The Economist has joined a small crowd of commentators who have discovered a growing split between American Jews and Israel. It puts at least part of the blame on "declining bonds between an increasingly right-wing religious Israel and liberal American Jews." http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2010/05/zionism
No doubt that is one of the tensions between the two largest segments of the world's Jews. Also in the mix is a sharpening of views due to the Obama presidency. It has too many Jews in its highest places to even think about anti-Semitism, but opposition to strident Zionism is something else.
The religious elements of the split owe something to organized American Jewry. Reform and Conservative rabbis and activists have been working for decades to remake Israel in their image. Their failure has not led them to admit that they are dealing with another country, with its own population, politics, and laws. They continue to rile at what they call the lack of religious freedom, with some of them giving up on Jews they cannot convert.
My own view is that there is no less personal freedom in Israel than in the United States, including freedom to find a form of religion that meets one's needs, or to avoid religion altogether. There are rules in both countries that one must live with, or learn to avoid if that is one's pleasure.
Another problem between Israelis and American Jews derives from American political correctness. Multi-culturalism has far greater importance as an American creed, especially welcome in the liberal Jewish community. Israelis who espouse the view come up against harsh realities of security. Protection against neighbors is more prominent than loving one's neighbors.
This generation of American Jews has not created disputes about Israeli security and accommodation. Alliances between local and American Jews--on both sides of the line separating those who think they know the road to peace and those who emphasize defense--became prominent around the time World War I. Now as in the past, Israelis and Americans who do not recognize the reality of security are assigned to the category of the naive. That Barack Obama's view of the Middle East led many Israelis to put him in the same category contributes to the rift between here and there.
With Obama in the White House and the Israeli left somewhere in the political outback, the conflict over security has taken on a fresh face. Us ancients recognize it is the same old stuff.
The continuing reality is that both American and Israeli Jewish communities are diverse. That should be obvious to anyone with a smidgen of Jewish history or Judaic doctrines under their hat. In both Israel and America, as well as in the large communities of Britain, France and the former Soviet Union, those diversities are blossoming under the combined influences of education and freedom.
Ancient signs of Judaic conflict appears in the Biblical story of the Exodus, Ezra's frustrated efforts to curb intermarriage, and the intellectual pluralism of Ecclesiastes. Disputes in the long middle period erupted over Spinoza, Hasidism, and more sharply with the flight of Western Europeans from their ghettos and the spread of liberal Judaism from Germany westward.
Dispute among the authors of the Torah (or the Almighty's ambivalence for those who hold to the story of Mt Sinai) concerns the most sensitive of topics now current. The three Biblical definitions of the Land promised by God to the Hebrews, Israelites, Judaens or Jews might actually help those assigned to negotiate the future. Yet Jews and anti-Jews informed by their own ideas keep those indications of plurality from penetrating the arena where the conversation should be about options and realities.
Israelis suffer no less than liberal Jewish tourists from the weight of the ultra-Orthodox. Secular Israelis along with many of the religious struggle to limit the influence of extremists. Our adversaries have the advantages of high birth rates, well established schools, and political parties. There is enough strength outside of the ultra-Orthodox camps to safeguard the liberal features of the society, but no one should expect the defeat of one Jewish tradition by another.
Conflicts among Jews are something to appreciate and enjoy, rather than bemoan. Unity is the dream of ideological totalitarians and simpletons. Disputes are sources of intellectual and political richness rather than danger.
The tragedy of modern Jews is not the conflict among us, but that Muslims do not enjoy the same openness to differences and dispute. Peace would be much closer if they could wrestle among themselves about religious doctrines, views of history, and claims of moral superiority.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem