American Jews: Caught in the crossfire between Israel and Obama

August 24, 2009 by

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In the last few weeks I have heard some disturbing attempts by Israelis to use criticism of American Jewry to fight Israel’s political battles with President Obama and his administration. One attempt, apparently from an undisclosed location within the Israeli government, tried to label Jews in the Obama administration as “self-hating.” The second, from a NY Times op-ed essay by Haaretz columnist, Aluf Benn. There Benn accuses Obama of confusing American Jews with Israelis, thus missing the mark in his communication with Israel.

What’s the difference according to Benn?

We speak Hebrew and not English, we live in the Middle East and have separate historical narratives. Mr. Obama’s stop at Buchenwald and his strong rejection of Holocaust denial, immediately after his Cairo speech, appealed to American Jews but fell flat in Israel. Here we are taught that Zionist determination and struggle — not guilt over the Holocaust — brought Jews a homeland. Mr. Obama’s speech, which linked Israel’s existence to the Jewish tragedy, infuriated many Israelis who sensed its closeness to the narrative of enemies like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

Let me say straight off, I am quite comfortable hearing the Israeli voice regarding the global state of Jewish affairs. Israel provides for me an alternative vision of what it means to live as a Jew in the modern world. From that perspective, I am ready to listen to Israeli critiques of American Jewish life and behavior. Of course, I think we must do the same for Israel. However, we must recognize that if Benn accuses Obama of speaking to the wrong Jews, then I accuse Benn, and other Israelis, of possessing an image of American Jews that is dated by 50 years.

First, the Israeli viewpoints under discussion here seem to convey that the only way to be a Jew in the U.S. government is to be a shtadlan, meaning Cabinet secretaries and elected officials may take an oath to uphold the Constitution, but secretly their oath is to pre-Enlightenment code of Jewish behavior! Israelis need to catch up to the America symbolized by Obama’s presidency, which is trying to clarify a political philosophy that holds a more nuanced view of the relationship between identity and pluralistic public discourse. We appreciate the notion that decision makers are the sum of their diverse experiences, but we also know that it’s not easy put them into neat boxes. The only African-American on the Supreme Court reads his experience as a confirmation of a conservative judicial philosophy; the new Latina justice received a nomination for her liberal legal outlook. Moreover, we need to remember that individual Jews have a range of political opinions – one need only compare the perspectives of highly-placed Jews in the current and previous administrations.

Second, if American Jews believe (and I am not sure they do) that Israel’s existence stems from “guilt over the Holocaust,” then Israel is partially to blame for this perception. Since 1948, Israel has been telling them (us) that it is the safe haven for Jews around the world with video montages for that claim beginning with Shoah refugees. Likewise, does any Jewish trip to Israel skip a visit to Yad Vashem? Does Israel ever host a visiting dignitary and not include Yad Vashem? And what about all the young Israelis who are visiting Poland prior to their army service? Isn’t Benn overstating his claim about which narrative Israelis are taught?

Israel is paying the price for this PR campaign. I have no doubts that the low rates of aliyah from the US results from the American Jew’s view of Israel as a place for Jews to live who don’t have a choice. Most US Jews think, “We have a good life here in America and besides Israel really isn’t that safe.”

So, I agree with Benn in part. American Jews, like our president, need to know more about “Zionist determination and struggle” and we need a more nuanced view of how that struggle continues to shape the future of Israel as a democratic state. This will require American Jews to develop a more informed and up-to-date understanding of Israelis and Israel. That Israel – the Israel that applies its foundational democratic and Jewish values to the betterment of society – might actually be appealing to a greater portion of young American Jews seeking a place to make a difference.

Regarding American Jews, Israelis must recognize that we don’t secretly believe we should live somewhere else – we are not Israeli wannabes (at least, the overwhelming majority of us). Within each of us there are multiple identities and situational allegiances that live in comfortable tension and which are defined by our professions, families, communal affiliations, and beliefs. Israel can be part of this mix but not if Israel forces American Jewish identity in into a certain 4 cubit square box. I fear that what some Israelis say about the peace process with Palestinians – ein partner (there is no partner) – is now being said by some Israelis about American Jewry.

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