(JTA) – Everyone knows that an ocean separates Israel and the United States. Yet after three days in New York recently, I realized how big that ocean really is.
Along with five Israeli journalists, I participated in a seminar organized by the Ruderman Family Foundation to help us understand the diverse U.S. Jewish community. But as we met with Jewish leaders whose Judaism is their passion – and for some their profession – I realized how absurd the gap is between American Jewry and Israel.
We met two kinds of Jews. One group I call “classic Jews” – warmhearted Americans whose loyalty to Israel is unwavering, who believe the State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people and who consider Israel’s scenic desert and parks more fascinating than the Grand Canyon.
Classic Jews love Israel and Israelis; if they have criticism of Israel’s policies or are offended by the arrogance with which some Israelis treat them, they will not let anyone know. They are loyal Americans with an extra Israeli soul.
The other type are Jews whose Jewishness may be an important component of their identity and personality but is not necessarily related to Israel. Israel is more or less important to these Jews. But the common thread is that Judaism is significant to their way of life.
Although I knew U.S. Jewry is no longer a homogenous community and that the consensus about the direction Israel is headed is coming undone, even among its U.S. supporters, it was surprising to discover how people in Israel do not understand what is going on with Jews in the Diaspora.
For most Israelis, Jews in the U.S. are the same as those who were living in America after the victory in 1967 or the Yom Kippur war for survival in 1973. Even now, after the seminar, I feel that U.S. Jewry “has our back” when necessary, especially if Israel’s security is threatened. But I also understand that if, for example, the government of Israel decided to attack Iran in opposition to the U.S. administration, I’m not sure that U.S. Jewry would have Israel’s back in the same manner.
Community, peoplehood, even support for Israel is decided upon by the individual Jew. U.S. Jews are no longer the “long arm” of the government sitting in Israel. The State of Israel is an important reference point but not central to their daily lives. Judaism and its ties to Israel have undergone a significant change.
What impressed me most were the social activists we met, people who attribute their humanitarian work to their Jewish upbringing and core Jewish values. Certainly in Israel this exists, especially in religious circles where gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness) and tzedakah (charity) are emphasized. But these Jews see their work in Africa or South America as a direct result of the words in the Torah that every person is created in the image of God. Their work is the clearest expression of their Judaism, but it does not manifest itself when Israel is discussed.
As the seminar progressed, it became apparent that Israel’s treatment of American Jewry remains stuck between 1967 and 1973, while American Jewry has and evolved.
Diaspora Jewry is important to Israel and Israelis, and vice versa. This seminar is a drop in the ocean in an attempt to connect the two worlds and understand each other; even Birthright Israel is insufficient in bridging this ocean.
I propose a model that can help bridge the gap. If tikkun olam (repair of the world) is the way to the hearts of young Jews, Israel should generate opportunities for Diaspora Jews who seek self-realization via humanitarian activities. Israel could create a center to send young Jews on social missions around the world. It should not be institutionalized nor a government program, but should be centered in Israel. This can attract young Jews who otherwise may have no interest in Israel to come to Israel and join programs that already exist around the world or in their country of origin.
If Diaspora Jews see tikkun olam as a first-rate Jewish value, why shouldn’t Israel contribute and invite Jews everywhere to visit – not just for Birthright or Masa trips – and then join humanitarian missions around the globe?
Imagine what a wonderful contribution to the world it would be if Israel were to become a beacon of humanitarianism?
Nurit Canetti is a publicist, columnist and editor. Ephraim Gopin translated this op-ed from Hebrew.