Saturday, November 29, 2008

JEWISH WORLD / What American Jews don't get about Israelis

Anshel Pfeffer
w w w . h a a r e t z . c o m

I am very sorry. I didn't attend last week's General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, the annual jamboree of North American Jewish federations and organizations. But I have an excuse. My current duties in London meant that I had to cover President Shimon Peres' visit to Britain. No matter, this newspaper was well represented at the GA even without me. Not good enough apparently for many GA delegates. My colleague at the Jerusalem Post, Haviv Rettig, published last Friday an excoriating account of how the leaders of American Jewry were hurt and indignant at the way the Hebrew-speaking media (including the Hebrew edition of Haaretz) appeared to ignore their gathering, which was
actually taking place in Jerusalem.

According to Rettig, and I have no reason to disbelieve him, the Americans were so angry that they "lashed out at the Israeli media and society for failing to notice - and learn from [them]." Rettig gathered the responses of the Jewish world reporters on Israel's main newspapers and also called me as an occasional writer on the Israel-Diaspora divide, but I was too busy catching my breath from trying to keep up with Peres'
frenetic pace to answer.

Let me therefore use this opportunity to disassociate myself from the disparaging remarks of those reporters who did find the time to answer. Unlike them, I think Israel's media should be extensively covering the affairs of the Jewish world in its many locations and certainly that of the largest Jewish community on earth. (I find the demographers who claim that there are more Jews in the United States more credible than
those who say that Israel has more, but that is stuff for another column.)

But I would also have said that this is not just the media's fault, but simply a reflection of a much wider gulf existing between Israeli society and the Jews of the world. And though they shoulder a significant portion of the blame, Israelis are not the only ones to have widened this divide. As if to answer the charges, just two days later, Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's most popular tabloid, carried an interview with one of the grandest grandees of the American community, dedicating a full double spread to the fulminations of Edgar Bronfman. Bronfman has just published a book in which he explores the question of Jewish identity in the 21st century and was using the interview to have a go at the religious establishment for their rejection of those who are not halakhically Jewish and who call for the inclusion of anyone calling themselves Jews
into the tribe.

I'm not sure Bronfman is the best person to carry this particular torch but I don't want to get in to that right now, nor ask why, in his 30 years as President of the World Jewish Congress, he didn't see fit to address this issue. I am bringing up the interview simply because it illustrates exactly what is it that American Jews don't get about Israelis.

Bronfman justified his stance by saying that "Judaism belongs to every Jew. There is no need to belong to any religious stream. No need for belief in God or ceremonies and prayers." All very conventional, but here he had to make this dig: "Many Israelis who describe themselves as secular are effectively cut off from their people's tradition."

Ironically, Bronfman's complaint against secular Israelis is identical to that made by those very rabbis he so vehemently attacked in his interview; they also believe that the secular Jews are ignorant and have separated themselves from tradition.

A similar view is expressed by some of those interviewed for the report in the Jerusalem Post on indifference to the GA. What is it about secular Israelis that so aggravates these American Jews, many themselves irreligious?

I think deep down it's jealousy. While the Jews in America and other communities have been grappling for decades with the question of how to define a Jewish identity that is not tied down only to religion, secular Israelis simply don't have that problem. Sure, many of them lack a lot of Jewish knowledge and they certainly are not very aware of the Jewish world outside Israel. But they're not very bothered about it, because for them every moment in Israel is passed within a Hebrew speaking Jewish environment.

And that's also why, as some of those interviewed by Rettig said, when secular Israelis go off to the United States, they are not usually very interested in getting to know the local Jewish community. They have lived all their lives among Jews; once they get out of Israel they are looking for something different.

Israel, the Zionist project, was founded exactly for that reason, to serve as a secular Jewish alternative to life in the Diaspora. And while it's far from perfect, for most Israelis, it is still a credible option. They are not blind to its shortcomings, but they are still content with living their Jewish lives here.

And at least on a sub-conscious level, this contentment is galling to many Jews in America and elsewhere, especially those who are struggling to come up with an alternative Jewish life of their own that will be sufficiently attractive to a disinterested young Jewish generation.

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