Israel, diaspora unity withering as Jewish state turns 50

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In the year 5758, the state of Israel marks its 50th birthday and what could be the beginning of a new era in its relations with American Jewry — an era of separation as two communities go their own ways.

The ties that bound them so closely in the past have been loosening for years, and now they threaten to unravel entirely.

The past year "has been marked by unprecedented invective," according to Leonard Fein, director of the Commission on Social Action of the Reform Jewish Movement. Jews today seem to be "engaged in a most uncivil war, a war of insults and now and then of actual injuries…[and] there is no enduring peace in sight."

For many Orthodox leaders, the pluralism that is so important to the vast majority of American Jews is rejected as "a clear and present danger," he noted.

As if to confirm his charge, four leading American Orthodox organizations issued an unprecedented joint-High Holy Days statement condemning advocates of religious pluralism in Israel. Their purpose appeared to be precisely what they accused Reform and Conservative Jews of trying to do: "impose their own parochial wishes on [the] Israeli public."

But it is not the rights of Israelis that disturbs so many non-Orthodox Americans, it is the feeling of rejection and of having too little in common with a country where Orthodox rabbis and their political parties can impose their beliefs by enacting them into civil law with the help of non-religious parties that lack the courage to challenge them.

While American Jews are often intimately aware of developments in Israel, it is startling how little most Israelis and their leaders, including Knesset members who visit here frequently, know about American Jewry. This is especially apparent in their failure to appreciate the profound impact of religious tolerance issues within the Jewish community.

This may be the most visible catalyst for estrangement, but there are many other factors.

For many American Jews, Israel is their "cause," their favorite charity, but not their homeland; they have no thought of sending any more than their money, and most have not visited for any time longer than a quick VIP "mission" organized for contributors.

As Israel grows militarily stronger than any combination of adversaries and enjoys an economy more prosperous than all its neighbors combined, the image of a poor and helpless country disappears, taking with it the motivation of many for whom it has long been the object of their philanthropy.

Also driving people away is the growing need for those charitable dollars in Jewish communities in this country.

On the other side of the equation, Israelis have grown resentful of American big-givers whom they see as insensitive and meddlesome. The paternalism of contributors who feel their checks have bought them a voice in governing Israel has been a continuing irritant.

It may be the bingo millionaire from Miami who tries to use his money to change the shape of Jerusalem and scuttle a peace process he despises. Or the Midwestern businessman and self-declared "most sophisticated political player" who has his chauffeur shuttle him between Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir after the 1988 Israeli election in the fantasy that he would forge a unity government based on a naive manifesto he had drafted.

The politicians and their aides may complain bitterly about these millionaires, but not to their faces because they covet the money and political contacts the Americans have back in Washington.

Diaspora Jews, for their part, are offended when Israeli leaders like Labor's Yossi Beilin tell them, "We don't need your charity." He later explained that Israel is a prosperous country that doesn't need handouts, and the money could better be spent sending diaspora teenagers to live and study in Israel for an extended period of time, not a quick vacation.

Jews in both countries are divided over peace policy. Most American Jews, even many of the skeptics, want to see the peace process succeed. But the high hopes they had for peace are sinking rapidly, and a government that campaigned as the antidote for Islamic terrorism appears no better at stopping the scourge than its predecessors.

Meanwhile, once-promising openings to the Arab world are closing, and Israel is again finding itself isolated.

Even relations between Jerusalem and Washington, which reached a high-water mark during the Rabin government, are now strained, with new crises erupting regularly.

Many American Jews feel there is an aura of incompetence that engulfs the government of Israel, and that it acts without a clear vision of where it wishes to lead the nation. They also see a government in Jerusalem that is careless in protecting its friendship with the United States.

There's also a generational gap. In each country, there is a growth of new generations for whom the times of Israel's struggle for survival are not even vague memories, but history lessons.

Young American Jews know the strong and swaggering Israel, not the fragile, threatened nascent state, and they lack a personal connection to the seminal event that resulted in the rebirth of the Jewish state — the Holocaust.

If Israel slips on the political agenda of American Jewry, that will be reflected on the congressional agenda, where the impact can be measured in billions of dollars in economic and military grants plus immeasurable political and diplomatic support.

There will always be a diaspora. The old Zionist dream of all the exiles, including those from America and the other prosperous industrial democracies, making aliyah, has faded. As a result, Israel will have to pay more attention to its relationship with the diaspora and accept that Israel-centric Judaism is not the only approach.

5758 could become a bitter year that heralds an era of separation for Israel and the diaspora, or a sweet new year marked by the beginning of the difficult task of forging a new partnership of equals, of respect and mutual need.

Douglas M. Bloomfield

Douglas M. Bloomfield is the president of Bloomfield Associates Inc., a Washington, D.C., lobbying and consulting firm. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.