AJ Committee official tells Jews here to learn from differences

American Jews and Israelis think they've got each other figured out. They think they know what makes each other tick. They think they know what it's like to live in the other's country.

They need to think again.

Eran Lerman, Middle East office director of the American Jewish Committee, believes that in the coming years the relationship between American Jews and Israel will grow even tighter and more vital than it already is. This will be easier, he notes, if the two groups better understand each other.

"There used to be a tendency to characterize American Jewry in terms of the rich uncle who gave some money or some bonds and, for him, this is his Judaism, this is his Zionism," said Lerman, a longtime Israel Defense Force intelligence officer who, upon turning 45, retired as a full colonel.

"It's much more complex than that. People do not realize that one of the profound differences between our societies is that American Jewry's commitment to Judaism is, by definition, voluntary. This has not been the experience of Jews anywhere else."

In Israel, he continues, "You didn't choose to be a Jew, it was imposed on you. In Israel you don't have to do anything to carry out Jewish activities. Whatever you do is Jewish; you breathe Jewish air and walk on Jewish soil."

A key point Lerman feels many Israelis fail to grasp is that, unlike their European cousins, American Jewry is here to stay.

Some see America as "another diaspora which will one day come to the same sad end as the others," explained Lerman, recently in San Francisco to meet with local AJCommittee board members. "But they fail to realize how closely-knit American values and Jewish values have become."

In addition to elected officials and members of the media, the AJcommittee has sent educators, social activists and even Israeli police officers on trips to the United States to get a closer look at American Jewry.

The overwhelming verdict, according to Lerman: "Those who come with open eyes find a lot to rethink their stance."

Israelis do not have a monopoly on cultural misconceptions, however. Many of the American politicians, political aides, students and academics Lerman has worked with come to Israel expecting to see scenes out of Stalingrad.

"First of all, Israel is still alive. We are still alive and kicking and dealing with many things other than hamatzav — the 'situation,'" he said with a broad smile.

Americans, Lerman believes, "don't get the full sense of how vibrant the internal debate in Israel is. When they do, they're reading from (the left-wing newspaper) Ha'aretz, so that's only one side of the political spectrum, really. If anybody is worried about the future of Israeli democracy, he hasn't been reading the Israeli papers. Read them daily and you'll sense how vibrant the domestic debate can be. There's a lot to worry about, but not the future of our democracy."

And, despite all of Israel's myriad troubles, one trip to an immigrant absorption center reminds Lerman that Israel's core values remain intact.

"You know, some people actually forge papers so they'll be considered Jewish enough to come to Israel, mostly from the wreckage of the former Soviet Union. They manufacture a piece of paper that, 60 years ago, would have been a death sentence. Now it's so desirable that an industry has sprung up forging them," he said.

"Their children grow up speaking Hebrew. Whatever background they may have been, they will be part of us. All Israel represents is contained in this little fact: What was death 60 years ago is life now."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.