Deeper Than We Know

Published April 28, 2006, issue of April 28, 2006.
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Mainstream America was exposed to a telling bit of Israel-Diaspora psychodrama the other night when our favorite American Jewish Everyman, television jokester Jon Stewart, hosted former Israeli spymaster Efraim Halevy for a chat about Halevy’s new memoir.

Stewart, who makes his Jewishness and his liberalism regular parts of his ongoing shtick, showed an almost puppylike enthusiasm in welcoming a real, live Israeli warrior onto the set. Usually a master of facial deadpan, he couldn’t stop grinning as he peppered the former Mossad chief with softball questions and snappy one-liners — most of which fell flat in the face of Halevy’s clipped, deadly earnest responses. Stewart, a relentless critic of the Iraq War, was left slack-jawed and speechless when the Israeli hero before him said that America largely “got it right” in Iraq. Halevy, repeatedly invited to describe the inner life of a spy or explain his worldview, replied mostly in monosyllables.

There was never a hint, as so often surfaces when a television interview stalls, that either one wished he were somewhere else. Neither one ever stopped grinning. And yet, neither had a clue what to make of the other.

That, essentially, is the state of relations between Israel and the American Diaspora as the Jewish state prepares to celebrate the 58th anniversary of its independence next Wednesday, May 3. Our two nations, America and Israel, are home to the two largest Jewish communities in the world — arguably the most vibrant and powerful Jewish communities the world has ever known. Never before in history, it might well be said, has the Jewish future rested in such capable, resourceful hands as these two Jewries possess.

They are different beings, these two communities. One is a sovereign state of enormous vitality and strength. The other is a confident, influential minority within the world’s greatest superpower. Over the decades, under the influence of these two differing environments, Judaism has come to mean very different things in the two places. Here it is a voluntary network of associations, beliefs, practices and loyalties. There it is, above all, an existential condition, a fact of everyday life and a challenge to survive.

For all that, the partnership between them is almost limitless in its potential. Never have cross-border understanding and cultural exchange been easier than in this age of instant communications.

In truth, we do not communicate much. Sometimes we talk, mostly past one another. Sometimes we use each other — American Jews as Israel’s best ally, Israel as American Jewry’s emotional symbol. Most of the time, we live in our separate solitudes, convinced that our own Jewish path is the ancient one, certain that other Jews must see things as we do, and bewildered on those rare occasions when we encounter our cousins and their incomprehensible ways.

It would be easy to sound a note of alarm. But the underlying ties are stronger and more enduring than the surface would suggest. If few American Jews consider Israel central to their Jewish identities, the vast majority feel a kinship. As we’ve learned from the experience of Birthright Israel, it doesn’t take much — a quick, 10-day tour of the Holy Land will do, it seems — to awaken something unexpectedly powerful inside most Jews. Our bonds run deeper than we know. The challenge for the next six decades is to nourish them, and let them nourish us.

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