Last week’s General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in Los Angeles was organized as a show of solidarity with Israel in the wake of the last summer’s war in Lebanon. The solidarity, however, is wearing thin, and if my own experiences last week are any indication, the future of Diaspora support for Israel is very much in question.
I spoke to a group of about 30 students at the University of Pennsylvania. In the course of the talk, I asked how many were pleased with the recent election results. All raised their hands. Then I asked how many thought that Democratic control of the Congress would be better for Israel. No hands were raised. One student did opine that American support for Israel is bi-partisan, and another argued that American pressure on Israel to be more forthcoming vis-à-vis the Palestinians is in Israel’s long-term interests.
"Correct me, if I’m misstating this," I said, "but Israel simply did not factor into your voting." No one protested. The results of my informal poll mirrored those of a 2004 poll that found Israel to be a major factor in the vote of only 14% of American Jewish voters.
And I should note that my audience rank far above their Jewish peers in their level of identification – all are in a program that requires a commitment to some form of Jewish learning at least twice a week, and they are studying at the most Israel-friendly of America’s elite campuses.
JEWISH AGENCY CHAIRMAN Zev Bielski was on strong demographic grounds when he told American Jews at the General Assembly that the future for non-Orthodox American Jewry looks bleak. He was, however, on far shakier grounds in proposing Israel as the solution. For if there is anything that binds the majority of American Jews and Israeli Jews today it is that Judaism has long since ceased to play an animating role in their lives. That commonality, however, provides little basis for a future relationship.
Admittedly Israeli Jews have a statistically higher chance of marrying another Jew than do their American brethren. And their Jewishness is perhaps more real to them, if only because international anti-Semitism has more direct consequences for their lives than it does for American Jews.
But being Jewish provides neither meaning nor purpose to the lives of most Israeli Jews. They live in Israel because they were born here, and speak Hebrew because it is the national language. Preserving a particular gene pool will not provide the missing sense of purpose.
The most incisive critics of last summer’s fiasco in Lebanon, like Ari Shavit, all viewed it as growing out of a deep spiritual malaise. Boogie Yaalon recently likened Israeli youth to a water plant without roots. And Nobel Laureates Yisrael Aumann and Aharon Ciechanover last week expressed their shared pessimism about the future existence of the State of Israel, a pessimism that they linked directly to "the sinking of the Israeli spirit." Both men saw that loss of spirit as connected to the "general ignorance of the history of the Jewish people."
Israeli Jews require an account of why it matters whether the Jewish people continue to exist -- a description of our national mission, and how and why it is linked to the small sliver of land that we inhabit. Absent that those with the talents and wherewithal to do so will opt for a less threatening place to live. Many already have.
Before Bielski and other Israeli leaders lecture Diaspora Jews on their lack of a Jewish future, they would be well advised to attend to our own house, where the lack of Jewish identity threatens our very existence. Unfortunately, most of our leaders are themselves too far removed from anything Jewish to provide the needed antidote.