Professor decries the deep rift between Israel and U.S. Jews

Whereas some people see a rift between American Jews and Israel, Arnold Eisen, chairman of Stanford's religious studies department, sees a chasm.

"I'm driven to the conclusion that American Jewish religious thought is barely concerned with Israel," Professor Eisen said. "It is not in our prayerbooks but for one prayer, not in Jewish literature and not in our children's curriculum."

Eisen made these comments at a lecture he gave late last month at Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. His speech, titled "Our relationship with Israel at the age of 50," was one of four Peninsula events in the Bay Area's "Israel at 50" celebration.

Focusing on a topic that has recently garnered much attention in the Jewish community, Eisen told the audience of about 75, "The ignorance and apathy on both sides is appalling."

Since about two-thirds of American Jews have never visited Israel, he said, their only knowledge of the country is what they learn from American newspapers. Nor, he added, do they have a real understanding of Israel's differences from the United States in terms of ethnicity, religion, politics and economics. There is also a split between American and Israeli Jews on the peace process.

The differences between the two Jewish populations, Eisen said, have led to less overall support for Israel. He warned that such a lack of support could have an immediate — and perhaps negative — impact on American government policies.

So, if that's the case, why aren't we doing more about Israel?

The main reason, Eisen said, "is that we are far away. Except for a brief period, from the beginning of Zionism, American Jews have kept a safe distance from Israel."

At the same time, Eisen pointed out, while we in America want Israel to make us feel good about being Jews in our country, Israel does not see this as a top priority.

As a means of bridging the divide, Eisen offered several suggestions:

*All Jewish teenagers should spend time in Israel. In addition, when they return home, they should have access to quality programs to reinforce what they have learned.

*American Jews need to be brought together with Israelis to work as partners. Already, such efforts are taking place, such as a program called "Partnership 2000," a bonding of U.S. communities with Israeli ones.

*American Jews should acquire more knowledge about Israel, starting with the Hebrew language.

*We need to rethink the nature of Zionism, which Eisen said has become more cultural than messianic. Today, he said, Zionism means bringing Israeli Jews and diaspora Jews together to solve common Jewish problems.

*We need to create fruitful dialogue, Jew to Jew, and we should explore together Jewish tradition and shared history.

Eisen noted that some changes are already taking place with Israel's own relationship to Judiasm. Education has been transformed in the schools, teaching a respect for diaspora Jews. Also, significant foreign investment between the countries has provided opportunity for more interaction with Americans both here and in Israel.

Eisen said he is convinced that as diaspora and Israeli Jews increase their cultural and commercial interaction, the close relationship that both groups seek will blossom.