On Shabbat morning, a fellow synagogue traveler approached me. He seemed to have something urgent to tell me, and he held a book I authored several years ago about the state of American Judaism. He had just bought it and read it, and thus it was natural for him to consider me the appropriate person to unload on: “They don’t even know how to keep their own community intact, so how dare they come tell us what Israel should do?”
“They” is the Jews of America. “Us” is we Israelis.
I asked him if he had seen the survey conducted by professor Steven Cohen titled “Together and Apart: Israeli Jews’ Views on Their Relationship to American Jews and Religious Pluralism,” commissioned by the New York Jewish Federation. He didn’t know what I was talking about. The survey, published last week, demonstrated in numbers that my friend was not alone, neither in his grim assessment of the state of U.S. Jews, nor in his rejection of their advice to Israel.
Forty-six percent of Israeli Jews believe that in the next 10-20 years, “most American Jews who are not Orthodox will assimilate.” Some Americans would probably find such an assessment offensive. I think it is mostly ignorant. Ten to 20 years is a very long time, and predictions about things such as assimilation are often tainted by hyperbole.
We need to keep in mind the difference between being offensive and being ignorant as we turn to the other data in this extensive survey that made headlines: Apparently, about two-thirds of Israeli Jews have no desire to see their government taking into account “the views of Jewish leaders in the U.S.” Israelis value the ties with American Jews, they understand that their support is essential for the country, they believe that a Jew in the U.S. can lead a meaningful Jewish life (see graph at right). Still, they have no use for the advice of American Jews.
A majority of Israeli Jews do not want American Jews’ advice on religion and state (61 percent), settlements (67 percent), peace with the Palestinians (64 percent), Israeli Arabs (69 percent), Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel (55 percent), prayer at the Western Wall (56 percent), conversion (54 percent), and marriage and divorce (64 percent). To put it bluntly: All the issues that some U.S. Jewish leaders consider worthy of meddling are off the table. And this time, you can’t just say, ‘Oh, it’s the right-wing religious government, not the people of Israel.’ This is a survey, so it is the people. It is they — I should say “us,” even though I somewhat disagree with the majority of my fellow Israelis on this subject — who do not want this advice.
Is this offensive? I’d again consider the option of ignorance. In this case, not the ignorance of Israelis. Let me put it this way: Israelis might not know enough to give an accurate assessment on the state of American Judaism, but they feel that American Jews also do not know enough about Israel’s challenges to give it advice on how to make peace, war or laws.
Ignorance — and a grain of hubris — prompts Israelis to negatively assess the future of Jewish America. Ignorance — and a grain of hubris — prompts Americans to believe that Israel would be better off if it only heeds their advice.
Thus, before you get offended by Israelis’ rejection of your wisdom, ask yourself the following question: Would you accept the advice of Israeli Jews on matters of politics and religion in America? Think about concrete examples: Do you want their counsel on the politics of President Donald Trump; on conversion to Judaism in U.S. communities; on the relations between Jews and evangelicals; on J Street; on patrilineal descent; on rituals in the synagogue; on young Jews engaging in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement; on interfaith marriage? Would you take into account their advice on all of these matters?
If the answer is yes, you have a reason to get insulted by Israel’s reluctance to listen to the advice of U.S. Jews. But if the answer is negative — if you are ready to admit the obvious, that most American communities would be reluctant to listen to Israel’s advice on these matters — then you should not be surprised, nor offended, by Israelis having the same instinctive response to the suggestion that they should take your views “into account.”
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israel and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.