September 22, 2019

American Jews and the Israeli election

If there is one lesson American Jews will learn from Israel’s election, it’s this:  they’re not us.

Israel is not New York. Or LA. Or Chicago or Boston or Miami or Philadelphia. It is a Jewish “community” unlike any in America.

Israelis went to the polls this Tuesday and returned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to office.  Had Bibi run versus Isaac Herzog among American Jewish voters, he would have lost.  He would have lost almost as badly as Barack Obama would lose against Bibi in Israel.   The fact that Netanyahu garnered 29 mandates against his opponent’s 24 was as shocking to the majority of American Jews as the fact that  Jewish Americans voted overwhelmingly – twice – for Barack Obama is to most Israelis.

Jewish life is composed of tribes – Orthodox, secular, my shul, your country club, Ashkenzai, Ethiopian, etc.  But the two biggest tribes are American and Israeli.  Different cultures, different languages, different reality.   Israel and America are the twin study of Jewish life:  same birth, same heritage, but vastly different nurturing – and so very different natures.

For years the greatest myth American Jews have been telling themselves is that Israeli Jews are just like us.  That works because we tend to prove this to ourselves by cherry-picking the Israel we most identify with.  We fell in love with Abba Eban like the French love Jerry Lewis.  Israelis, meanwhile, mocked him.  A friend of mine didn’t understand why former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who ran on the Kulanu ticket, wasn’t first on the ticket. He is American-born, Princeton-educated, brilliant, articulate and centrist.  I told him the leader of Kulanu is Moshe Kahlon, a tough (also smart) Israeli of Libyan background .  

“But Oren speaks such good English,” he said, absolutely perplexed.  

The Israelis we focus on, and whom we support, or invite to speak, are not representative of all those Israelis we never come in contact with, or prefer to ignore.   We love the Israeli artists and entrepreneurs and models and writers and actors – many if not most of whom are in the minority who voted for the losing teams.

Israel is not New York. Or LA. Or Chicago or Boston or Miami or Philadelphia. It is a Jewish “community” unlike any in America.

Language, income, ethnicity, ideology, religious practice separate us from the great mass of Israeli voters: the ones who don’t come to speak in our synagogues, or lead our children’s Birthright seminars, or appear in the papers with the latest hi-tech invention. There are thousands of Amoses in Israel – we just know Amos Oz.

We are drifting apart.  If the English and Americans are two people separated by a common language, Israeli and American Jews are one people separated by a common country.

We don’t know these people, and we don’t really understand their lives.   Economically they struggle more than most American Jews, especially the ones active and influential in Jewish and civic life.   More importantly, they live in a country that faces very real threats from its very real enemies. They and their sons and daughters are called upon to wear a uniform, take up weapons and prepare to die for their country – something some American Jews experience, but hardly the vast majority.

Culture matters. Circumstances matter.  The standard pap at countless Jewish fundraising banquets is how we and the Israelis are One People, and yes, on paper it’s true.  But if you’re talking about reality, and that paper is, say,  a ballot, then  it’s more true to say we are living very different lives, and have developed into two distinct branches of a very small family.  

That explains the reaction of most American Jews to the election.  They seemed to assume that Israelis couldn’t possibly reelect a person who had become so anathema to us.  The most common question I’ve been hearing is, “How did that happen?” My answer: because they wanted it to happen, and they vote, and you don’t.

So now what?

Israel relies on the power of America, which is significant, and that power derives in large part from the influence of American Jews in domestic politics, which is not insignificant.  The strength of this relationship, which has served Israel, America and American Jewry well, depends on the strength of the bond between American and Israeli Jewry.  To secure that, there is much work that needs to be done.  

American Jews have to get to know, for lack of a better word, the real Israel – the world where if Bibi is not exactly king, then he is the safe, secure and dependable choice.  (By the way, many of the left in Israel have to do a better job getting to know this part of their country as well).  If they want to understand, or even influence, these voters, they have to see them not as darker Mini-Me's, but as they really are.

And what about the Israelis?  The divide doesn’t do them any favors either.  Israel can’t rely solely on the support of the religious and the right. Just because they have Sheldon Adelson and an active, conservative base locked up, doesn’t mean they have American Jewry. In fact, the more Israel aligns itself with the values of the religious right and oligarchs like Adelson, the more it alienates the mass of American Jewry.

”“The [American Jewish] right is growing much more rapidly,” Michael Oren said in a pre-election interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, “even as a percentage within the Jewish community. There’s a greater percentage that is more religious, more conservative. That disparity is going to grow in favor of the right in coming years.”

That may be true, but it neglects a growing number of younger American Jews that polls show lean left on Israeli policies.  These will be the future Americans Israel needs to win friends and influence people in DC and elsewhere, and it can’t afford to lose them. 

The right and religious alone may never be big enough to make a crucial difference on the big issues.  And, when the pendulum swings in Israel and a liberal government takes power, these strong supporters may actually work against a sitting Israeli government.   

Bibi tacked hard right to win the Israeli election.  If he keeps sailing in that direction, he’ll leave American Jewry on a distant shore, waving goodbye.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.