December 10, 2019

Can a “Talk” Save American Jews?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared via satellite at the JFNA General Assembly. Courtesy of JFNA/Jeffrey Lamont Brown.

A large group of community leaders from the US Jewish community came to Israel this week to hold the convention known as the GA. These leaders have a problem: their slogan for the event was “We Need to Talk,” but it’s hard to talk to Israelis in English. They tend to prefer Hebrew. And another problem: it is not clear what they need to talk about. In midweek I had a meeting with one of the visiting leaders, and he explained that some of the talking ought to be about Israel’s treatment of its foreign workers. In fact, he sent a warning: Israel must absorb the workers and not expel them. That’s none of your business, I provoked him. Get them to come to America, I teased him. He believes that Israel’s policy is immoral. Fine. If that’s what he wants to talk about, he will not find attention here.

The American leadership came to Israel against the backdrop of what feels like a crisis in Israeli-American relations. It came here feeling that the crisis is because of Israel and its bad behavior. It came here to be reinforced by Israelis who think the same. Most of these Israelis simply dislike the Israeli government and therefore are willing to accept any claim of guilt against it on any matter.

The truth of the matter is that this crisis is nothing more than a smokescreen, a distraction – instead of talking about what really matters, we keep talking about small politics of small things. American Jews struggle with profound challenges. The youth are detached from Jewish institutions, distance themselves from the Jewish tribe, and renounce the observance of Jewish tradition. On the way to disengagement, some of them also beat up on Israel. It’s a convenient way to clean the conscience – our challenges are not because of us, they are because of you. Because of Israel. I am sorry to report that Israelis are generally indifferent to these claims, because they don’t face similar challenges. Their identity is stable. Their Judaism is anchored in everyday life.

One can talk from today until next year about all the matters that American Jewish leaders want to talk about. One can look again for a solution for the Western Wall, one can improve Israel’s conversion format, one can offer more candy, more attention, more sympathy. It is impossible for Israel to accept American advice on major matters – security, occupation, immigration. Such “talk” will only make matters worse as it will alienate Israelis and make them turn a deaf ear. Either way, no “talk” can solve Israel’s problems. No “talk” can solve the problems of the American community. All this, as I said, is a distraction from the real challenges of this era.

What is the main challenge? The incoming chairman of the Jewish Agency, Yitzhak Herzog, hinted at a large project he was aiming at – teaching Hebrew to the masses of Jews in the Diaspora. This is a wonderful idea, with limited chances of success. As soon as his proposal was published, American-Jewish intellectuals began to groan. They are not sure if this is really needed, and what Hebrew, biblical or modern, and whether learning Hebrew is a problematic political statement, and whether learning Hebrew will even strengthen Jewish identity. Bottom Line: There was little enthusiasm. Ask why? Maybe because learning Hebrew is difficult. Most of the heads of Jewish organizations who came here this week do not speak Hebrew. They will never speak Hebrew. Learning a language is a demanding task, and Jews in America face a challenge, among other things, because their youngers aren’t interested in demanding commitments.

There is something tempting about the thought that Israel can save American Jews, with some creative project, or a sudden financial investment, or if it changes its foreign policy. I wish Israel were so powerful and influential. I wish the fate of American Jewry depended on Israel’s policies. But the truth is that it is not. Not if we “talk” and not if we remain silent, not if we study Hebrew, and not if we have a new platform at the Western Wall, not if we absorb foreign workers, and not if we dismantle the Chief Rabbinate. Of course, Israel might need to do some, or all, of these. And Israel can make an effort to assist US Jews in overcoming their challenges. But we should all keep our expectations in check. Israel can “talk,” but most of the doing must happen on the other side.