With apologies to Whitney Houston, here's why a new suggestion about how to revive American Reform Zionism is bound to fail
I started following your Substack a couple of years ago, as I wanted to learn more about “Israel from the inside.” I wanted to understand what it is like for Israelis right now, in this moment, and understand the culture and history more deeply. Your writing has been incredibly educational in this regard.
But these diatribes about the failure of American Jewry to support Israel are hurtful to me as an American Jew. Because yes, Israel needs our support, but we need Israel’s support.
Please help me understand how I can both support Israel and this sinking ship of American Jewry. Because I am failing. And I feel very alone.
The civilizational acid eating away at liberal Judaism—Reform and Conservative—is eating away at the U.S. as a whole. The headwinds we are facing are monumental. Israelis have no idea. Progressive thought and social justice theories like intersectionality and critical theory have taken hold in every institution, school, and corporation. We are bombarded every day with the message that to live a traditional life of any kind—Jewish, Christian, whatever—is to be backwards and bigoted. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the antisemitism that exists on both the right and the left in this country, rearing its ugly head after lying dormant for a couple of decades.
I finally visited Israel in February 2023, saving up for years to join a women’s trip with the Jewish National Fund. I was able to take one week off from my family to go, and it was eye-opening, and in many ways wonderful, and in many ways troubling. I met many real Israelis and saw Israel’s struggles, triumphs and challenges and beauty. But I was not inspired to live there. It seems difficult, expensive, violent and hot. I live in Colorado, a really nice part of the United States. My entire family is here. Making Aliyah would uproot my life and my family’s life entirely, as well as be an abandonment of my aging parents.
Instead, I have chosen to engage myself more in traditional Jewish practice, to build a Jewish home, to raise my kids as educated Jews here in Colorado. But it is not easy, as I am a religious minority in a part of the state without a significant Jewish community or infrastructure. I spend copious amounts of time and money trying to augment this reality, and I see little to no support from Israel for my endeavors.
I have been married long enough to know that any relationship that is built on love, and sustains itself for many years, needs to be also one of trust, empathy and compassion. Does that exist between Israeli and American Jews? I would argue not, the reason being that there are few opportunities for interaction or education. The expectation is that American Jews will do it all, but if the center of the Jewish world is the Jewish state, and Israel wants Jewishly engaged and literate Jews, why aren’t they doing anything to promote that result? Why aren’t there more Jewish Agency ambassadors in more areas of Colorado? Why is there not a free Modern Hebrew language program anywhere? Why is the issue of funding for Jewish day school, religious school and rabbinic school tuition, synagogue dues, summer camp, and b’nei mitzvah tutoring not being addressed? Why is there no one in the Israeli government working on confronting growing antisemitism and security concerns in Jewish communities? Why are we just left on our own, adrift, and mocked, ridiculed and ignored?
Why can’t Israel throw us liberal Jews a bone? Enact the Kotel compromise, deal with the issues of conversion and agunot and religious fundamentalism. See what happens when we are valued and our concerns addressed.
Enough with the berating. What does sufficient “support of Israel” look like from us, exactly? If supporting the protestors against judicial reform is not enough, what is? Donating more money? Visiting more often? Making Aliyah?
I say this with deep love and appreciation of Israel, an ardent, lifelong Zionist: I would really like to know.
1) Most American Jews are politically and religiously moderate (atheist/reform/conservative; Democrat/Leftist) Ashkenazim. Israel was founded and mostly populated by the same people. Part of the divide now is that Israel has shifted demographically, with a much larger number of Mizrahi and Orthodox/Haredim. American Jews don't have much of a framework for understanding those peoples viewpoints and values.
2) Most American Jews (at least in my experience), were taught to love and support Israel. But, it is hard to separate a country from its people. My experience with many Israelis (not all!) has been a fairly consistent arrogance and failure to appreciate American Jewry. From the secular types we hear "you don't understand israel, so don't criticize or even question". From the the religious we hear "you aren't really practicing Judaism, and we're not even sure you're Jewish". But from all, we hear "support us, give money, talk to your representatives, and, if you don't, you're a self hating Jew."
3) Jews are a family, but, like with many families, people grow apart, the love becomes attenuated. Individual families have broken apart over politics; so too can the Jewish family.
4) Many American Jews are alienated from their own communities over politics as well; synagogues have become places of open partisanship, with little room for difference of opinion, let alone room for the practice of Judaism for community and transcendence, rather than a vague sense of universalism. This further alienates many of us from connection to Israel.
5) For 2000 years we loved Israel as a concept; as with any consummated love, the reality is far from the dream.
Kol Hacavod Daniel
I think Daniel Gordis is correct that you don't grow to love something by opposing it. But my guess is that what Eric Yoffe is thinking is closer to the following: "We love about Israel all the things Daniel Gordis has mentioned: accomplishment, safety, refuge, improvement of the world, and so on. But even though we admire and love from a distance, we should still permit ourselves to challenge a direction that we think will fundamentally undermine our admiration for and identification with the state."
Please remember the important song and lyrics, by Bob Dylan, The Neighborhood Bully, about how Israel is mistakenly perceived by the world as the neighborhood bully.
First of all, my greatest admiration to Daniel Gordis for writing so respectfully and graciously about Rabbi Eric Yoffie, after the latter trashed his book in the NYT. I am also an author, and I couldn't summon the graciousness to do what Daniel did.
But Daniel's perception of the protesters in Tel Aviv as being so motivated by love is just the projection of his own love-tainted glasses. Most of the protesters, while they love Israel-as-a-liberal-democracy-made-in-my-image, hate right-wing Israelis, Hareidim, and those they brand, "settlers." Their hatred for Netanyahu is what created this government. Moderate right-wing politicians refused to form a government with Bibi, so we on the right were forced to break the impasse (after 3 aborted elections) by voting for Likud. I have lived in Jerusalem for 38 years, and I feel the hatred. Daniel, how can you deny it?
A personal anecdote to give an idea of the depth of this hatred. One of the kindest people I know is a religious Jewish woman who lives in Austin, Texas. She is Israeli, from a traditional Mizrachi family. In the army, she met an Ashkanazi fellow whose lily-white family headed Tel Avi University. They fell in love and married. His family refused to come to the wedding, and ostracized the young couple. They fled to Austin. He, influenced by his traditional Mizrachi wife, also became religious. Because they are such decent, loving people, he tried to keep a connection to his Tel Aviv family. One night he called his parents. The housekeeper answered and said they weren't home because they were at their daughter's wedding. They had not even invited him to his sister's wedding! I'm sure that they are out on the streets of Tel Aviv joining the protests against this religious/right-wing/Mizrachi "coup-d'etat."
American Jews are just like other Americans, they understand and process the rest of the world as if it was identical in culture and thought to America. They cannot understand how different and just plain weird America is from a global perspective.
When they understand Israel is not a little United States with its commitments to ethnic and religious equality and separation of church and state, that it is a Jewish State, they just can't accept it. I think I am agreeing with Rabbi Gordis here.
Their attitude towards the judicial reform proposals is also a perspective issue. The NYTimes crowd has decided to treat Netanyahu under the formula Netanyahu = Trump. Part of this is the NY liberal inability to see any differences among anybody who is to the right of Chuck Schumer. Further, Netanyahu committed an unpardonable act of lessee-majiste when he spoke against the Iran Deal that Obama sponsored. (For all the good it did Israel, he should have stayed home.)
At any rate, under the formula, anything that Netanyahu wants must be wrong and evil because everything that Trump wants is wrong and evil.
The irony here is that if Americans understood Israel's judicial system they wouldn't like it. In the US, the Federal judiciary is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, but, in a majority of States, Judges are elected by popular vote or can be removed by popular vote. The same is true of high legal officers of the executive branch. Even local prosecuting attorneys are elected.
American Jewish attitudes on Israel are all over the map. There are very knowledgeable American Jews for whom Israel is somewhat important but not really a high priority, and others who are passionate about Israel but are quite ignorant and every variation. Some American Jews have given up on Israel--usually previously passionate Zionists in my experience. Others who reflexively support Israel are lukewarm. Overgeneralizations are misleading. In my experience in the congregational rabbinate the subject of Israel is quite explosive with the left and right quite passionate often overwhelming those in the middle, who are the least likely to express their opinion. We have ZOA, AIPAC, NIF and JStreet among our members. I suspect that many mainstream synagogues are similar. We are semi-Conservative and semi-Reconstructionist and intentionally unaffiliated. FYI, Daniel, my father (1915-1996) knew your father from seminary.
I find your comments rather disingenuous, seeing that you yourself (as expressed in your "Open Letter") encourage the "love" of Israel to be conditional on loathing the present Israeli government that is "undermining our society's cohesion and democratic values" and accepting specious claims about the trajectory of the proposed changes to the unchecked authority and (yes!) undemocratic
impulses of the very judicial system you purport to support without hesitation (or else we'll turn into Hungary or Turkey!)
Why are you worried about Zionism without "love", when, in fact (not in theory), you absolutely and unequivocally demand that American Jews have the "responsibility" to speak out against the current government!
Apparently, this "love" does not apply to the majority of the Israel voters (yes, the majority-and, by the way, nearly 60% of the Jewish electorate!)) who voted for parties forming the present government !
I am almost as old as Israel, and have loved it just as long. But I cannot love a government that wants my support but denies my Judaism because I am a Reform Jew. I can not love a government that supports violence against minorities, burning villages, cutting down olive groves and filling houses with concrete. And I am ashamed that the values I hold as a Reform Jew and an American citizen are violated again and again. I was always taught that the founders wanted to create a place where all Jews would be represented and supported, not solely ultra-religious misogynist Jews.
Wow I love this article. Yes it is all about love- for our people and this crazy beautiful country that we are blessed to live in