Jewish Journal

Ties Still Bind

by Marlene Adler Marks

Posted on May. 20, 1999 at 8:00 pm

With Monday's victory of Labor candidate Ehud Barak as Israeli prime minister, we can once again put to rest the age-old stereotype that American Jews are disinterested in Israel. As this week's Gallop poll indicates, nothing could be farther from the truth. A full 82 percent of American Jews regard Israel as "vital" to their interest. Nothing new. Nothing's changed. Headlines be damned.

In my experience, those liberal Jews who have no particular activist tradition rarely show their passions while Israel is going through an election rite of passage. The Jewish activist community calls that "disinterest" -- and wonders why no one shows up at pre-election community meetings aimed at educating them. But the average American Jew regards such overweening interest as meddling. My chat room on America Online last week was filled with Americans blistering about Israeli ex-pats who were supposed to fly to the homeland to vote. We have no tolerance for such long-distance interest, especially for those with relatively little at stake.

It is not surprising -- at least to me -- that after Election Day, we mysteriously come alive again.

After the election, we do not stand silent, as the record of the last four years clearly shows.

We have not stood silent on the issue of who is a Jew.

We have not stood silent on the Orthodox monopoly of Israeli religious institutions.

We have not even stood silent on intermarriage or whether rabbinic students should gain military exemptions. Only in matters of the voting booth have we refused to get involved. And that silence, with all due respect for the tradition of activism, is for the good.

Beyond refuting our disinterest in Israel, there were other lessons for American Jewry in Monday's results.

Lesson Number 1 is that American-style campaigning does not go over well even in Tel Aviv. Netanyahu's election four years ago was said to bring Israel its first "American-style" president. Netanyahu had studied our campaign techniques and this year even hired Arthur Finkelstein to teach him the art of sound bites. But Israelis rejected Netanyahu not on style but on substance; they want a man of peace, one who knows the difference between Israel's future and its past.

Lesson Number 2 is that neither Labor nor Likud completely understands the liberal American Jew. Though many of us were committed to Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, American Jews were amazed by the willingness of Labor to capitulate to Orthodox demands. In the last four years, we've caught on. Since the Netanyahu election American Jews of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements have spent unprecedented funds and hours tilling the grass roots, establishing synagogues and schools that bring religious liberalism to Israel. These new liberal institutions will give Israelis something that no government can impose or deny, the taste for religious pluralism.

It is too soon to know if Ehud Barak is any more sensitized than his predecessors to American Jewish needs, but liberal Jews are not relying on it. They're acting in Israel out of their own self-interest.

Lesson Number 3 is that Israel is writing its own history. The Netanyahu-Barak race was the first in which none of the original founding fathers has played a role. We in America could only stand by humbly, in watchful awe, as the old order changed. Whatever comes next, it is not the Israel of Begin, Shamir, Sharon or Peres and Rabin. For many Americans, their first experience of Jewish activism came in seeing Golda Meir on her visit to the U.S., or connecting to Israel through the Yom Kippur War. We are all losing our touchstones with that past. We are now in a new era now; the end of that Era of Giants is at hand.

Lesson Number 4. We'll remember Israel at the polls. If American Jews were silent about the Netanyahu-Barak race, we will not be silent in the year 2000. I met this week with Gerald Parsky, head of the George W. Bush presidential exploratory committee in California. Parsky, who once served in the White House of Bush's father, was certainly aware that Gov. Bush must separate himself from his father's image among the American Jewish electorate, which is why George Schultz, secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, is a prominent part of Bush's election advisory team. Gov. Bush has been told time and again that his father burned bridges to the U.S. Jewish community in 1992 when he portrayed himself as "one lonely guy" fighting the Jewish lobby, giving 92 percent of the Jewish vote to Bill Clinton. The Republican front-runner is banking on a "suburban Republican voter" to help him defeat Al Gore, a group that includes many Jews.

Neither Israelis nor American politicians should equate our awe with disinterest. We are watching Israel, I suspect, with the same sixth sense of commitment, the same heart filled with wonder as when "we" made the deserts bloom. That's why reports of the death of the American Jewish connection to Israel are wrong, and profoundly premature. Editors, give the headline a rest.

Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, is author of "A Woman's Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life" (On The Way Press).

Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.

Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.com.

Her book, "A Woman's Voice" is available through Amazon.com.

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