Hits and misses when Israeli and Diaspora Jews meet
NEW YORK — Just back from Israel and reflecting on the Israel-Diaspora relationship, and in particular the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, held in Jerusalem, I am thinking of how we Israeli and Americans keep missing each other.
For example, the opening night plenary at the GA, the annual meeting of the 155 North American federations, was a crowd pleaser, short on substantive content but big on talented young Israeli performers like a group of Ethiopian singers and dancers and a musical rendition from — what else? — “Fiddler On The Roof.”
It was a safe, tried and true effort of presenting Israeli culture to Diaspora audiences. But why not make use of the remarkable opportunity and showcase some of the amazing Israeli accomplishments in high-tech and medical advances that we read about but rarely see firsthand?
No doubt the Israeli officials in charge of programming thought the North Americans would enjoy the youthful singers, dancers and musicians, which the thousands of delegates surely did. But it would have been far more effective to give us some insight into how Israeli products, initiatives and medical research are helping the country establish a reputation as a world leader in innovation and creativity.
Similarly, the Israeli politicians who spoke at the GA tended to speak of Jerusalem as the united and eternal capital of the Jewish people — a guaranteed applause line — but one that does not take into account the possible results of peace talks with the Palestinians.
The politicians and others chose the rhetoric of the past that they thought we would want to hear, but many of us would have preferred learning what they really think about the possible contours and content of a post-peace process Israel.
On the one hand, it is comforting to imagine the Israel we think we know, a nation of brave and clever folks whose political ingenuity and military competence and daring somehow manage to always outmaneuver the hostile neighbors who vastly outnumber them.
But the events of recent years reveal a different reality. Military confrontations are now against terror groups to the north and south rather than against states, and Israel has suffered grave losses, particularly in terms of public confidence; too many political leaders have proven to be ethically and legally bankrupt and the country’s outdated electoral system shows no signs of dramatic improvement; educational standards continue to decline in a country whose primary natural resource is brainpower; the diplomatic efforts to achieve a breakthrough with the Palestinians show no progress, even as time works against the prospect of a flourishing democratic Jewish state; and while Iran continues to move toward developing nuclear weapons, Israel seems more vulnerable, calling out the dangers to an international community unwilling or unable to stop Tehran.
With it all, of course, Israel has achieved truly amazing accomplishments in its first 60 years, not the least of which is its physical survival against all odds. More than that, though, it has flourished in so many areas, from arts and science to economic growth and democratic stability.
Many Jewish activists in the Diaspora are naturally defensive about or in denial of Israel’s serious inner problems. Motivated by a complex combination of love of Zion and Jewish peoplehood and guilt at remaining on the sidelines of this enormous drama taking place daily in our ancient homeland, we prefer the old scripts of “Exodus” — both the biblical saga and the Paul Newman film — to the troubling scenes of 21st century Israelis shaking off their perceived roles as Super Jews.
Most want to live normal lives, not the larger-than-life ones we project on them. They want to be like other nations, not a light unto them.
We who love, visit and support Israel do its citizens no service by tuning out their authentic hopes and fears. We must accept them for who they are even as we try to strengthen the bonds between us.
Veteran GA-goers, myself included, tended to rank this year’s event as less than substantive, a feel-good effort showcasing Israel-Diaspora unity at a time of multiple crises. (Not to mention the many Jewish professionals who took pride in noting that they were skipping this year’s event because of its perceived irrelevance.) But after meeting and interacting with a number of young people, including the 30 participants of Do The Write Thing, an annual WZO-sponsored program that brings college students and aspiring young journalists to the GA each year, I was struck by how impressed they were with the passion and commitment of thousands of North American Jews who attend and participate.
I realized I needed to step back and shed my layers of cynicism, and appreciate how Israeli participants were intrigued by our multiple forms of Judaism and Zionist commitment. And Americans came to see that not all Israeli young people are oblivious to the good works and accomplishments of Diaspora Jews.
It’s true that the thousands of participants were in a bubble of Jewish caring, and that the majority of American Jews and Israelis do not spend much time understanding, or even thinking about, each other.
But it’s also true that throughout our history the Jewish enterprise has never been motivated by the majority, or run on pragmatism. Rather, it is fueled by faith, and a deep sense of connectedness and collective responsibility, one Jew for the other.
That was on display in Jerusalem last week, if you looked for it, and despite the mixed signals and missed opportunities, one came away with a feeling that those who care now care that much more deeply.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column previously appeared in The Week.)