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Can Liberals in Israel and America Overcome Alienation — From Each Other?

Alienated liberal Jews in Israel need to reach out to create bonds with alienated liberal Jews in America, of the sort that currently connect empowered Jewish conservatives in the two countries. That was the basic consensus that emerged from what’s believed to be Israel’s first-ever conference on combating alienation from Israel among American Jewish liberals. It took place in Tel Aviv on June 30.

“We in Israel don’t speak to our counterparts in the Diaspora,” said veteran Jewish educator Avraham Infeld, former president of Hillel International, speaking at the closing session of the day-long conference. “We don’t create ties. We don’t create joint projects with alienated Jews in the Diaspora. We should be using every opportunity we can.”

The conference was sponsored Bina, a 20-year-old Tel Aviv educational center that promotes pluralistic Jewish text study with a social-justice emphasis. It brought together about 60 participants, a mixture of Israeli and American Jewish social activists, educators and students. (Full disclosure: I spoke on one of the day’s panels, on the political implications of Israel-Diaspora strains.)

“Attachment to Israel declines as you move from far right through the middle to far left by self-definition,” said Hebrew Union College sociologist Steven M. Cohen, the conference’s main organizer, in his opening remarks. He cited a series of survey statistics to illustrate the pattern. For example, when asked if they agreed that Israel is “peace-loving,” 82% of conservatives agreed, but only 49% of liberals. Asked if Israel was “not intolerant” (the question was posed in the negative), 51% of conservatives agreed but only 11% of liberals.

Working with numerous surveys, Cohen said he found that Israeli policies were not the main reason for the alienation of Jewish liberals. Rather, he said, the main factor — accounting for about half the phenomenon of alienation — is the fact that liberals tend to be “less Jewish” than conservatives, meaning less engaged with Judaism and Jewish identity.

Israel’s policies and public image are factors, he said, but taken together their impact is barely equal to the role of general Jewish engagement.

Other speakers noted, however, that the alienation of American Jewish liberals from Israel had spiked upward in surveys since 2014, apparently due to the battering Israel’s image took as a result of that summer’s war in Gaza, with its large Palestinian death toll.

A persistent theme, however, was the failure of Israeli liberals to build ties with their American Jewish counterparts.

“It’s too simplistic to speak about the alienation of Jewish liberals in the Diaspora,” said Netaly Ophir-Flint, chief executive of the Reut Group, an Israeli policy think tank. “That’s only one side of the story. We need to speak about the alienation of Israeli society from the Diaspora.”

Israel was founded, she recalled, on the principle of “negating the Diaspora,” a theory that Diaspora life was doomed and only in Israel could Jews survive. “We assume that the paradigm has lost its relevance.” In fact, she said, her interactions with Israeli youth have taught her that it’s still deeply ingrained in popular consciousness.

Labor Party lawmaker Michal Biran offered her own testimony to the enduring gap. “I was not very interested in the whole Diaspora-Israel issue until I was elected to the Knesset,” said Biran, a Tel Aviv University political scientist who first entered Israel’s parliament in the 2013 elections. Since then, she said, political missions and lecture tours abroad have opened her eyes to the dilemmas Israel poses to mainstream American Jewish liberals.

“The main thing is the trust issue,” Biran told the conference. “Jews in the Diaspora used to see Israel as something that they were proud of, that they trusted to use the money they sent wisely.”

But, Biran continued, “lately they think Israel treats them like a stupid rich uncle.” She cited the Netanyahu government’s alliances with conservatives overseas “who come from racist and anti-Semitic traditions and only like us because they hate Muslims more than they hate us.”

On the other hand, she acknowledged, “we also find progressive Jews who identity with the oppressed — as they should — but hate Israel.”

Biran singled out Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign against the Iran nuclear deal as an example of official Israel’s disregard for Diaspora interests. “I’ve met people who had tears in their eyes when Netanyahu spoke in Congress against the Iran deal and forced them to choose between their American identity and their Jewish, pro-Israel identity. What we need to do is to make space for people to be critical from within the tent, without being forced out.”

Speaking after Biran, the conservative-leaning Israeli journalist Shmuel Rosner argued that “people who talk about Diaspora Jewish alienation” are frequently using it as a cover, when their real goal is changing Israeli policies they dislike. “You can’t expect Israel to change its policies because they alienate some people in the Diaspora,” he said.

“Israel does need to change and become better at being the Jewish homeland,” Rosner said. “The mechanism is simple: Convince Israelis that you are committed to strengthening the bonds and not changing their policies.”

Infeld, the former Hillel executive, countered sharply. “I do not expect the Israeli government to change its behaviors because they are alienating the people they intend to alienate,” he said. “I worry about two things. I worry about the alienation of part of my people. And I worry about the policies of my government.”

“I believe the policies of the current Israeli government are creating a chasm in the Jewish people, both in Israel and the Diaspora,” Infeld said. “But there’s a difference between the two sides of the chasm. The unliberal side have so much in common that they have places they meet, shuls where they pray together. The other side, the alienated liberals in America and the ‘stinking leftists’ in Israel, don’t speak to each other. Remember, it was the ‘stinking leftists’ who created the State of Israel.”

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