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The Jewish Diaspora in the USA

The ties are weakening

The Jews in the USA once made a major contribution to the establishment of the State of Israel. After that, they supported Israel's policies for years and viewed any criticism of it as immoral. That changed when the Likud bloc came to power in Israel and the Intifada uprising broke out in the occupied territories; political camps split and Jews in the US became more confident. Since then, many Jewish Americans have been unwilling to unconditionally support the Israeli government.

by Steven Rosenthal

Paradoxes and contradictions characterize the relationship of the Jewish diaspora living in the USA to Israel - even in comparison to the rest of Jewish history. In the era that preceded the founding of the state, while Zionism had little meaning for American Jews, the birth of the Jewish state was only possible thanks to their relentless efforts to raise funds and provide political support. The citizens of one country have never worked so hard for the success of another country as the American Jews for Israel. Yet for all their support for Israel, even their obsession, American Jews have had little direct influence on the politics of the Jewish state. Their influence has been largely their highly successful efforts to get successive US governments to support Israel’s policies. Paradoxically, American Jews were only able to exert some influence on Israeli politics after they refrained from their extreme and unified supportive attitude.

The relationship of the Jewish diaspora to Israel can be roughly divided into two phases. During the first three decades of Israel's existence, despite the crucial importance of financial and political support from American Jews, the influence was almost entirely in one direction: the Jewish state influenced the American diaspora, which generally embraced Israeli politics and its priorities made my own. Over the past two decades, this sole, primordial, paternalistic relationship has been replaced by a variety of relationships between the different groupings that make up both Israeli and American-Jewish societies. At the same time, an increasingly independent American Jewry has achieved modest success in its attempts to influence Israeli politics. These changes are a result of changes both in the world political situation and in Jewish society in America and Israel.

Without the support of the Jewish diaspora in America, Israel might not have come into being. When American Jews became aware of the extent of the mass murder of European Jews, their previously half-hearted support for Zionism turned into a mass movement. A Jewish state would be a place of refuge to help build; it would alleviate the guilt of American Jews for not saving European Jews; and it would counterbalance the prevalent idea of ​​the passivity of the Jews at the time. Between 1945 and 1948, more than two and a half of a total of five million American Jews were members of one of the organizations that had set itself the goal of creating a Jewish state. By 1948 they had raised the staggering $ 400 million for emergency and development aid to Israel and its defense. More importantly, a large-scale advertising campaign by American Jews could get the American public to support the creation of a Jewish state. Last but not least, their tireless lobby moved President Truman to join this goal and to use American influence in the UN to bring together a majority of votes for the Jewish state.

The emergence of the State of Israel was an event of immeasurable importance for American Jews: the foundation of new pride and self-esteem, the model of progressive liberalism, a source of Jewish identity and an occasion to believe in a new post-Auschwitz age. Almost hypnotized by the symbolic power of the state, most American Jews withdrew from active, informed advocacy for Zionism to merely emotional and passive support. To some extent this was the natural consequence of Israel taking its affairs into its own hands. The new state struggled to demonstrate independence from its key supporters by highlighting the anti-diaspora character of Zionist ideology, long downplayed in the name of unity.

Almost immediately after the founding of the state, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion violently attacked the American Zionists. Perhaps he was trying to ward off claims by American Zionist leaders to a share in power. He urged American Zionists to emigrate to Israel, since life in the diaspora had no future and, despite all of its freedoms, America meant spiritual exile. A Zionist who remains in America is no longer one, and every Jew living in exile is an inferior Jew.

After Ben Gurion took American Zionism into a defensive position, he stripped it of its power base. By being the World Zionist Organization the donation-collecting task withdrew and it withdrew from the non-Zionist United Palestine Appeal transferred, he replaced educated and well-informed American Zionist leaders with a down-to-earth leadership team who knew very little about building a state. While a broader mass base was mobilized in this way, the shaping of American Jews' relationship with Israel was essentially placed in the hands of people who felt emotionally attached to that state but who were intellectually unable to do anything more than sincere to empty their wallets to support him.

The bulk of American Jews hardly noticed these changes, for most of them had an emotional, symbolic relationship with Israel that they could reconcile with the center of their life in America. As American Jews became increasingly assimilated, it was convenient for them to equate Israel with Judaism, thus lightening the burden of religion: They related their Jewishness to a state 8,000 kilometers away from home. In addition, Israel undertook highly meritorious tasks of making the desert bloom, building a new society and defending it against an irreconcilable enemy. This intrigued American Jews and suggested that their job was not to formulate politics, but simply to provide financial and political support. A new bureaucracy of Israel-related organizations emerged to promote and coordinate the new form of charity and political support. Many individual charity initiatives were combined into a campaign and organized by local groups of Jewish associations. In the 1950s, because of the high demand and frequent emergency situations in Israel, up to 70 percent of the income of Jewish communities was passed on to the Jewish state. The declining needs of Israel and the fact that tasks are now being given priority in America have meanwhile mean that the percentage of the revenue of the Jewish associations that is sent to Israel has fallen to about half.

To coordinate political support for Israel, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations brought to life. Composed of Zionist and other organizations and all currents of Judaism, it represented a broad spectrum of American Jews. This enabled the voice of the Jewish community to make itself heard better. But because only one institution had been created to speak for American Jews, this favored a uniformity of expression that became even stronger when all the member organizations submitted to the conference.

Among the main organizations lobbying Israel were them Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress. With different political accents, they all campaigned for Jewish issues and supported Israel to the best of their ability. These organizations, together with influential Jews in both political parties, mobilized a broad base to ensure that Israel's policies were supported by the United States and that Israel received increasing amounts of American development aid. The pressure exerted by American Jews was so successful that there was only one major disagreement in the first decade of Israel's existence, when the US froze aid after the 1956 Suez War and forced Israel to withdraw from Sinai .

The solidarity that American Jews felt with Israel was greatly strengthened by the Six Day War of 1967 and its aftermath. American Jews basked in the reflection of an overwhelming and glorious victory that no one expected. They were deeply saddened that Israel thereby drew criticism from both the American and international lefts for the occupation of the West Bank and Sinai, and they turned increasingly to the task of countering anti-Israeli propaganda, which they often and not always rightly share Equate anti-Semitism. Political support for Israel came to the fore, and it came about America Israel Political Affairs Committeewhich soon became one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in Washington.

The feeling of pride and vulnerability determined the relationship of the diaspora in the United States to Israel for the next fifteen years. Scientists spoke of Israel's "central role" and believed that the Jewish state had become the "new secularized religion of American Jews." Emotional issues - such as the infamous 1973 UN vote that equated Zionism with racism - mobilized a large percentage of the Jewish community. To enforce a unified opinion in favor of Israeli politics was not a problem, since the secular veneration of the Jewish state was combined with a kind of intimate superficiality. For many American Jews, their Judaism increasingly consisted of singing "HavaNagila" but not learning Hebrew; that they traveled to Israel but had no intention of settling there; that although they donated extremely generously to the Jewish state, they did not concern themselves with questions of its welfare and development. The heated political debate in Israel over the establishment of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza found little echo among American Jews, who generally believed that diaspora criticism of Israel was immoral and fueled global anti-Semitism.

However, Prime Minister Menachem Begin's term of office from 1977-1983 was marked by the emergence of a new independence for American Jews in their relations with Israel. On the one hand, the end of the Labor Party's political monopoly and the advent of the revisionist Likud bloc meant that there was no longer a single Israel to draw its directives from. On the other hand, new political developments fueled the discussion as Israel's security consolidated and its government opened up to new opportunities and a range of contentious alternatives. While Begin was rightly praised for having signed a peace treaty with Egypt, his narrow interpretation of the Camp David Accords with regard to the Palestinians, as well as the ongoing establishment of new settlements in the West Bank, led to the fact that the united front of the Jewish- American mainstream began to show cracks. The Orthodox, who make up five to seven percent of American Jews (the reform movement and the conservatives each make up 40 percent), supported Begin's settlement policy and generally distrusted the peace process. Many of the rest of the American Jews began to scrutinize Israeli politics and express discomfort.

A series of political crises and mistakes by the Israelis led to a redefinition of the relationship between Israel and the diaspora; they undermined the unity and passivity of American Jews that had hitherto been the salient feature of the relationship. This redefinition was set in motion by Israel's invasion of Lebanon. First, American Jews accepted the invasion and, despite their concerns about the growing civilian death toll, put their concerns aside, not least in the face of growing criticism of the invasion in America and around the world. The Sabra and Chatila massacres, where the Lebanese Christian right-wing militias massacred 600 Palestinian civilians - under the eyes of the Israeli army, which had assumed responsibility for their protection - gave rise to unusual scrutiny, nervousness and public criticism of Israel by American Jews . For them, the massacre challenged the beloved notion that Israel was qualitatively different from other states. It became clear that Israeli politicians can be just as stupid, arrogant and lying as anyone else. The loud demand by American Jews that the background to the massacre be exposed and that the real responsible be identified contributed to the reluctance of Prime Minister Begin to set up the Kahan Commission of Inquiry.

The Pollard affair three years later led to the worst crisis in the relationship of American Jews to Israel to date. The diaspora showed more self-confidence here than ever before. In November 1985, Jonathan Jay Pollard, an American Jew who worked as a civilian in the US Navy, was arrested for espionage on behalf of Israel. American Jews, outraged by Israel's ruthless stupidity and ashamed because Israel had abused one of their own for their dirty work, became more active than ever. When Israel refused to accept responsibility for the affair (it did not do so until May 1998), American Jews made the loudest demands that Pollard's Israeli agent leaders be punished. One of them, New York Times columnist William Safire, wrote: “American supporters of Israel cannot tolerate injustice here or there. As for their religion and culture, many of these supporters are American Jews. But when it comes to matters of national interest and basic loyalty, the delaying (Israeli) leaders will have to learn to regard us as Jewish Americans. "

When the Israeli government refused to punish those responsible, they called Conference of Presidents this is an "irresponsibility" that leaves a "deep wound" in the relationship between Israel and America. The anger of American Jews against Pollard led to the breaking of a great taboo - multitudes of people from the mainstream criticized Israel - but could not change Israeli politics. But the consequences of the dispute can still be felt today. The refusal of American Jews to obey Israel's orders and to stand up for Pollard, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1986, has helped keep him in prison.

The Palestinian Intifada encouraged the diaspora to try harder, more comprehensively and with increasing success to influence Israeli politics. Horrified by the images of Israel cracking down on the rebellion, and convinced that this revolt proved how hopeless the further occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was, a growing number of American Jews began to criticize not just individual actions, but the whole Questioning the thrust of Israeli foreign policy. The Jewish community in the United States was deeply divided. The left criticized the Israeli repression and called for a peace conference, while the right accused it of political naivety and self-hatred. For two months, angry American Jews drove into Israel constantly voicing their concern that Jewish newspapers were full of polemical articles against Prime Minister Shamir. Every day more people and organizations announced that they had stopped providing financial support.

In the face of these differences of opinion, an ad hoc group of American Jews took an unusual initiative. On the 7thIn December 1989 prominent Jewish activists and academics met Yasser Arafat informally and then declared that the PLO was serious about peace. The US, which has refused to speak to the PLO for ten years, should change its stance. Since the US government actually decided a week later to resume negotiations with the PLO, it seems reasonable to conclude that the most radical American Jews had become an important catalyst, influencing American politics in a direction contrary to Israel's wishes.

The Intifada greatly expanded the space for dissenters among American Jews and strengthened the self-confidence of the Jewish left in the United States. The election of Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister raised rights in Israel and the US when he signed a peace treaty with the Palestinians in September 1993. When the controversy within Israel over the peace treaty reached a level of bitterness that eventually culminated in the murder of Rabin, Israeli politicians began to drag American Jews into the scuffle of Israeli politics. The majority of the Orthodox in America were strictly against the peace treaty; most of the rest of the Jews supported it half-heartedly. The Likud opposition in Israel ignored previously respected borders and instructed its American supporters to lobby the US Congress against its support for the peace treaty. In contrast to the previous unit, the Jewish community in the US was now so fragmented that Rabin complained: “We have never seen US Jews try to influence Congress against the policies of a legitimate, democratically elected Israeli Government."

Despite its many factions, the tenure of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (1996-99) showed that the Jewish community in the USA was increasingly able to influence Israeli politics. When in April 1997 the Orthodox Knesset parties, which Netanyahu needed for his government majority, introduced a bill that would not recognize converts to Judaism made by non-Orthodox rabbis, American Jews, 85 percent of whom felt are not orthodox, marginalized and reacted extremely violently. As one of the leaders of the American Reform Movement It put it, "If the reform rabbis in Israel are not rabbis and their conversions are not conversions, it means that our Jewish religion is not Jewish and that we are second-class Jews." The US Jewish media was filled with outraged letters to the editor and editorials that stated with the greatest astonishment that the legislative power of the Israeli state should be used against American Jews. Many Jews refrained from donating as usual, and the United Jewish Appeal recorded 20 percent less donation income. The Israeli ambassador reported: "The leaders of Jewish organizations have clearly warned us that this will lead to the worst crisis that has ever existed between American Jews and Israel." Passing the conversion law is a direct result of pressure from American Jews.

The dissatisfaction of American Jews with Netanyahu's religious policy and his disapproval of the Oslo Agreement led to further successful initiatives by the diaspora to influence Israeli politics. When the US put pressure on Israel to move the Oslo Process forward, the main lobby groups of American Jews, AIPAC and the, refused Conference of Presidents, To support Israel in their refusal - even though they had been asked to do so three times by the Netanyahu government. At the 1998 Wye Peace Conference, Netanyahu refused to withdraw Israel's troops from 13 percent of West Bank territory in return for the Palestinians' pledge to fight terrorism, and threatened to leave and let the conference fail. As the Conference of Presidents refused to support this policy, the Prime Minister reluctantly signed the Wye Accords.

Paradoxically, this new self-awareness of the diaspora seems to obscure the fact that Israel is no longer as important to American Jews as it used to be. Committed people discuss Israel more, more intensively and with more different points of view, but overall, fewer Jews are likely to listen to them than in the past, or even be interested in the subject at all. Even when Israel's influence was greatest, it was estimated that only a third of American Jews were very committed, for another third supporting Israel was more of a compulsory exercise, and the remainder were indifferent or even could be called opponents of Israel. The advocates have decreased and donations to Israel have decreased accordingly. This trend is particularly pronounced in the younger generation. Sociologist Stephen Cohen found that for every decade that respondents were younger, 10 percent less supported Israel. One of the main concerns of fundraisers is how they can reach the younger generation.

These trends are an inevitable consequence of the fact that time flies. Those who lived to see the mass murder and the birth of Israel are dying out, and emotions - even if it was unimaginable horror and the utmost rapture - lose their power after several generations. Israel's heroic age is also a thing of the past. The desert has blossomed, millions of immigrants have been taken in, the country has stood its ground against great adversity, and it has produced a high culture with democratic values. Inconvenient normality has taken the place of emotional climaxes such as the founding of the state, the six-day war or the commando action in Entebbe. Today's video clip of young Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint in East Jerusalem speaks less to the feeling than the image of their fathers praying at the temple wall that has just been liberated.

Other foundations of American Jews' attachment to Israel have also been shaken. The secular, humanist Zionism with which American Jews had identified so much is a thing of the past - some Israelis today speak of a post-Zionist era - and the religious nationalism that threatens to take its place inspires few in America apart from the ultra-orthodox. Fundraising - for a long time at the heart of the relationship - has lost its importance, as the contribution made by American Jews now accounts for less than one percent of Israel's gross national product.

Israel's economic development has made donation less important. And the end of the political consensus prevents the unified political lobbying that used to be the other main task of American Jews. The feeling that everyone pulls together in an emergency is no longer alive, and American Jews have begun to be more concerned with their own internal problems.

Although the disappointment after the collapse of the peace process in autumn 2000 temporarily revived the old scheme of unified support for Israel, the relationship between the diaspora and the Jewish state is likely to be shaped in the future by the different relationships and the ability to make judgments that differ depending on the grouping have emerged in the U.S. Jewish community over the past quarter century.

from: the overview 02/2001, page 33


Steven Rosenthal:

Steven Rosenthal is Associate Professor of Middle Eastern History and Judaism at the University of Hartford, Connecticut, USA. His latest book was published in 2001 under the title "Irreconcilable Differences? The Waning of the American Jewish Love Affair with Israel".