Ashkelon, Israel — Turkey, long one of Israel’s more stable and supportive partners in the region, expelled Israel’s ambassador. In Egypt, a peaceful partner to Israel since the two nations signed a treaty in 1978, the Israeli embassy was attacked by an angry mob whose members spoke of being willing to die just to have the chance to remove the Israeli flag. And in Jordan, staffers at the Israeli embassy were evacuated recently for fear of a similar attack.
Israel’s ties with other Middle Eastern nations may never have been as fragile as they are today, which is a bold statement when one considers the history of violence and war in the region. It is that very fragility that lends new urgency to the effort to strengthen Israel’s ties to Jews around the world.
As a people, Jewish unity has been a primary value of our community. But in the 21st century, we find the connection between Israel and the Diaspora slipping away. Those bonds, critical to Israel’s standing and resiliency, must be reinforced so that we are able to contend with the myriad challenges confronting us today.
My parents were born in Poland, survived Nazi concentration camps and managed to immigrate to Israel. From a young age they taught me to appreciate the Jewish state and never take it for granted. I witnessed the rebirth of my nation, and I have served my country for the past 40 years through various roles in security and public life.
But the post-Holocaust Jewish narrative is, in fact, nothing less than a continuum of the historic Diaspora — a distancing that now, more than ever, raises troubling questions about support for Israel from Jews across the world, but especially in the United States.
My cousin Sammy and I, for example, share a common past and values, but totally different upbringings. Oceans away from my hometown of Ashkelon, Sammy was raised in Detroit, where his father and uncle immigrated after surviving the Nazis. Sammy grew up as a committed Jew and Zionist, and remains so to this day.
We have been close since childhood, devoted to keeping our families intact with regular visits and communication. But will our children and grandchildren be committed to maintaining that connection and its underlying devotion to Israel?
This has always been of great concern to me, but it became even more important on a study trip I took to North America several months ago. Organized by the Ruderman Family Foundation, the trip showed me that my deep personal concerns for my family ties are but a microcosm of the dangers facing the continuity of the Jewish people. I am not the first, of course, to grasp this threat to national Jewish unity and security. Pundits and researchers have examined the Israel-Diaspora relationship for years, with debates raging over the ability to sustain this unique bond in the 21st century.
As politicians, this was a new experience for all of us. Rather than coming to speak, we came to listen. Instead of espousing our own ideas, we learned from others. And some of what we learned was alarming.
We found out that 12 percent of the population — more than 30 million Americans — hold anti-Semitic views, according to a 2009 Anti-Defamation League survey. We were astonished to learn of such bigotry in America, the beacon of freedom around the world, where Jews have thrived for well over a century. Further, we learned that 35 percent of American citizens view American Jews as more loyal to Israel than the United States.
Just as disturbing were inconsistent statistics about the number of Jews living in the United States. Various studies estimate the number of American Jews from 5.2 million to 6.5 million. The vast 25 percent difference in the sum suggests a serious crisis of identity as to the definition of “Jewish” or, as we in Israel frame the question, “Who is a Jew?” In Israel, we tend to define Jewishness with clear either-or classifications. But by doing so, we risk alienating our friends in the diverse Jewish communities around the world and most importantly in America, which finds unity through diversity.
As Israeli political leaders, this journey into the American Jewish community has left us deeply concerned about this divide — and its potential for widening even further at a time when Israel must depend on friends from abroad.
(Avi Dichter is a member of the Israeli Knesset for the Kadima Party. He is a former director of the Shin Bet security service and minister of public security.)