On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Distancing From Israel

/25 Kislev 5772

The American Jewish Committee sponsored a consultation last week on the subject, “Are Young Committed American Jews Distancing from Israel?” I was asked to present my view of the matter—and to address the question of what needs to be done.

Yom Ha’atzma’ut (State of Israel Independence Day) Celebration at JTS

I don’t have any doubt that our community has a problem when it comes to engagement with Israel. It has long kept me up nights and now occupies a large number of my waking hours. Like many of us who are active in Jewish life in North America, I love Israel deeply. The very meaning of my life is bound up in Israel’s existence and achievements. I believe the very survival of our community depends on these as well. It pains me to see connections between Israel and North American Jewry—the world’s two largest and most important Jewish populations—attenuating. American Jews can’t do a whole lot to bring peace to the Middle East but we can bring our community closer to Israel. It seems urgent to me that we do so.

Any measures aimed at solving the problem should recognize that it is not limited to young Jews and it is not new. Speaking at a similar symposium sponsored by AJC 20 years ago, I offered observations that in my view stated the obvious. “Attachment to the State of Israel has of late become far more problematic for American Jews—and, if present trends are not reversed, will become still more problematic in decades to come.” American Jews born after the Holocaust and the creation of the State lacked the profound feeling for it held by their elders. Israel is not associated in American Jewish minds exclusively or even primarily with larger-than-life images of a people reborn, a desert reclaimed, the weak grown strong, and the ideal made actual. These images must compete with what is read in the papers and seen on TV: messy complexities exhibited by any real-life society, exacerbated in Israel’s case by the conflict in which Israel has for so long been engaged.

There were and still are other factors making for “distancing,” beginning with the sheer fact of distance—we live here and not there—and the ignorance about Israeli life and culture widespread among most American Jews.

  • The ethos of daily life there is different from ours, beginning with the impact of war and army service.
  • The ethnic composition of Israel is very different from ours.
  • The political system is alien in its workings and of late has tilted right, whereas American Jews remain overwhelmingly centrist or liberal.
  • The religious system conflicts with our notion that the State should stay out of politics; it also discriminates against Reform and Conservative Jews and grants power to Haredim who do not grant the State itself legitimacy and certainly award none to many of us.
  • American Jewish religious thought, aimed in the nature of the case at offering meaning to Jews in the here and now of their lives, has tended to make Israel a marginal concern.
  • Zionism on these shores did not adopt the “negation of Diaspora” that played such a prominent role in Zionist movements elsewhere, and certainly in the thinking of Israeli leaders such as Ben Gurion.

Charles Liebman and Steven M. Cohen analyzed the gap in Jewish orientation and values in their book Two Worlds of Judaism (1990). Here, Judaism is located in the private sphere, there in the public sphere. Jewishness and Judaism are a matter of choice for American Jews. For Israelis, we might say, they come with the territory. American Jews seek universal values in our Judaism (“tikkun ‘olam”). Israelis seek validation of the Jewish distinctiveness they experience (and fight for) daily. Americans stress morality, Israelis the claims of history. I would add one more feature, expressed eloquently 60 years ago by Mordecai Kaplan when he wrote that Zionism needs to be re-imagined so as to secure a permanent place for Jews everywhere. American Jews want Israel to help us feel good about being Jewish as and where we are. The State and its citizens of course have other priorities.

Let me add quickly, lest there be misunderstanding, that a great deal unites North American and Israeli Jews—and, on the level of the larger-than-life story, that unity remains powerful. The “civil religion” of the Jewish people, the fact and creed that moves Jews deeply wherever they live, is “Am Yisrael Chai.” The Jewish people lives! Israel is the embodiment of that life, the most visible, effective, creative, influential, and dynamic Jewish collective that has existed in the world for two millennia. We in North America are blessed beyond measure that we get to be alive at the same time and to participate in its life to whatever extent we choose. Many Jews—largely but not exclusively Orthodox or leaders, lay and professional—take advantage of these opportunities. Millions more are stirred by Israel, proud of its accomplishment, heartsick that it has no peace. I hear testimony of love for Israel wherever I travel on this continent. There are ample signs of connection between the two communities, and in some sectors—e.g., Birthright—these connections are expanding. So the forum at AJC, and my remarks there and here, are not intended to portray the richness of the relationship but to focus in on its problematic aspect and what could be improved.

I think the problem has grown more intractable of late, exacerbating all the factors named above. Add to the mix a sense of hopelessness about the chance of peace anytime soon, which leads those weakly attached to withdraw (and, I think, helps account for the vitriol of much Jewish debate over Israel; the sad fact is that honest conversation has vanished from many of our synagogues and Federations, and even from many of our living rooms). Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman have pointed to another factor of major importance: “mixed married Jews score far lower than in-married or non-married Jews on scale of Israel attachment.”

So the current picture looks like this. Len Saxe and his team of sociologists report that they asked a representative sample of American Jews, “To what extent do you feel a connection to Israel?” Only a third answered, “very much.” 23% said “a little.” 14% said “not at all.” The rest said “somewhat.”

For young Jews the gap is wider still. Cohen and Kelman found that almost 40% of those 65 and older show high attachment, and about 30% of those 50–64 do so. Among those under 50, the figure falls to about 20%, and among those under 35, the percent showing “low attachment” rises to over 40%.

What to do? The major causes of distancing, if I am right, go a lot deeper than Haredi extremism or government policy on settlements, though these do exacerbate matters and, for some, confirm the tendency to distance that would have operated in any case. We need to reverse those dynamics in a big way, with the kind of major (and expensive) effort that Birthright represents. Distancing can only be overcome outside of Orthodox and leadership circles when many more Jews outside Israel are persuaded to embrace their Jewishness, including the substantial element of distinctive religion or culture that we call Judaism. Distance from Israel would decline if more Jews married Jews—or more mixed-married Jews and their spouses engaged in some of the following activities.

We need to address widespread ignorance of Israel on this side of the divide. We need to match the larger-than-life “myth” of Israel with images and facts of what the place, the society, the culture, are actually like as well as the facts of Israeli history and Zionism. A “birthright” program for adults would have huge impact, and follow-up programs for all ages would likewise change the picture dramatically.

We need more extensive opportunities for Jews to work together across geographic boundaries, whether initiatives like Partnership 2000 or volunteer programs for young people. Here and there, at every level, Jews are engaged in the twin tasks of building new sorts of Jewish communities without precedent in our history and revitalizing Judaism by developing forms that our ancestors could barely have imagined (including forms of Orthodoxy suited to a sovereign state and an open Diaspora society). Lay and professional leaders in particular need to study Israel up front and in depth—and learn how to transmit the knowledge and passion they have acquired to their communities. American Jewish young people put off by this or that faction or policy can be teamed with Israeli young people who share their commitments and are working on the ground—with much more at stake—to move Israel in the right direction.

None of this will work unless Israelis, too, accept the importance of the undertaking and labor to build their side of the bridge.

I’ve written about this matter from the perspective of Conservative Judaism and JTS in the latest issue of the movement magazine, CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism. Future blog posts will carry forward the discussion of what needs doing and detail what JTS has been doing lately to address the issue and will be doing in the future. Clear thinking and resolute action on this matter can make an enormous difference. The AJC has my thanks for focusing attention on it again and again—and celebrating the progress that has been made.


  1. Rich says:

    Unfortunately, the movement needs to look from within. Too many of the Rabbis and leaders are preaching bad things about Israel even as they claim they love Israel. The message is mixed and flawed and in a critical world- only the negative resonates.

    • Sarah says:

      “The message is mixed and flawed and in a critical world- only the negative resonates.”

      I disagree Rich. I have met many more people in my generation who are alienated by a relentless “Israel is Right” drum beat that answers criticisms of the day with the atrocities of yesteryear. (Though, maybe it is different where you live).

      Our history is important, as is the context of the more controversial of the Israeli government’s actions.

      It would be nice if the litmus test for ‘attachment to Israel’ was mostly measured by the positive feelings toward the Israeli people and culture diaspora Jews felt, and less to do with political opinions.

    • Francine Perlman says:

      We cannot judge our own morality on a sliding scale; “they” are much worse so why complain about Israel. I was just in the West Bank for ten days, and in Israel for 20. The conditions in the checkpoints are horrendous; it isn’t just an inconvenient delay, as some people would have us believe. It’s a two hour demeaning demoralizing wait in cramped narrow cage-like passages, for those lucky enough to get permits to pass. Children under 12 who go to school in East Jerusalem must also wait, and must show up every morning with their original birth certificate. People are harassed unnecessarily; it was even much worse before Machsom Watch. One need not argue against the checkpoints to argue in favor of a more humanitarian approach to the task at hand. Next time you are in Israel, I suggest that you go to Qalandia checkpoint at 5 a.m. and wait in line to pass back into Jerusalem. And do you dismiss everything that is reported by Breaking the Silence? The testimony by Israeli soldiers isn’t an argument against security, or in favor of suicide bombing, it’s an argument against gratuitous maliciousness by Jews. We have to look at Jewish Israeli behavior in terms of what we ourselves want to be like, if Israel is the land that would be part of our identity, not in terms of what other people do. In my home, we don’t think it’s OK to steal $20 because the neighbor stole $100, or worse. The West Bank is a tinder box that Israel daily heaps with more kindling.

      • Doug Greener says:

        Gimme a break, Francine. Learn some history. After the signing of those great Oslo accords and the return of Egyptian-born, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Yassir Arafat to the West Bank, there were no long delays at checkpoints, no security barrier, no pre-emptive arrests of terrorists. Then what happened in 2000? Arafat, the democratically elected leader of the Palestinians, declared a war of terror against Israel. You may choose to erase this from your memory, but most Israelis do not. Hundreds of Israelis were killed in suicide bombings, shootings, stabbings, bludgeonings and other ways too horrible to mention. It took us a while to get our act together, but we eventually began to fight back — and still are. If this get you high and mighty and holier than I, or makes life a little difficult for the Palestinians, I guess that’s too bad. (I’m being polite here.) Would you prefer us to continue to die so that your screwy moral sense can remain intact? No way, sister!

        Concerning Machsom Watch, your heroines, they are a totally politically-driven group. Their one goal, as they will admit to anyone who asks, is for every last Jew to leave Judea and Samaria and for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Now, you have every right to agree with this position, but it is not legitimate for them to be portrayed as humanitarians interested only in the suffering of the Palestinians. When I do my reserve duty, I bring along a camera and tell the wonderful ladies of Machsom Watch that if they dare to interfere one whit with an Israeli soldier performing his duties, I will take their picture and report it to the authorities. It seems to have a salutary effect.

  2. Natalie says:

    My boyfriend is Israeli-American. I am about to embark on Birthright in four days.

    And yet, I will never cherish Israel like he and his family do because I am a convert. A Conservative convert. I refuse to subject my Jewish identity to the whimsy of the parliamentary system and Orthodox rabbinate. I remain ambivalent about Israel as a result.

  3. Rick Lund says:

    Chancellor, I think your comments are spot on. I attended an event at JTS and met a mother and daughter. The mother was a supporter of J-Street; the daughter was undecided.

    As we talked, the mother gave generalizations about why Israel was “problematic” for her, while the daughter asked me questions about why I felt differently. In the end, the mother had no facts, while I (luckily a well-read supporter of Israel and a committed member of AIPAC) was able to discuss why Israel doesn’t get a fair shake from anyone, even many Jews, because many Jews simply ignore the facts, often finding a minute problem (e.g. an isolated incident of Jewish violence versus a pattern of Palestinian violence)and blowing it out of proportion relative to others. Some critics seem to believe that Israel must be 100% perfect to be acceptable.

    Without going into detail, the daughter continually had to stop her mother from inserting general comments (AIPAC is right-wing; Israel treats Palestinians badly, the settlements are stolen land from the Palestinians, the Palestinians want peace, etc) so that I could explain some of the issues from a supportive diaspora Jewish perspective. Neither had ever been to Israel. I suggested they both visit.

    Without parents teaching their children about Israel in a fair perspective, the children will either be tainted by their parents beliefs, or have to rely on whomever they meet who wants to share an opinion.

    But in the end, after our short conversation, the daughter wanted to know more (I sent her some articles) and the mother didn’t yell at me.

    Those of us who support Israel should be very vocal about our feelings, regardless of the way other Jews may react. They have a narrative–we have facts. It’s up to us as Jewish individuals to stand up for Israel even among our peers.

    • Sarah says:

      What I find lacking is a way to communicate those facts effectively to non-political professionals outside of our community.

      When Israel activists come off as slick lobbyists or broken records, the bad impressions they leave boomerang back and smack the less Jewishly educated, more assimilated Jews on the head.

      It is a hard thing for a minority to get through to a majority. No one message will work. A diversity of Israel-positive perspectives across the political spectrum would do a better job of supporting good treatment of Israel than AIPAC’s lock-step. Diversity keeps us humanized in the eyes of others.

    • Michael says:

      An interesting anecdote, Rick. Since we’re discussing by anecdote, I’ll give you another one, perhaps also not representative. My son (as all my children) attended A Schechter school through grade 12. He spent a month in Israel. My mother and I consider ourselves Zionists and he considers himself a Zionist…and he is a J-Street leader on his campus. And although he is “to the left” of his parents, we still consider him a Zionist, too. I’m sorry you met a knee-jerk liberal, but my son could engage you in a conversation…full of facts!…about why the North American Jewish community has not just the right but the obligation to condemn misguided policies of the Israeli government even while loving Israel and Israelis…as Sarah wrote, the Israel right-or-wrong attitude will not gain us any converts (except among evangelical Christians).

  4. Susan Gellman says:

    Thank you so much for writing this and for, I hope, starting a good conversation.

    I think you said a mouthful here: “the sad fact is that honest conversation [about Israel] has vanished from many of our synagogues and Federations, and even from many of our living rooms.”

    I am Zionist to the bone. But I am so sick of hearing nothing but bumper stickers from most of the pro-Israel organizations, including the leadership of those I support. It’s not that I disagree about “The Only Democracy in the Middle East!” or “The World Holds Israel to a Double Standard!” and so forth. But to repeat these tropes to each other for years, as generations come and go and the situation worsens and becomes more entrenched, has gotten us nowhere, has wasted precious time and opportunities, and, I fear, has withered our ability to actually think about solutions, not just Why We Are Right.

  5. Marilyn Kincaid says:

    Part of it is the power of the ultra orthodox minority. As a naturalized Jew, I naturally resent the power that they would have to declare that I was not a Jew at all. A state–hypothetically my second state!–that could take away my identity in this way, well, it wins no loyalty points with me.
    As a concept and an ideal, I support Israel. As a reality, well, I’m sorry, but it’s pretty much just another state to me, albeit one that has a huge amount of Jewish history and sites. However, it’s truly hard to feel loyal. I love being Jewish and I love and respect the Jewish people, including those who don’t agree with me. However, I am not respected if I go there. I’ve been there once (Melton trip) and loved the experience. Yet Israel doesn’t feel “mine.” I have no skills that they don’t already have in abundance, and I like being an American Jew. BTW, I’m 64.

  6. Leon says:

    Sir, you claim to both know a lot about the problem after studying it and writing on it. It does not show on your piece.
    You repeat the same pablum of the antisemitic (now anti-Israeli) pablum of the extreme left. Sir, I say this with great respect and think that if you read again your article you will agree with me. Legitimate Judaism cannot morally accept the immoral stance of antisemitic Jews like Soros that richly contribute to a Synagogue while giving billions to anti-Israeli Hamas and Hezbollah for rockets aimed at civilians in Southern Israel…!
    Still, in your enlightened view the distancing of Jews is due to intermarriage? Jews like myself are distancing themselves from Rabbis and Synagogue Boards that use the pulpit for political action. The source of the problem is in the leadership, not in the Am Israel, religious or not, left or right, kosher or less than kosher.
    Sometimes the best way to learn about a conflict and solve a problem is just plainly looking in the mirror, Sir.
    By the way, much of the Israeli Government contradictory actions are largely due to the inordinate influence of small but influencing groups of extreme Jewish groups that while openly anti-Israel (to the point of having Jordanian passports), extract welfare of all sorts from the Government while contributing absolutely nothing. Total separation of ‘church’ and state will bring much peace to the population of Israel at large and more respect for the religious groups by ‘good Jews’ all over the world!

  7. SarahBSilber says:

    My mother is a Jew by Choice – both reform & conservative conversion! I’m a teacher in my synagogue’s religious school and a member of our local Hadassah chapter board of directors. I also tutor b’nai mitzvah students.

    Here, I’m a valued member of the Jewish community – as is my mom. In Israel? No.

    I resent being compelled by the loudmouths in my local Federation to never, EVER question the Israeli government – when that very government questions my commitment to Judaism.

    I’ll love and respect Israel more when it gives me, my mother, and my 2 children the same courtesy.

  8. Michael Winakur says:

    This sounds like a great deal of rationalization to me. Even some of your language is troubling. You imply that Americans are more moral than Israelis. (“Americans stress morality, Israelis the claims of history.”) You write that the troubling images that our youth see in the media tend to override the realities of Israel as a struggling nation reborn. As a Jewish educational institution, isn’t it your role to balance the bias of the media with the truth? If only one third or less of our Jewish youth feel a strong connection to the Jewish homeland then you are clearly failing in your mission. Every one of your graduates who does not feel this connection will fail to be an advocate for Israel to their future congregants.

    Israel is a nation that has survived and prospered against all odds AND has remained a good, decent and moral haven in a very immoral neighborhood. If you are unable to make the case for Israel, then maybe you should find some educators who can.

    • Nancy says:

      Well, moral except for being stars in the sex trade and sex trafficking and totally marginalizing Jews by choice (like me) and relegating immigrant workers to a status below human. I’m married to an Israeli and I’ve been there but I feel little connection. The Orthodox “notion” that a 13-year old BOY can make a minyan, but an adult woman cannot is just wrong! The idea of living in a country run by people who feel that way gives me the creeps. And they DO run the country. The idea of Israel, the fantasy of Israel, is charming & magnetic. But for me the reality is pretty disagreeable.

  9. Susan Marx says:

    Not every American Jew is Liberal. There are lots of us, good Conservative Jews, who believe in the Land of Israel. And they understand Israel better.

  10. Susan Marx says:

    Why is it an axiom that American Jews are Centrist or Liberals? There are many of us who are not and who believe in the importance of the Land of Israel. I think we understand the problems of Israel better and have a closer relationship with the State.

    • Steven says:

      While it is not axiomatic that Jews are liberal or centrist, it is also not axiomatic that liberals and centrist do not think that Israel is important and that conservatives are more ardent Zionists.

      Lately, I find it interesting to gauge reactions to my great uncle’s story. He, along with a few of his buddies, spent a year walking and hitchhiking from Eastern Europe and sneaked in Palestine in 1938. He was an early settler on a very socialistic kibbutz and completely non-religious.

      Some of my very Orthodox friends give me a blank stare because that history does not fit in their narrative of the founding of Israel.

      Some of my very politically conservative friends focus on how the kibbutz movement was failed socialism.

      If he was still alive, I am certain he would not be a fan of the current government in Israel and less so of the haredim but one could never question his Zionism.

      Similarly, it is not constructive to measure someone’s Zionist bona fides by their American political stripe nor their place on the derech.

  11. Steven M. Cohen says:

    The 90% (and shrinking) number of American Jews who are not Orthodox indeed have been moving toward less engagement with Israel, a move tempered only by Birthright Israel and Masa, programs bringing thousands of young American Jews to Israel annually.

    Detachment from Israel among the American Jewish public differs critically from disillusionment among the more Jewishly active and engaged. For the public, distancing is not much driven by political considerations. If Israeli policies were largely responsible for distancing, then liberal Jews should be more distant from Israel than centrist or politically conservative Jews. In fact, as Ari Kelman and I find in, “Beyond Distancing,” http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=326 attachment to Israel is unrelated to political identity; but, support for Israeli hard-line policies does reflect overall political views. In other words, politically conservative and liberal Jews are equally attached to Israel, but the politically conservative express far more support for current Israeli government policy positions.

    If Israeli policies aren’t undermining Israel attachment, then what is? As Ari and I found, the primary driver is intermarriage. Younger Jews are far more likely to marry non-Jews, and the intermarried are far less Israel-attached than are the in-married — and even the non-married. Intermarriage reflects and promotes departure from all manner of Jewish ethnic “groupiness,” of which Israel attachment is part.

    Where Israeli policies do come into play is with a critical segment: Jewishly engaged younger adults. Younger active Jews are just as “engaged” with Israel as their older counterparts, but they are far less likely to see themselves “pro-Israel.” Significantly, despite the efflorescence of new Jewish initiatives in such domains as independent minyanim, Jewish culture, social justice, learning, and new media, hardly any new initiatives by young people relate to Israel. More pointedly, when asked to engage the Israel question on any side of the agenda, younger leaders resist doing so, in part out of fear of controversy in their own communities, or fear of repercussions from donors who fund their initiatives. Younger Jews believe they have only two acceptable choices if they are to remain welcome in conventional Jewish precincts: public advocacy or private ambivalence.

    If Israel is to retain the engagement of the coming (and present) generation of American Jews, organized American Jewry will need to provide for a third alternative, one that combines love of Israel with a rich and open discourse on its policies and politics.

    • Leon says:

      Mr. Cohen, do I detect the usual young person term confusion in an otherwise excellent learned statement? That is, the believe that the only way to be open and creative is to be oppositional and dismissive of the Old Guard… It is the same position of the Chancellor in different robes (I guess he does it to ‘pacify’ his “students’ Spring”…)
      There is a lot to criticize in everybody but lets’ do it with evenness and not with blanket categorical pronouncements more appropriate of a low brow political campaign.

    • Jordan Goodman says:

      Shalom All,

      The further removed in time a non Orthodox Jew in America is from their family’s immigrant experience, the less meaningful ethnic/peoplehood definitions of Judaism will be in her/his daily life. And the waning importance of the State of Israel to most of those Jews is but one spoke in the wheel of ethnic/cultural/peoplehood Jewishness/Judaism. All that’s left of Judaism for most who identify as Jews in America is the trivial to nearly meaningless Jewishness, that manifests as lifecycle fixes (b’not/b’nei mitzva births weddings and funerals), the occasional perceived need for a worship service e.g., high holidays (yet another guilt fix for ever fewer Jews), the Holocaust/anti semitism, and let’s not forget an occasional trip to the Jewish deli/restaurant. This residual Jewishness will go the way of borscht belt humor and the Catskills. As the older generations pass, nostalgia will have less and less of a pull. It (nostalgia) already holds little or no sway with my two sons, one a Gen X’er and one a Gen Y’er, And the same can be said of their peers.

      People do things for two reasons: because they want to or because they have to. For the vast majority who identify as Jews (probably close to 2 out of 3) who are unaffiliated as well as the majority of the non Orthodox affiliated, Judaism, the synagogue and supporting the State of Israel are not in the have to (read obligatory) category and no amount of handwringing or ostrich-like desire to turn the clock back to the good old days (read the 1950’s and 60’s) will change that fact. What’s left is the great opportunity to persuade those Jews to “convert” to the “want to” group.

      In today’s consumerist world, Judaism/the synagogue/Israel must compete in the arena of ideas and leisure time/discretionary income choices. People will give of their time, talents and tithes to that which is perceived to have value. Synagogues, Judaism and Israel are perceived by the masses of Jews as having at best marginal value and thus the result is at best marginal commitment. Most non Orthodox Jews see no meaningful value in Judaism or Jewishness; thus it’s no surprise to see that the idea of a Jewish state for these folks is of little or no real value.

      Happy Hannukah to all of us,



  12. shimshon kinory says:

    cohen found that on questions reflecting support for israel the percentage indicating support is lower for young jews and rises with age inferring that over time as the currently young mature the average supportwill drop…….sosoon from breindeis u on the other hand found the average percentage to stay constant and developed the life cycle hypothesis.Each used a different sample composition

  13. Warren Rubin says:

    Such a complicated question. And, so vital. Thank you, Chancellor Eisen, for bring this issue to us. As we can see, none of us agree what should be done. I submit that nothing is new in this situation. By that I mean that we Jews represent the full range of human expression: we like it, we don’t like it, we don’t think about it, it means a lot to me, it means little to me, etc., etc. This discussion is important. However, without action, the discussion will remain words only. And, like Torah, the words will remain long after we have done something, or nothing. How will we agree individually and collectively what will work to change our behavior? There is little we can do to change our thoughts. I always remember my colleague LSSPs’ poignant statements: It’s taken a 16 year old sixteen years to become who s/he is. What makes you think you can change them in three months or one year because you want to? Same is true for a 35, 50, or 66 year old. The only person who can change a person is the person himself/herself. And, of course, we should always remember that the less we know the happier we are because ignorance is bliss. Only with dedicated, purposeful, strong leadership outspoken and forceful will we ever change. Perhaps, life’s most interesting times occur in its arguments, n’est pas? Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose. Existential, perhaps. Realistic…?

  14. David says:

    Part of the problem is that so much of contemporary Israel is downright obnoxious and yet our movement tends to be ultra-supportive. What is one to say about the slimy presidents like Weitzman and Katsav (thank God for Shimon Peres), the constant building of new settlements in future Palestine, the “price tag” movement, the segregated bus lines, et. al. The picture of Israel is not good and deservedly so DESPITE what we know is good there because we have visited, have family and understand her complexity. We also need to encourage a moral Israel that our Prophets would approve of and that they talked about. Too few of our rabbis call for this, though, our siddur’s prayer for Israel still calls for “ateret nitzachon” (whatever that is)for the IDF, the vast majority of our movement is in lockstep with Netanyahu, the Israel Right and the Orthodox that is eroding the state from within. At least we have J Street, New Israel Fund and some other like-minded places for us to go, but we also need the synagogue to back a moral Israel and the United Synagogue to do the same.

  15. Gladys Gimpel says:

    I think the Ramah Camps are the most important thing Conservate Judaism has going for it . Day Schools may be great but many people cannot afford Ramah let alone Day Schools. Ramah is most important because the chidren live Judaism twenty-four hours a day. Jewish camping should be like birthrite israel (the correct spelling is without capital letters),all Jewish camping-Reform, Orthodox and Conservative Camps. Where is someone like Charles Bronfman or Michael Steinhardt! I believe this is what would change all Jewish attitudes for the better. It would only help if kids can go every summer. If a kid goes to a place like a Ramah Camp for one summer and then is unable to go the next summer because of finances, the dissapointment can be enough to turn a child off. The attitude toward Israel would improve. Many, many leaders in the Conservative movement were Ramah campers. This is an official email address.

  16. Rabbi Larry Moldo says:

    A pie in the sky idea I had 2 to 3 decades ago might still be an appropriate thing to work towards.
    A redefinition of responsible membership in world-wide Judaism, and switching leadership over time to those who have served appropriately. The main change from now would be a requirement to serve outside your community – those of us here and elsewhere doing two years of service in Israel after college; those in Israel doing two years after army duty outside of Israel; both groups could not serve religiously compatible groups, although there might be a religiously compatible group a few hours away. Mind you, the group you served would have to vouch at the end that you were neither overly pompous nor stubbornly refusing to learn in order for your years to count.
    Even if we wind up still disagreeing, it should be easier to comprehend the issues involved, and know when what we might out of ignorance think is a big deal is not in reality that much of a consideration.
    Certainly there would be local leadership roles for people who had not done this kind of service, and some checks and balances would need to be put into place to try and avoid anyone playing the system.
    It would not be too difficult to make this palatable, and soon essential, and after affording this it might become easier to believe we could educate all our youth in effective ways. Camp is not just an extra, but a stepping-stone to being of service elsewhere, etc. etc.

  17. Shulamit says:

    For those who become Jewish by choice in America, Israel poses a big challenge. Conversions of any stripe have been viewed as problematic. The strictly Halakhic definition of who is a Jew in Israel seems discriminatory to those who have studied and redirected their lives to be participating Jews. What motivation do these individuals have to become closer to a Jewish State that denies their identity?

  18. Hawk says:

    Your statement regading politics may not have any relevance. Distance is created through education. Many years ago a prominent member of the Conservative establishement reviewing a successful community Hebrew School curriculum that was very Israel oriented, exclaimed “This is an orthodox curriculum”. When I asked why this was an Orthodox curriculum, he responded that it bible based. That is to say, most of the time was devoted to the study of Bible!

    In NYC hardly a single afternoon congregational based school teaches Bible. The major rational for affiliating with Israel as a Jewish Homeland (and this is hardly ever stated in political discussions) is the Biblical promise that Israel is the Jewish homeland – after all Ireland is the homeland of the Irish and Poland is the homeland of the Poles. Why avoid the Biblical promise to our forefathers that Eretz Yisrael is the homeland of the Jewish people?
    I suggest that the Conservative educational establishment re-read the opening remarks of Pirke Abot where it explains how the Torah came into our hands and follow its model to teach Bible (not bible stories) albeit in English translation to every child prior to Bar/Bat Mitzvah and that part of the pre-bar mitzvah test be based on knowledge of biblical text.
    I say this because I teach at Bible at one of the local colleges and find that hardly a single Jew (outside of the Yeshiva system) has ever opened a Bible. The best versed in bible are from the inner cities!
    In closing, I submit that a return to bible based curriculum will promote closer ties to The State of Israel (its official name) because it is only the biblical promise that binds us to The State of Israel.

  19. Rabbi Paula Reimers says:

    I want to add a different voice, a religious voice, to this discussion, along with my own anguish.
    We Jews are schooled by the Torah and the prophets in correct ethical behavior. This was codified at (great!) length in rabbinic literature and codes. Suffering under the abuse of power by others and having little power themselves, the rabbis studied and taught us how to act when we again had power. They taught us compassion and fellow-feeling for the most vulnerable in society – ha-ger, ha-yatom v’ha-almana (the stranger, the orphan and the widow).
    The dream was that when we had power, we would show the world how it was done. Following God’s direction we would build society of justice and compassion that would by example transform the world.
    We have state power now, and Israel is nothing like that example to the world.
    Yes, I do hold us to a higher standard than the rest of the world. I, and other young Jewish dreamers, expect us to do better, to be better.
    We have studied the mistakes (and conscious cruelty) of others; we have felt it in our bodies and spirits. Yet we have not been beaten down, because of the dream.
    Now, I fear we are ourselves proving that the dream itself was an illusion.
    Perhaps it is not possible to build a just and compassionate society on this earth. Perhaps humans are simply too flawed, the yetzer ha-ra (the selfish inclination) too strong to transform.
    If being Jewish has no practical result – if it is only saying prayers and celebrating holidays and eating ethnic foods that have no connection to the world in which we live – what is the point? Just to be an ethnic group?
    For many of us, there is much more at stake in the reality of Israel than mere “distancing from Israel.” It is the question of our souls.

    If this is the Holy One’s final exam, we, not just Israel, are failing.

    • Michael Winakur says:

      >>We have state power now, and Israel is nothing like that example to the world.

      Dear Rabbi – I beg to differ. I see Israel as a light unto the world. What you are doing is holding Israel to an impossibly high standard.

      Israel has Arab citizens who have voting rights and who occupy offices in all layers of government, including the Israeli Supreme Court. How many Arab and Muslim countries can make that same claim of their minority citizens? Israel sends help to all countries in the world after natural disasters. Israel treats thousands of Palestinians in Israeli hospitals on a regular basis. Israel has invented medical technologies that have benefited all the peoples of the world. Israel has a free and open press. Israeli organizations advocate for Palestinian rights. Can you name me one Palestinian organization that advocates for Israeli rights? Israel is not a perfect society, but considering that this tiny nation has been forced to be at war with her neighbors since before her founding, the record of good far outweighs the record of her “missing the mark.”

      You state that you hold Israel to a higher standard and I say that Israel easily meets that standard. But you cannot hold Israel to an impossibly high standard – which is what you and far too many other Jewish Americans, and specifically Jewish religious leaders and teachers tend to do.

      The statements that you have made in your post above clearly indicate why so many of our youth feel disaffected by Israel and disconnected to Israel. You are teaching them that they should be. As a member of a conservative synagogue I find this a very sad phenomenon. So don’t be surprised in another decade when there is no more conservative movement. I know that this kind of attitude among my fellow conservative Jews is now making me feel very uncomfortable in the movement that I love.

      You and too many others have forgotten Rabbi Hillel. If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

  20. Jerry Blaz says:


    Israel, 2012: Teaching the horse to starve
    Day by day this Israel teaches the horse to starve when it demands more and more of its young people giving them less and less in return for less education, higher tuition fees; in return for more inequitable army duty and taxation.
    By Bradley Burston

    A balagoleh, a wagon driver, shuffles into the town inn, crestfallen. “What’s the matter?,” the innkeeper asks, pouring him a drink.

    “I was so close. So close,” the balagoleh replies. “My plan … I could feel it was going to work. Every single day, I gave my horse a little less to eat. Training him. Everything was going great. But wouldn’t you know it, just when he’d learned to eat nothing, just then, he falls down and dies.”

    It’s all you need to know, this one shopworn Yiddish joke. The one that explains the whole of this inexplicable Israel at this New Year. We all know who the balagolehs are. The foreign minister who doesn’t believe in diplomacy, the finance minister who doesn’t believe in economic opportunity, the health minister who doesn’t believe in doctors, the immigrant absorption minister who extols an Israeli ad campaign for America that directly offends U.S. Jews.

    Day by day this Israel teaches the horse to starve when it demands more and more of its non-Haredi young people and gives them less and less: in return for less education, higher tuition fees; in return for more inequitable army duty and taxation, less affordable housing.

    Day by day the prime minister, in callous insult or in condescension, out of domestic political calculations or out of personal need, teaches the horse to starve when he reduces Israel’s support abroad, alienating traditional allies and the Jewish world. Pledging to work for two states, and then ensuring that state number two will be the People’s Republic of Judea.

    Up until this year the rule of balagolism proved itself. The balagolehs taught the horse to starve and, holding all the power, gave the horse no option but to obey. The balagolehs were – are – pleased as punch with themselves. And when it all collapses around them they always have the horse to blame.

    Up until this year, we never suspected that we, the horse, could learn to speak. And the moment the horse learns to speak the balagoleh may think twice about the ultimate wisdom of lessons in starvation.

    In our weakness we failed to see that not only can the balagoleh’s horse learn to speak, but so can its cousin, the Messiah’s Donkey. This is the true equine alter ego of the ordinary Israeli, the beast of burden that a small, radical, hard-right and Orthodox-driven hierarchy believes it can scorn and exploit and abuse and disregard and lash, and then, all of this notwithstanding, still ride into permanent power.

    What we did not suspect was that finding a voice can stop balagolism in its tracks. Like other forms of bullying, balagolism is fundamentally weaker than it appears. In the past few days alone, popular outcry has taken the reins from a range of balagolehs. Energy and Water Minister Uzi Landau of Yisrael Beiteinu, a party that came to power promising to represent the interests of secular voters, proposes a bill that reads as though the broomhandle-straight Landau composed it with the aid of mescaline. The “Kosher Electricity Law” would have effectively put control of power production in the hands of state rabbinic authorities. But an online petition and an in-the-flesh protest this weekend quashed the bill. A courageous woman’s refusal to sit at the back of a “mehadrin” (ultra-kosher ) public bus has galvanized a wider campaign against radical rabbinic edicts meant to muzzle, disenfranchise and disappear women from the public sphere.

    The Jewish National Fund, meanwhile, has been shaken by protests at home and abroad against the organization’s role in evicting East Jerusalem Palestinians from their homes so that Jewish settlers could move in. Recently a member of the JNF’s Washington D.C. board resigned in protest over a scheduled eviction, which the organization has now put on hold.

    Finally, unprecedented public outrage over attacks by settler extremists against the Israel Defense Forces – the culmination of the children’s crusade that has desecrated mosques on both sides of the Green Line – has lead to the shelving a bill that would have retroactively legalized blatantly illegal settlement outposts. The law, a polite masterpiece of disguised sedition, would have blocked any government control over outposts, barring their evacuation, and, most significantly, undermining the primacy of Supreme Court directives.

    In the end, what does the balagoleh story come to teach us? Not only that in 2012, as never before, our choice will be either to learn to speak or to starve. The other lesson is that if a country is run like a joke for long enough there’s no telling who will have the last laugh.

    This article that I sent from a Hebrew daily tells more why many American Jews have cooled off their ardor about Israel.

  21. Barzillai says:

    Just came across this website this evening. May stir some reactions here? Happy Hanukkah!


  22. Barzillai says:

    U am troubled by recent changes with JTS, including but not limited to accepting and indulging Islam while you “distance from israel” I would say more but need to get offline…Shabbat shalom!

  23. Joe Sommer says:

    When I was a child, I was taught that Israel was a refuge for Jews everywhere–and I was told that I might need such a refuge, even from here. This was largely Herzl’s idea.

    Neither is true anymore. American Jews have grown increasingly self-confident, which speaks well for both them and America. And Israel is a less plausible refuge for anybody. We all know that Russian Jews seek the US as their #1 refuge; Germany as their #2 (Germany!!); and only Israel when they can’t get a visa to the US or Germany.

    Israel is failing as a refuge for many reasons: the unceasing conflict, the soft Talebanism of the haredi, discrimination against Arabs and even Jews, a weakening rule of law, a Gini coefficient that exceeds America’s, etc., etc. I don’t want to argue which reason is most important. I’m even willing to concede that one or two of this reasons is overstated. But the point remains: Israel is no longer a refuge for anybody who doesn’t come from Ethiopia.

    I think that Chancellor Eisen gets half the story right–the decreasing affiliation of American Jews explains much of the increasing detachment from Israel. But the other half, I think, lies with Israel’s failure as a state of refuge for Jews.

  24. Howard Stevens says:

    The Zionist dream of founding an ordinary state has been achieved. But now that Israel behaves like an ordinary state the younger generation simply views it as such.

    They say you can put lipstick on a pig but such disguise won’t work. Thus there’s not much we can do from here as long as Israel becomes less and less kosher.

  25. Rita says:

    All of the comments are very telling regarding the complexity of the political situation. As a Jewish educator, I of course hope that my students will develop an affinity for Israel. As a democratic state, we know that Israel too faces the strengths yet weaknesses of such a system,
    depending upon its elected leaders. That is why I suggest that our connection as American Jews must be to the people of Israel, to the many aspects of her society that are unknown to American Jews, especially to the youth. We must promote the truth about this small nation that has reached so many heights-nobel prize winners, advances scientifically, medically, technologically, ecologically in its desire to reach out to the nations. As Rabbi David Hartman stated so beautifully, Israel has a strong desire to be accepted by the countries surrounding it. Imagine how painful it has been for over 60 years not to have hardly any relations with its neighbors, and to be virtually shunned by them.
    Most importantly, our youth must understand why an eternal bond exists between us and our brothers and sisters in Israel. It is a bond that supersedes any political dissension. Let us work together to strengthen our bonds as Jews with our fellow Jews in Israel and with all members of her society.

  26. Marilyn Kincaid says:

    It seems to me that many sabras are immigrating to the USA. Does anyone have any facts/figures about this? It concerns me that Jewish Israelis are leaving the Jewish homeland for greener pastures here. Comments?

  27. Barzillai says:

    Deu 32:15 But Jeshurun waxed fat, and kicked: thou art waxen fat, thou art grown thick, thou art covered with fatness; then he forsook God which made him, and lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation.

    Jer 5:19 And when ye shall say, Wherefore doeth the L-RD our God all these things unto us? then shalt thou answer them, Like as ye have forsaken me, and served strange gods in your land, so shall ye serve strangers in a land that is not yours.

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