Israelis must stop denigrating lives of diaspora Jews

Despite systematic misunderstandings, Jews in America and Israel — until recently — had a shared sense of being Jewish, however that term was defined.

Indeed, it was the people of Israel, the land of Israel, and the state of Israel that served as the glue to bind them together. Yet, with the passage of time, this commitment to Israel, which inspired involvement and solidarity, has given way to a vague sense of affinity and even disinterest.

American Jewry's apparent estrangement from Israel stems to a certain degree from the very intimacy of that relationship.

As American Jews became involved in Israeli neighborhoods and gained direct access to Israeli elites and policy-makers, Israel became less than the simplistic and evocative symbol that the fund-raisers had made it out to be.

American Jews discovered that Israel is not the 51st state of the United States of America.

The gap between the living reality and the mythic symbol of Israel also has widened in recent years.

Israelis, who ignored, took for granted or were even contemptuous of their American Jewish kin, are now concerned that Jewish attachments to Israel are weakening. They worry that American Jews are losing interest in Israel.

The fact of the matter is that Israelis do not understand nor appreciate nor particularly care about American Jewry. As the saying goes: Israelis like everything American except American Jews.

That is in part because Israelis are victims of their own Zionist education, which mandated a belief in shlilat hagola (the denigration of the diaspora). Zionist doctrine mandated a diaspora where Jews could never be wholly at ease and secure.

But Israel as a solution to diaspora Jewry's existential problem did not take into account an American Jewry that does not feel it faces any existential problem.

Perhaps the time has come for Israel to stop justifying its existence by denigrating or minimizing Jewish life outside of Israel.

We could start with the media. One only has to read the Israeli press to understand how Israelis learn disdain for their fellow Jews.

A study years ago surveyed Israeli press coverage of American Jewish life. It found that Israeli corespondents in the United States write about Israeli self-interests in the American Jewish community. Foreign aid, tourism to Israel and AIPAC are covered, but virtually nothing about the dynamics of the American Jewish life.

Similarly, Israeli schools ignore teaching about the largest Jewish community in the world — America's — whether it be in the context of current events, history or Jewish studies.

Israelis learn little and know little, and hence care little, about American Jews.

Along with that is a growing awareness that American Jews are no longer driven by guilt or even nostalgia. At ease with themselves and their lives, they have transubstantiated from American Jews into Jewish Americans. For Jewish Americans, being Jewish is no longer the subject or object of their lives.

Correspondingly, Israelis are fast becoming Jewish Israelis rather than Israeli Jews. As a result, the commonality of Americans' and Israelis' Jewishness is mediated by their different national identities. They need to develop greater knowledge and understanding of each other and, hopefully, respect and appreciation.

Zionism should no longer require excoriating or marginalizing the diaspora. Zionism should mean teaching, inculcating and experiencing the inextricable bond between the people of Israel, the land of Israel and the state of Israel.

The relationship should be one of trust, respect and mutuality. Israelis should study and experience the creativity, achievements and reality of the American Jewish community. Once there is a degree of mutual understanding, then interaction, sharing and interdependence may follow.

Israel should continue to be an evocative symbol for American Jews. However, to perform this function, Israel's living reality cannot be too disparate or contradictory to that of Israel as an idealized symbol.

Israelis will not only have to change their attitudes toward American Jewry, but they also must shape an Israeli reality that can justify American Jewry's idealized notion of Israel as a powerful and meaningful symbol.