriage phenomenon that has reached alarming proportions and is directly connected to religious levels. Surveys show a very slight rate of intermarriage among the Orthodox, and up to 70% intermarriage in other Jewish populations, especially those not members of an established Jewish organization. If there is one thing worrying Jewish congregations, it is that American "melting pot" that has cut off most immigrants to the United States from their country of origin's culture and turned them into one people - more or less - with several known ethnic-based exceptions. One generation ago, American Jews were estimated to be about six million strong, but today there are those who say there are only four million and others who claim there are even less.

One of the reasons for intermarriage among Jews is the challenge to inculcate Jewish values and the desire to remain Jewish to the younger generation. It is easier to do that in Orthodox congregations, where it is clear that children are to be sent to Jewish day schools, even if the cost is prohibitive. In the New York area, parents have to pay between $15-30,000 a year for a child in a Jewish school. The American government does not subsidize Jewish schools for the most part, even if the costs are administrative or derive from secular studies. One of my friends said to me with a bitter smile: "Tuition in Jewish schools is the most effective birth control method there is for Jewish families."

Non-Orthodox groups send their children to public school and some elect to send them to Sunday School to learn about Judaism, usually at the local synagogue, but it is far from sure that this gives them enough connection to Judaism to wish to be part of the Jewish people and its traditions. Personally, I think American Jewry should stop funding Israel and invest their donations in making Jewish education cheaper so that young families will be able to send their children to Jewish schools. Israel's economic situation is such that it can survive without these contributions, and investing in Jewish education in the US will benefit Israel more in the long run. 

In this context, one cannot but mention Chabad hassidim. Their "shluchim" (emissaries) open Chabad chapters everywhere, including the most far-off places - all this to be able to keep people who would never enter any synagogue, including a Reform one, connected. They are carrying out a crucial mission and keeping the spark of Judaism alive in places where there is no other Jewish alternative. They are open to every Jew, even if he drives up on Shabbat, and some of them do not ask those participating in services whom their spouse is. However, the "shluchim" are criticized when they attract people in an area where there is already a Jewish place of worship (Orthodox, Conservative or Reform)  which could be getting membership fees from these individuals. This criticism is especially loud in areas where the synagogues face financial difficulty.

I will end with a bittersweet joke I heard in California. Once the answer to "Who is a Jew'" was: someone whose mother is Jewish or who had a halkhic conversion. Today the answer is "someone whose grandchildren are Jewish." This joke reflects the true situation among American Jews.

Everyone knows, without question, that whoever gives Israel a role in his family life, encouraging interest and admiration for the Jewish State, has a much better chance of having Jewish grandchildren than someone who rejects Israel and Zionism. Whoever  teaches his children that Israel - which is in a fight for survival - is not his cup of cultural tea, causes his children to turn their back on Israel and later on to Judaism  Whether one likes it or not, supporting Israel is a defining characteristic of American Jewry, except for the haredim.

Once we thought that Israel depended on American Jewry. In the future, and perhaps already in the present, the continuity of American Jewry depends on Israel and identification with Israel. Liberal American Jews find this difficult to accept, but it is becoming clearer and clearer that this is the truth. One can generalize and say that to stay Jewish, one must identify with Israel. Those who cut themselves off from the Jewish state will find that their families will cut themselves off from Jewish continuity.

Why am I generalizing? The truth is that on my travels, I met several liberal communities who established very activist organizations which support Israel, and met not a few Jews, men and women, who do not lead an Orthodox lifestyle but are staunchly pro-Israel and devote their time, energy and money to strengthening the security and welfare of the Jewish State. Some of them have non-Jewish partners, some are not Jewish at all. America is a complex country and stereotypes are not always accurate.

Written in Hebrew for Arutz Sheva, translated by Rochel Sylvetsky