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Window on Israel

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A different place with different people

 

A sizable majority of American Jews support Israel.

 
With respect to those who do and don't, one of the stronger explanations is affiliation with a temple or synagogue. Affiliated Jews are more likely to support Israel, and the Orthodox stand out as more supportive than those in other congregations.
 
No surprise that there are individual variations. We are discussing Jews.
 
The New York Times has published an article with a man bites dog flavor, highlighting individual religious Jews, including several Orthodox, who oppose Israeli policies, and think Zionism is wrong headed and a slight on Judaism. Some are active supporters of BDS, and feel that Israel's great sin is what it does and does not do with respect to Palestinians.
 
My own contacts with American Jews,  some of whom I have never met except via the Internet, suggest another factor, which may have particular relevance for individuals of about my age.
 
What I've picked up is strong disappointment in the failure of Israel to adhere to the values learned in Jewish youth movements during the 1940s and 1950s. What these people object to is occupation of Palestinian land, the encroachment of settlements, stubborn rejection of peace proposals, as well as the acts and expressions of Israelis that can be described as racist against Arabs in particular and against non-Jews in general. Some also express the socialist values promoted by Labor or other left-affiliated youth groups. Among their additional concerns are the signs of growing inequalities among Israelis that affect Jews as well as Arabs, the failure of the government to invest more in education and other social services, particularly in lower-income Jewish and Arab communities, as well as to work more actively to integrate Arabs and women into the most desirable occupations.
 
It's helpful to recognize that the American Jews at issue are mostly second and third generation members of families that migrated from Eastern Europe, and were most likely members of non-Orthodox congregations during their formative years. Some of them have written about their visits to Israel, or their attempts to settle in Israel. For one or another reason, they were disappointed that the Israel they encountered did not match their expectations and aspirations. Some have described going back and forth on several visits and changing their minds on various issues. They have written to me about their opposition to Israeli activities, a recognition that Arab intransigence makes the realization of some values impossible, and their support of some prominent Israelis while strongly opposing others.  
 
Among the sources of friction between such people and Israel are several profound changes that have occurred in the Israeli population. It is not the same country with the same people featured in the stories of European pioneers, mostly secular or moderately religious, who created the kibbutzim, founded and supported the predecessor of the current Labor Party, or adhered to something more clearly leftist, and expressed the values of accommodation and equality involving Jews and Arabs, men and women.
 
Population changes have been dramatic since 1948, with virtually all of them producing a population much different from  the American Jewish population. Each of the groups have been complex in themselves, differing in large or small ways by country of origin. Each also include individuals who have expressed norms distinct from those dominant in their group.
 
Holocaust survivors came mostly from Eastern Europe, without the generation or two in a western democracy, where assimilation weaned most Jews away from their Orthodox roots. Even more Jews came from Arab lands, none of them with experience in democracy, overwhelmingly Orthodox, with suspicions about non-Jews, especially Muslims, perhaps even more intense than those of Holocaust survivors. Several waves came during the middle and late 1950s from Eastern Europe, most prominently Romania and Hungary. The largest number coming in the shortest period of time were the million Russian speakers coming in the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
 
Israel's ultra-Orthodox population has grown substantially from the time when David ben Gurion granted exemption from military service to Yeshiva students, partly in recognition of the huge losses suffered by the ultra-Orthodox communities in the Holocaust. It continues to grow on the basis of families that range from 5 to more than 10 children. Now it is somewhere around 10-12 percent of the Jewish population, and supports its own political parties, SHAS (Sephardi, largely North African in origin) and Torah Judaism (Ashkenazi).
 
Note my failure to mention American immigrants. 
 
There aren't many of us. Those here are among the smallest percentage of Jews from one or another country that have migrated to Israel. 
 
This may reflect the relative wealth and security of the United States, as well as the concern of American Jewish organizations over the years to discourage migration to Israel. 
 
Those who have made the move have been disproportionately Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox.
 
So much for the plight of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel. 
 
If any "religious" movement has developed as inherently Israeli, it is secularism, which should not be seen as a source of support for non-Orthodox congregations. Secular Israelis define themselves as Jews, and are similar to the Christians of Europe who do not attend church. Most avail themselves of religious rituals at the major points of life, i.e., circumcision, Bar Mitzvah, marriage, and burial, but tend to visit a synagogue only when invited for something special by a relative or friend.  
 
Definitions are not all that fixed. There are lots of people on the border between "Traditional" and "Secular," and individuals go back and forth in re observance. Raising a glass of wine and saying a blessing on Friday evening does not exclude one from the secular category. It is safe to say that a near or more than a majority of Israeli Jews are  secular, more or less.
 
While the ultra-Orthodox have made efforts to isolate themselves from every temptation dated after the late Middle Ages, all of the other migrations, and their offspring, have been changed and have contributed to changes occurring in Israel.
 
Years in school, the army for most of them, and decades of war, terrorism, tense peace, changes in the international and national political scenes, as well as the national economy have had their impacts. 
 
Israel has moved from poverty, immigrants living in tents, dependence on Jewish charity and larger amounts of aid from a changing collection of governments, to being a a small but substantial economic powerhouse, with money-making innovations in communications, medicine, agriculture, and security.
 
Along the way, gaps between rich and poor have increased, the majority in the middle class find themselves hard pressed to match their parents' greater achievements than their own parents, and values of free enterprise have altered substantially the emphasis on public ownership and regulation that prevailed until Labor lost that fateful election of 1977.
 
Several waves of negotiation, Arab then Palestinian rejections of opportunities, and terror have had their impact on Israeli values with respect to integration with Arabs, which may have had trouble in any case surviving the migrations from the Holocaust, the Middle East, and the Soviet Union. 
 
John Kerry still expresses optimism, or perhaps only hope. Israeli doubts and Palestinian pronouncements against one or another proposal lead to predictions that talks will continue, but perhaps only to avoid one or another side announcing an outright rejection of the American initiative.
 
Yet another change since decades past is a revival of anti-Semitism. The Holocaust provided a respite, but now there are those--with Jews signing on to some of the themes--which claim to distinguish anti-Semitism from anti-Zionism, urging a boycott of products from the settlements or all of Israel, as well as finding reasons in civil rights and animal rights to oppose circumcision and kosher slaughtering.
 
What are the values appropriate for Israel in the second decade of the 21st century?
 
No Jew in his or her right mind would answer that question. 
 
Pluralism prevails, along with economic and political dynamism that challenges any array of beliefs or guidelines.
 
All western democracies have changed from what emerged from the trauma and destruction of World War II. By virtue of the migrations and the population growth to ten times the population of what it was then, Israel even more than other countries is not the same place with the same people and culture as at its founding.
 
Those who fail to recognize the changes designate themselves as outliers. They can complain about a place not matching what was discussed decades earlier. However, those are no longer leading topics of Hebrew conversation.
 
 
 
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