Israel Should Listen to American Jews, Too

Opinion

By J.J. Goldberg

Published October 14, 2011, issue of October 21, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

As tempers flare anew in the never-ending debate over American Jews’ loyalty to Israel, I’m happy to report that an important new voice has weighed in, offering a genuinely fresh approach to the question. And not just any voice. I’m talking about one of Israel’s leading authorities on loyalty, Knesset member Avi Dichter, former head of Israel’s feared secret security police, the Shin Bet.

Most discussions of American Jewish attitudes toward Israel revolve around the question of whether or not American Jews — or, in the latest twist, American rabbis — are sufficiently concerned about Israel. Are they identified with its needs? Fearful for its safety?

Dichter turns the question around. Following a tour of American Jewish communities last spring, he asks in an October 5 op-ed for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA): Are Israelis sufficiently concerned about American Jews?

Dichter thinks not. Israelis, he says, are too focused on who’s in and who’s out, on where to draw the line and which side you’re on. As a result, they tend to miss a basic fact about American Jews: We’re not terribly fond of fences and barriers. In fact, we don’t even know who’s in or out of our own community.

“Various studies estimate the number of American Jews from 5.2 million to 6.5 million,” Dichter observes. “The vast 25% difference in the sum suggests a serious crisis of identity as to the definition of ‘Jewish’ — or, as we in Israel frame the question, ‘Who is a Jew?’”

“In Israel,” he continues, “we tend to define Jewishness with clear either-or classifications. But by doing so, we risk alienating our friends in the diverse Jewish communities around the world and most importantly in America, which finds unity through diversity.”

Admittedly, antagonizing American Jews is a time-honored Israeli pastime, with a whole range of associated cottage industries. The constant message is that we’re not tough enough, too squeamish about the facts of life in a rough neighborhood, too solicitous of the enemy. We just don’t get the realities of Israeli life.

Dichter is worried about the flip side of the coin: Israelis don’t get the reality of American Jewish life, and they would do well to pay closer attention. If you live in a rough neighborhood, the last thing you want to do is alienate your friends. Israel’s neighborhood is getting rougher all the time. Relations with Turkey are on the skids. Egypt hangs by a thread. Israeli diplomats had to flee Jordan recently for fear of a mob. All this, Dichter writes, “lends new urgency to the effort to strengthen Israel’s ties to Jews around the world.”

This isn’t just the old Jewish sentimentalism. Shin Bet veterans are accused of many things, but sentimentality is rarely one of them. Dichter spent his whole career in the agency, becoming director just before the second intifada broke out, in 2000. He retired five years later, with terrorism reduced to pre-intifada levels and warrants against him in several countries for war crimes and human rights abuses. He followed fellow tough guy Ariel Sharon into Kadima, entered the Knesset in 2006 and became minister of internal security.

No one suggests that Dichter and his colleagues are entitled to dictate Israeli policy. Israel is a democracy. Its voters elected a government with different priorities. On the other hand, you can’t accuse those gentlemen of disregarding or misunderstanding Israel’s security needs, much less siding with the enemy.

At the very least, you have to conclude that it’s possible to be an ardent, well-informed supporter of Israel while advocating a Palestinian state at or near the 1967 borders. And you could go a step further. You could reasonably argue, as Dichter’s colleagues all have, that embracing the plan one or two or five years ago might have stabilized Israel’s regional standing, making the Jewish state better able to weather the current storms. At worst, it would have called the Palestinians’ bluff. At best, it might have prevented some unnecessary deaths.

At which point you might reasonably look at the current situation and be pretty darned disappointed at the different path Israel chose. And, yes, still be a passionate, knowledgeable lover of Israel.

Now, if you were an Israeli defense expert, you could be sitting in a Jerusalem conference room, pounding on a table and arguing for your positions. On the other hand, if you were, say, an American rabbinical student, you might be watching in frustration from across the ocean and wondering what the heck those people could be thinking.

To which a smart Israeli might reply: I get it. Good question. Let’s think together, my friend.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.