Shouting “All Jews must die,” a refrain not heard much on American soil, Robert Bowers stormed into the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh on Oct. 27 and began shooting Jewish worshippers. By the time he was immobilized by arriving police forces, he had killed 11 people and injured six. The attack highlighted not only the rise of anti-Semitism, but also what appears to be strong political and theological disagreements between Israeli and American Jews.
On Nov. 12, former Israeli consul general in New York Ido Aharoni hosted a conversation titled, “A House Divided: Israel and Progressive American Jews,” in which he touched upon this topic. Aharoni, a 25-year veteran of Israel’s Foreign Service, a public-diplomacy specialist and founder for the Brand Israel program, currently serves as professor of international relations in the New York University Facility of Arts and Science. The event was held in New York in partnership with American Friends of Tel Aviv University and also featured David Margolick, a longtime contributing editor to Vanity Fair.
Many American Jews have blamed U.S. President Donald Trump for the growth of anti-Semitism in America. While there may be other reasons, Aharoni told JNS he believes that it is because of Trump’s immigration policy. Jews see themselves as part of the minority group and for this reason feel it is their duty to side with the immigrants.
But, as scholar Robert Wistrich noted, anti-Semitism is the world’s longest hatred. Thus, it’s highly unlikely that it is Trump’s fault for the rise of anti-Semitism in America.
According to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “Anti-Semitism is a complex, protean phenomenon because anti-Semites must be able to hold together two beliefs that seem to contradict one another: Jews are so powerful that they should be feared, and at the same time, so powerless that they can be attacked without fear. It would seem that no one could be so irrational as to believe both of these things simultaneously. But emotions are not rational, despite the fact that they are often rationalized, for there is a world of difference between rationality and rationalization [the attempt to give rational justification for irrational beliefs].”
Aside from the issue of who is responsible for the rise of anti-Semitism—a subject that Israeli and American Jews appear to disagree on—a number of other issues seem to demonstrate the divide between the two groups.
Americans concerned about egalitarian prayer
When it comes to U.S.-Israel relations, according to a poll by the American Jewish Committee, 77 percent of Israelis approve of how Trump is handling them, but only 34 percent of American Jews feel the same way. A whopping 85 percent of Israelis supported the embassy move, while a far lower 46 percent of American Jews did.
According to the same poll, 73 percent of American Jews support egalitarian prayer area at Western Wall, while 42 percent of Israelis agree.
Clearly, differences exist between what American and Israeli Jews find important.
Aharoni, however, noted that this is simply a perfect example of the lack of understanding on the part of American Jews of how the political system in Israel operates.
“To have your share of the political pie,” he said, “organizations must be supported by communities and infrastructure on the ground. Unfortunately, the Conservative and Reform Jewish communities did not invest on the ground. They avoided the political game. Their demands to share the political pie are facing incredible difficulties—insurmountable I believe.”
“Another problem, as most Israelis will tell you,” Aharoni continued, “is that the people who turned the Western Wall plaza into the amazing place it is today were the ultra-Orthodox groups. Now, other groups are coming in and saying, ‘We want our share.’ You can argue that the ultra-Orthodox groups have a historical point here. The Conservative and Reform communities were not there when the state was building its institutions.”
To remedy their absence from the Israeli political system, “they need to invest heavily in the Israeli system, such as in synagogues and schools.”
Aharoni believes this could work because “Israelis are more open to embracing new forms of Judaism today more than ever before.”
He said the biggest issues between American and Israeli Jews depend on how you define the division. “I don’t believe it is between Israeli and Diaspora Jews. Thanks to mobility, globalization and technology, there is less of a divide. Most of those barriers are removed now. When people talk about the divide, they talk about what is happening within the political system. The political system does not necessarily reflect the will of the people. For instance, today, half the country is open on the Sabbath, but that position does not reflect that of the government. The Israeli political system is one thing; the Israeli economy and culture is another thing.
War and terror continued sources of anxiety
Asked why he believes that Israel is a pressure cooker of anxiety, Aharoni told JNS that he has written all about the enigma, asking: “How could a country that is so powerful be plagued and stricken by anxiety all the time?”
Answering his own question, he said “it has to do with the story of Israel. Since its birth, it has been in a legal state of war. That’s one source of anxiety.”
After all, “not a lot is being said about the war of independence [any more]. That generation went through a major trauma. In 1948, Israel lost 10 percent of its military. That’s 1 percent of the entire Israeli population!” (It’s equivalent to the United States losing more than 3.5 million soldiers in a single year.)
The other source of anxiety: terrorism.
Aharoni pointed out that “terrorism may not destroy a nation, but it could traumatize an entire society.”
All is not lost however. Aharoni takes a positive and optimistic approach to the future, saying that even though “Israelis believe their nation is completely isolated, that’s not true. We’ve never had it better—economically, militarily and geo-politically.”
He highlighted a number of regional advances that should boost the Israeli mentality. “Our main enemy, the Palestinians, have been marginalized,” he said. “The intimacy between Egypt and Saudi Arabia is unprecedented. And that’s not to mention tourism, where we are breaking the record five years in a row. This year will be the best ever. With all this, Israelis still have anxiety and fear. Israel should celebrate its achievements in its 71st year!”
Aharoni spoke about the U.S.-Israel relationship and said that “diplomacy is important, but at the end of the day, what really matters is a country’s self-interest. When the self-interest of two countries is compatible, then it is great. And that’s what we are seeing today between Israel and the U.S.”