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Jewish Journal

Connections: Israelis and Americans

December 3, 1998 | 7:00 pm

About two weeks ago, I attended a three-day conference in Jerusalem along with more than 3,400 Americans and Canadians and 2,000 Israelis. We North Americans had all made the journey despite State Department warnings that travel in the area was unsafe, in part because of an expected confrontation with Iraq. But when we looked to see how Jerusalemites were reacting to our presence, we discovered that, in general, the Israeli world outside our convention center all but ignored us.

In the Israeli press, for example, there were few stories, most of them buried. When I talked with a taxi driver, a hotel clerk, a group of students at a cafe, even assistants in the mayor's office, I found little knowledge about us and even less interest in what we were about. It was the classic example of Israeli disinterest in the comings and goings of Diaspora Jews.

Perhaps this disinterest was justified. The occasion, after all, was a bureaucratic gathering of American and Canadian Jews for the 67th General Assembly of UJA Federations of North America. The UJA Federation conferences, which, among other things, are concerned with raising money for Israel, are not known for their sex appeal or for the news headlines they generate.

But this occasion was to be different -- more than just a change of venue from an American city to Jerusalem. Its focus was presumably linked to Israel and Israelis: Namely, this was an attempt to look at issues of Jewish identity both in Israel and the Diaspora. What we had forgotten was that Israelis, for the most part, were indifferent to the world of the Diaspora, except when Jews were literally in danger.

Actually, this was not news to me. The conventional wisdom among my Israeli journalist counterparts is that the Diaspora holds little interest for most of their countrymen. The reason being that many think of themselves primarily as Israelis, not as Jews. Their conflicts seethe with passion over matters of nationhood, not religion. Even the struggle today between the haredi and the secular Jews in Jerusalem is a political dispute, not a religious one. For those of us in the Diaspora, the message is clear: You want to be heard, to be taken seriously by us, then make aliyah.

A glimpse of this was highlighted in a film shown at the GA: "I'm an Israeli who happens to be Jewish," said a likable young man on camera. His identity, he indicated, was vested in nation, not religion. After all, that was the dynamic he shared, the central value that linked him to everyone else. They all served in the army, faced a common enemy, responded politically to differences in goals and interests, but, nevertheless, were still bound together by a common language and a national history. It was an Israeli culture that defined their lives, and being Jewish, which they took for granted, was only a part of it. We as American Jews were apparently locked out, not because of rejection, but because we were inconsequential.

Israel's political leaders, I know, are not quite so insular. They recognize their own special need for connections to the American Jewish world. But it is precisely our role as influential Americans that they find so crucial, not the presence or absence of Jewish heritage or knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish culture. Our strength in Washington is what's essential: for military support, for economic aid and for backing within the United Nations. In short, what they want is national, not Jewish, assistance, and that we Jews can provide it is a boon to Israel and to us.

Why to us? We want, I believe, the myth of the Jewish homeland and the sense of pride and accomplishment that accompanies it...even though we are only marginally a part of the story.

In the end, what we seek to retain is a connection with Israel. Until now, we have simply gained that connection through philanthropy, coupled with the use of political leverage in Washington. Today, philanthropy will no longer serve us. Israel is economically on a par with much of Western Europe, and the amount of private money we raise is relatively modest.

At the GA meetings, several Israeli leaders proposed that our local Federations hold back a sizable share of the contributions for Israel. Utilize it to help your own communities, primarily to further Jewish education, they urged. But the Americans protested. This was shortsighted on Israel's part; moreover, it did not take into account our need to make a contribution, to have a presence in Israel.

What should that presence be? I am bothered that much of the present talk tends to jump to a grand scale. Israelis may seem indifferent to us, but we increasingly see in them an answer to our greatest problems. How do we stem the rise in intermarriage, improve Jewish education, master Hebrew? It sounds like an exaggeration, but many of the panaceas imply that strong ties with Israel will do the trick. As a solution, it has the virtue of shifting the focus from our own door, and of creating a different (but simpler) dilemma: Namely, how can we improve our ties with Israel?

What's required, I believe, are local, specific exchanges complete with content and interaction. For example, there is already in place a lovely program that originated in Los Angeles through the efforts of many players. Essentially, three schools in Los Angeles have been linked with three in Tel Aviv: Tichon Hadash with the Milken Community High School; Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles with the Magen Elementary School; and, on the middle school level, the Abraham Joshua Heschel Community Day School in Northridge with Tel Aviv's A.D. Gordon School.

The planners and benefactors of these programs reach across many layers of the society within the two cities: Parents and teachers and school administrators function as essential partners in the endeavor; the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles helped initiate the partnerships and provides some support for them; so, too, do the municipalities of Tel Aviv and Los Angeles; and there's aid from the Jewish Agency and resource people as diverse as Beverly Hills resident Herb Glaser, who serves as co-chair and who sits on the Board of Israel's Jewish Agency, all the way across to the University of Judaism's education professor Hanan Alexander.

The curriculum is planned jointly by teachers and administrators in Israel and here; there is daily e-mail correspondence between the students, especially on issues of Jewish identity; and built into the center of the program is the concept of student exchanges.

All of this represents a start that can only be looked upon with great enthusiasm. Will it lead to Jewish unity? To a sense of shared values and Jewish peoplehood? Perhaps -- at least in some instances with some particular individuals.

The point is programs such as this reinforce strong ties between individuals and families, not nations. And, if nothing else, they are likely to lead to rich education experiences and long-term friendships that extend to the years that lie ahead. -- Gene Lichtenstein

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