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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).