Israel and the Diaspora: A Growing, Difficult Bridge to Gap
By Uriel Heilman
As the tour bus wound its way through Haifa's narrow streets, dodging traffic and groaning its way up Mount Carmel, many of the young passengers inside chatted away while taking in the sights and enjoying the ride.
Most were students from the University of Wisconsin on a 10-day tour of the country sponsored by Taglit-Birthright Israel, which provides free trips to Israel for 18-to-26-year-old Diaspora Jews.
Scattered among the Americans was a handful of quieter passengers—Israelis of roughly the same age who had joined the tour that morning. Though seemingly bound by common interests—the trip was environmentally themed and the young Israelis were environmental activists—it took awhile for the Midwesterners and Mideasterners to connect.
The Americans came from a world of fraternity parties, spring-break ski trips, and final exams. The Israelis were either still in the army or fresh out of their compulsory military service—more accustomed to hunkering down in body armor at checkpoints in the West Bank than hosting keg parties.
But soon the Americans and Israelis discovered common interests: the British rock band Coldplay; their Web pages on the online social networking sites Facebook and MySpace; and who would win "American Idol."
By the end of the tour, the Americans and Israelis had exchanged email addresses, phone numbers, and more than a few reciprocal invitations.
In an era of rising concerns about the future of Diaspora-Israel relations, these sorts of exchanges warm the hearts of Jewish organizational officials.
"The young generation in Israel and the young generation in America are much closer to each other than the old generations," says Ofer Gutman, executive director in North America of the Hagshama department, the youth leadership arm of the World Zionist Organization. "Israel is much more of a Western country than it used to be. Everyone is on Facebook and the Internet, and almost all Israelis speak English."
This Israel-Diaspora youth connection is a far cry from the way things were a couple of generations ago, Gutman says; then the gap between Westernized America and still-developing Israel was far more significant. Israeli youths were more concerned about the next war than the latest hit TV show, and there didn't yet exist the technology and globalized pop culture that today connects young people worldwide.
But one key element was much more prevalent among the Diaspora Jews of yesteryear than it is among young American Jews today: widespread devotion to Israel's future.
Today, strong connections to Israel like those expressed by Birthright alumni are the exception among American Jews. This is a consequence both of a changed Israel and the changing face of Jewry in the United States, which is home to some 80 percent of Diaspora Jews.
"The government and the Jewish Agency face a great challenge in strengthening the connection and the commitment to the State of Israel" of Diaspora Jewry, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Zeev Bielski, told an Israeli Cabinet meeting last October. "The gap is widening, I think," Bielski added in an interview with B'nai B'rith Magazine.
Israel is no longer the universal unifier it was in the Jewish state's early years, when she was seen as the David of the Middle East, rather than its Goliath. Then, the experiences of the Holocaust and Israel's subsequent establishment were fresh in the minds of Jews worldwide.
Today's young Jews do not have personal memories of Israel's founding and, rather than being raised with appreciation for the Jewish state, many grow up hearing constant criticism of Israel—on the news, in their communities, and, in some cases, at home.
Some call these Jews the post-1967 generation: Jews who came of age after the Six-Day War. Rather than seeing Israel in the headlines for positive things—building a Jewish state from scratch; being a haven for persecuted Jews; and restoring Jewish reign to the Holy Land—these Jews see Israel in the headlines for her refusal to recognize Reform conversions; instances of government corruption; and military actions in Palestinian-populated territories.
These post-1967 Jews will continue to constitute an ever-larger proportion of the American Jewish community, with consequences for the Israel-Diaspora relationship. Older American Jews with strong Zionist sentiments and warm memories of a fledgling Israel are aging and dying, replaced by younger Jews who are less interested in or devoted to Israel.
Perhaps just as importantly, U.S. Jews' own fading Jewish identity, widely noted by demographers and Jewish community professionals, is sapping American Jewish connections to Israel.
"Both communities are drawing apart from one another," says Alan Schneider, director of the B'nai B'rith World Center in Jerusalem. "This is somewhat paradoxical, since modern technology—particularly the media and the Internet—allows so many easy opportunities for exposure to different Jewish communities. That should help us to draw closer."
Survey after survey shows that Diaspora Jews—in particular the younger generation of American Jews—feel increasingly distant from the Jewish state.
Fewer than half of those under age 35 polled in the American Jewish Committee's 2007 National Survey of American Jews said that "Israel's destruction would be a personal tragedy," compared to 78 percent of those over age 65. Just 54 percent of those under age 35 said they were comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state, compared to 74 percent of those in the 50-64 age group, and 81 percent of those 65 or older.
The percentage of American Jews identifying as "very emotionally attached" to Israel in a 2004 study by the Jewish Agency found a decline of nearly 20 percent compared with two years earlier. The same survey found similar declines between 2002 and 2004 in contributions by American Jews to Israel-related charities and attendance by American Jews in Israel-related programs.
And the ultimate Diaspora Jewish commitment to Israel—aliyah—is becoming an increasingly harder sell, the Jewish Agency recently acknowledged.
Studies and anecdotal evidence suggest Israeli Jews, too, both in Israel and the Diaspora, are growing farther apart from Diaspora Jews.
A survey published this spring by Israel's Bar-Ilan University showed that only 2 percent of expatriate Israelis living in Britain and France see themselves and local Jews as belonging to the same community. Fewer than half the expatriate Israelis surveyed in the study said they were involved in local Jewish communities.
The question of how to address the gap between Diaspora Jews and Israel is viewed with urgency on both sides of the divide.
Israelis need Diaspora Jewish political and financial support. Jews who are passionate about Israel fuel backing in Washington, energizing the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other groups such as B'nai B'rith International (BBI).
Without AIPAC, B'nai B'rith, and other Jewish organizations, Israel would have a much harder time building support and making friends in Congress and the White House. The passion of these Diaspora Jews helps keep the United States Israel's staunchest ally.
Aside from the $2.5 billion in annual U.S. defense aid that American Jews help ensure goes to Israel every year, they also support Israel's schools, hospitals, old-age homes, bomb shelters, community development programs, museums, and soldiers' welfare.
Diaspora Jews are Israel's stalwart defenders on campuses, in communities, and in the media. Israel needs Jewish students to organize events on campus; relies on pro-Israel groups like The Israel Project, BBI, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), and Honest Reporting to respond to media bias against Israel; and looks to figures like Alan Dershowitz to pen books like The Case for Israel to counter the demonization of Israel.
Israel also relies on Diaspora groups to press Israel's case with world leaders.
BBI representatives often play that role at the United Nations, where B'nai B'rith is one of a few non-governmental organizations accredited to participate in U.N. bodies, including the anti-Israel U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
But with a younger generation of American Jews increasingly disaffected from Israel, American-Jewish support for Israel appears to be falling, not rising.
Increasingly at college campuses across North America, anti-Israel activity is going unchallenged. Sometimes it is Jewish students and professors who are behind the demonstrations, petition drives, and lecture programs that castigate Israel (see related story, p. 12).
"There is a concern at the rise of Diaspora Jewish anti-Zionist activity," Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, acknowledged at a recent Jerusalem conference.
Hoffman also pointed to Orthodox dominance of religion in Israel as a cause for increasing Diaspora Jewish disaffection with the Jewish state.
"A state monopoly on religion in Israel is emerging as a major impediment for Diaspora-Israel relations, the Jewish identity of Israelis, and aliyah," Hoffman says.
Why American Jews Need Israel
Demographer Steven M. Cohen, a professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, says there is a more influential factor contributing to the decline in Diaspora Jewish connections to Israel: assimilation.
It's not clear active American Jews are less supportive of Israel than in previous generations, Cohen says, but it is clear that active Jews in the Diaspora are declining, thanks to—among other things—intermarriage and assimilation. That affects Diaspora Jewish support for Israel.
"Intermarriage [reduces] the number of active Jews," says Cohen.
Cohen's hypothesis holds true when applied to Orthodox Jews. Least prone to assimilation, U.S. Orthodox Jews have the strongest connections to Israel of any denominational group and are the most Jewishly active, as measured by affiliation, education, practice, and other indices.
American Orthodox Jews commonly have family members in Israel and represent the majority of immigrants to Israel from North America. Israelis and Americans attend post-high-school yeshiva programs in Israel together, and hundreds of Israeli Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidim travel to Brooklyn every year to study at Lubavitch world headquarters.
Cohen suggests the cure for both declining Jewish activity among Diaspora Jews and falling Diaspora support for Israel is the same: visiting Israel. "It's all about travel to Israel—almost nothing else matters," Cohen says.
"The most active Jews on campus today—the ones who do the Israel activities—are people who went to Israel through programs like Birthright and Masa. They are very different than people who never went," says Gutman of the World Zionist Organization. Masa offers grants of up to $10,000 to Diaspora Jews ages 18 to 30 to participate in long-term volunteer and educational programs.
Diaspora Jews need Israel to ignite their Jewish passion. As American Jews grow farther away from their Jewish roots—marrying out of the faith; cutting back on their Jewish education; and moving away from the synagogue—Israel is one of the things that can bring them back.
Nearly every Israeli or Jewish professional who works on Israel-experience trips for American Jews can attest to the power of the Israel visit to light the spark of Jewish passion.
Gutman constantly sees this on U.S. campuses. Before the advent of Birthright Israel, which over the last seven years has brought about 160,000 young Jews to Israel, Zionist activities on many U.S. college campuses struggled for participants, Gutman says.
There are several other reasons Diaspora Jews need Israel. Israel is the protector of Jewish holy places. Many of these places were inaccessible to Jews only 40 or 60 years ago. Israel also provides a haven for Jews around the world. Though the vast majority of Diaspora Jews today live free of persecution—religious, political, economic, or otherwise—the Jewish state remains the birthright of every Jew.
Perhaps most importantly of all, devotion to Israel is a Jewish value in and of itself.
"Jews should care about Israel. It's part of being Jewish," Cohen says. "It's axiomatic."
Not all Diaspora Jews think that way, but they should, says Lance Simon, who organizes youth Israel activities at Congregation Adat Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Bethesda, Md.
"Can we be Jewish without a connection to Israel?" he asks. "The answer has to be that, in order to be fully Jewish, you must understand your connection to the people and the land and the state of Israel. That has got to be part of your spiritual practice."
Strategies for Bridging the Gaps
If the gap between Israel and Diaspora Jews is indeed growing, how can it be bridged?
The answers, Cohen says, are obvious: Bring Diaspora Jews to Israel, and boost Diaspora Jewish identity and activity.
Since the jolt wrought by the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which showed the U.S. Jewish intermarriage rate at 52 percent (a figure that since has been disputed), there has been no shortage of new programs to boost American Jewish identity, education, and affiliation.
But Jewish communal organizations have struggled to bring these programs to unaffiliated Jews.
"Studies may clearly show that young American Jews feel less closely affiliated with Israel than their grandparents and parents, but Israel-experience programs—which have had a renaissance in recent years—could help turn this tide back from the brink," says B'nai B'rith's Schneider.
Follow-up is key to making sure young Americans remain engaged with Israel and Judaism, Gutman says.
"A 10-day trip, which is an amazing experience, fades out if you don't grow that connection when the participants come back," he says. "If it's to be more than a unique experience, if it's going to be an ongoing connection, then we have to encourage these people to go to long-term programs in Israel, to be involved in the Jewish community, to do Israel activism in America."
Building on the successful model of Birthright, in 2004 the Israeli government and Jewish Agency launched Masa. Since then, the program has subsidized the enrollment of more than 7,800 Diaspora Jews in long-term programs in Israel.
Talk of boosting Diaspora-Israel connections has begun to take on a fevered pitch.
Last summer, Jewish leaders from Israel and the Diaspora met in Jerusalem, under the auspices of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, to discuss ways to enhance Diaspora-Israel ties. Their suggestions ranged from the political to the linguistic.
One working group recommended that the Israeli government overhaul its public relations to improve Israel's image overseas and make it more "likeable" for American Jews. Some Diaspora Jewish leaders called on Israel to soften policies American Jews find alienating, such as the government's opposition to accepting non-Orthodox conversions performed abroad, and encouraged Israeli leaders to view themselves as responsible for the entire Jewish world.
"There is a thirst in the Diaspora to be heard by the government of Israel," said Hoffman, a participant at the conference.
Another working group called on Diaspora Jewish leaders to learn Hebrew, which participants agreed should be the lingua franca of the Jewish world.
Conference participants also focused on bolstering Jews' connections to Israel through existing programs at Jewish educational institutions: schools, camps, youth movements, adult education programs, and Israel-experience programs.
Yehezkel Dror, the president of the Policy Planning Institute, a nonprofit, independent Israeli think tank, said at a subsequent conference in Herzliya in January that the Israel-Diaspora relationship is a "painful one" and "becoming increasingly distant."
In May, in conjunction with the institute, Israeli President Shimon Peres hosted similar discussions as part of his gala Jewish world conference for Israel's 60th birthday, titled "Facing Tomorrow."
When a group of rabbis and synagogue educators met in Israel in February for a five-day seminar on the subject, they discussed bringing Israeli culture into synagogues with music, film, and literature, and orchestrating encounters between Diaspora Jews and Israelis.
Adat Shalom's Simon, who attended the seminar, which was organized by the Jewish Agency's Makom institute, says synagogues must consciously promote Israel in their programming.
"At our shul, we're pretty conscious about being connected to Israel—we even have an Israel connection committee," he says. The group hosts Israel movie nights, brings Israeli figures to speak at the synagogue, has an Israeli wine club, and integrates Israel into Shabbat services however possible.
One delegation from a St. Louis synagogue discussed organizing an educational trip for Reform synagogue religious school teachers; hosting Israeli teens as guests on youth retreats; hanging signs in their synagogue in Hebrew and English; and even using Jerusalem limestone in a planned synagogue renovation.
"It's multifaceted," says Simon. "It's not easy. It takes time. It's no one thing. It's a multidimensional assault on ignorance of Israel. It's cross-generational and it's going to take years."
Efforts in Israel
While Diaspora Jewish leaders wring their hands about how to bring Jews closer to Israel, there is also discussion—albeit less—about how to bring Israeli Jews closer to the Diaspora.
Diaspora Jews are not on the radar screen of most Israeli Jews. In Israeli schools, students are taught about pre-Nazi Polish Jewish communities, Arab Jews who found safe haven in Israel, and the Ethiopian Jewish exodus, but they spend almost no time on present-day Diaspora Jewry—and ignore almost entirely the other pole of the contemporary Jewish world: U.S. Jewry.
Some Israelis have no problem with this. When, two years ago, Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua told an audience of American Jews that "only those living in Israel and taking part in the daily decisions of the Jewish state have a significant Jewish identity," he was expressing a view held by many Israelis.
"There is utter mutual incomprehension by the Israeli and Diaspora communities about what it means to be Jewish," J.J. Goldberg, editorial director of the Forward newspaper, said last year at a conference in Jerusalem on the future of the Jewish people. "We stare across an abyss."
But Israelis involved in Diaspora Jewish activities say Israelis have a lot to learn about Jewish identity problems.
"Assimilation, intermarriage, non-affiliation—it is a problem both in Israel and the Diaspora," former Israeli education minister Aharon Yadlin said at that conference.
"We have to educate the Israelis about Jews in the Diaspora—half of our people [are] living in Israel, and half [are] living elsewhere," says the Jewish Agency's Bielski. "We have to educate our young generation in Israel that our second half is not with us physically."
Gutman says teaching Israelis about Diaspora Judaism often opens up avenues for Israelis to explore their own Jewish identity.
"A lot of Israelis can learn from affiliated Jews how to live a Jewish life," Gutman says. "A lot of Israelis take their Jewish identity for granted, [but] in the Diaspora, a Jew has to wake up and choose every day to be a Jew. On that issue, the Israelis have a lot to learn."
If American Jews are turned off by Orthodox dominance of religion in Israel, so are many Israeli Jews. Encountering pluralistic American Judaism can bring them back to engagement with their faith.
"In Israel, there's secular and there's religious. It's black and white," Gutman says. In the United States, "it's more gray—actually, it's many colors."
Gutman notes that Birthright has bolstered not only the Jewish activity of American Jews, but also the Jewish identity of the Israeli Jews who participate.
Far fewer programs bring Israelis to Diaspora Jewish communities, but the Jewish Agency sends Israeli emissaries all over the world to strengthen Jewish life overseas, and some 1,400 Israelis go to more than 200 American Jewish summer camps every year to be counselors.
Like some American Jews who go to Israel, some Israeli Jews are profoundly affected by their experiences in the Diaspora.
Gutman, who is wrapping up a four-year stint as an Israeli emissary in the United States and will return to Israel in the summer, counts himself among them. He says his time in the United States has opened his eyes to ways of being Jewish he never knew existed.
This leads some people to ask him why he is going back. They tell him he can make more money in the United States, buy a bigger house, and have more choices.
Gutman smiles and silences them with a wave of his hand.
"This is not my film; I'm just a viewer," he says. "In Israel, I can be the producer, the director, the star. This place is not a part of me.
"Of course I am going back home," he says. "I am a Zionist."