Israel becoming less of a priority for Jews in U.S.

Even as Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza grinds on, attracting headlines around the world and support among pro-Israel advocates, I have the disturbing but distinct sense that the Jewish state is on the way to becoming increasingly irrelevant to the majority of American Jews.

It’s a feeling based on a combination of events that I fear is driving the Israel-diaspora connection further apart — not just the current conflict in Gaza, which underscores the ambivalence so many Jews have on seeing the results of Israel’s firepower aimed at Palestinian terrorists.

The chief culprit is the economy. The monetary meltdown in this country over the last few months, made more dramatic by the Bernard Madoff scandal that scored a direct hit on Jewish charities and funders, has turned American Jewry inward.

It’s only natural for people to focus on their own concerns first, and that is what is happening as so many of us worry about job security, keeping up with the mortgage, paying our bills and rebuilding our savings accounts.

Next comes taking care of our families and community institutions, from school tuitions to synagogue dues and projects, to local charities.

Will Israel become a luxury we can no longer afford to support as we have until now?

One of the negative ripple effects of the economic crisis at home is that projects to strengthen ties between Israeli and American Jews will suffer. Most dramatic is the case of Birthright Israel, which has been so successful this last decade in bringing tens of thousands of young diaspora Jews to Israel on free 10-day trips each year. Studies have shown that these visits have had a positive and lasting impact on Birthright alumni, instilling them with a feeling of connectedness to the people, state and land of Israel.

But some of Birthright’s most prominent funders, including Las Vegas entrepreneur Sheldon Adelson, have been hit hard by the Wall Street collapse, and it seems clear that trips to Israel this year will bring far fewer people — or may even be suspended.

That means a whole cohort of tens of thousands may miss out on the opportunity to experience Israel firsthand and, as a result, not come to understand and appreciate the valiant efforts Israelis make to live in peace in the region. And that’s just for this year.

What if Birthright and other Israel-diaspora programs are curtailed or ended for the foreseeable future due to economic conditions that are chronic and ongoing, not just due to a limited crisis? The impact would be devastating on younger Jews who are that much more removed from the warm feelings and memories that their parents and grandparents have of a brave and struggling Israel.

Israel today is, thank God, far stronger than it was as a fledgling state grasping for survival, but in many ways it is still seeking to prove its legitimacy six decades after statehood — and that is an outrage.

Few can watch the footage of Palestinian suffering in Gaza these days without feeling great sadness and empathy. But while some of us blame the cynicism and brutality of Hamas for purposely putting civilians in harm’s way as part of their strategy, appealing to the world to stop Israel in its tracks, others blame Israel without considering the context — or worse yet, are convinced that Israel is the aggressor here, not an independent state fighting terrorist thugs whose sole purpose is to destroy it, and Jews everywhere.

I am well aware and proud that so many in my extended community not only follow the news from Israel closely during this time of crisis, but as a regular part of their day, every day of every year. These are the people who participate in grassroots efforts on behalf of the IDF soldiers (from taking part in special prayer sessions at synagogues to sending them pizza). They are the ones who visit Israel regularly, give generously to charities in and on behalf of the Jewish state, and are the backbone of rallies on behalf of kidnapped soldiers or military campaigns.

On the other extreme is a vocal but relatively small portion of the community that opposes Israel’s campaign in Gaza, more concerned about unintended casualties among the Palestinian population than security for the citizens of Israel’s south, who have been the target of thousands of rockets from Gaza over the last few years.

I suspect that the majority of American Jews are somewhere in the middle — supportive of Israel’s effort to protect its citizens, but uncomfortable with the IDF campaign and the painful images they see of the results of the bombings. “Can’t you find another way?” they might be asking of Israel, as if the government and people had not endured years of attacks and provocation before striking back.

“We’d love to, but this is the Mideast, not the Midwest,” would come the reply.

The reality, of course, is that those of us who have been to Israel, seen its borders, met its people and understood its challenges are the most compassionate in times like this. My worry is that with an ongoing economic contraction at home, and fewer projects and programs to bring Israeli and American Jews closer together, the gap between us will only widen, and that level of compassion will decline.

I hope I’m wrong.

Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of the New York Jewish Week, where this column previously appeared.