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The Pluses and Minuses of the Personal Zionism of American Jews

by Shmuel Rosner

January 27, 2014 | 4:48 am

A general view of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Photo by Reuters

The New American Zionism, by Theodore Sasson. New York University Press, 2014. 219 pages.

Theodore Sasson's new book - The New American Zionism – is a serious book. That is to say that in a field filled with the ignorant, the manipulative, and the charlatanic, Sasson offers a fact-based and measured analysis of the uneasy relationship between American Jews and Israel. That the release of this book did not make huge waves in the world of punditry is therefore just as unsurprising as it is unfortunate: Sasson doesn't hyperventilate a catchy theory of doom, and doesn't project a new era of flourishing relations. He paints an accurate, if complicate, picture of a changing relationship – changing for good and for bad and, at times, in ways yet to be decided. "Contrary to conventional scholarly and political opinion, American Jewish engagement with Israel is not in any meaningful sense diminishing", he writes.

His book, in that regard, is the messenger of calming news: "distancing" from Israel of US Jews is no more than a myth. Sasson, being well-mannered and seeming to shy away from controversy, doesn't quite explain the manipulative nature of this myth (I did, in a paper that Sasson uses as a source). But he does destroy, brick by brick, the case for such a theory of distancing. The supposed decline in Jewish American philanthropy for Israel, for example, is not really a decline. It is more a change in approach and focus, reflective of "the master trend… from mobilization to direct engagement" – that is, from giving to large organizations and to anonymous causes, to giving "according to particular ideological visions".

This is the news, good and bad, that is conveyed by Sasson's book. Jewish Americans, he writes in the introduction, are going through a "paradigm shift" in their engagement with Israel. It is a shift, he writes, that has "been widely observed but generally misunderstood". The decline detected in some fields of engagement is usually a testimony to the decline in communal engagement – what Sasson refers to as the decline of the "mobilization model that characterized American Jewish engagement with Israel". Yet along with this decline, a rising "direct engagement" model "has emerged".

It is a shift, like many others, from the communal to the personal, a shift not unlike the one we can see on matters related to religion. Jewish Americans no longer trust their "institutions" to be their link to Israel – to tell them what causes to support, what policies to advocate for, what kind of engagement to pursue. Social trends, along with technological and material advancements, make "Israel" – that was once distant, impersonal and admired from afar – much closer now and hence more personal but less admired and, at times, even annoying. It is easier today to read news from Israel, to travel to Israel, to have Facebook friends in Israel, to directly engage with organizations in Israel. It is easier not to support "Israel" but rather to support Israel by supporting this or that cause in Israel.

Sasson shows how this works, in philanthropy, travel, and advocacy. Israel today, unlike in the sixties or seventies, is a great destination for tourism. So more people are inclined to visit as tourists or as recipients of one of the free Birthright tours that are offered to them. They have more encounters with Israelis than in the past. A trip to Israel is becoming "a normal part of growing up Jewish in North America", writes Sasson. A positive development, no doubt, but one that has consequences, not all of which are positive. Looking at a place like Israel with the magnifying glass of personal engagement, one can more easily see its flaws, not just its achievements. Looking at a place like Israel through a politically partisan lens, rather than a unifying communal binocular, one can more easily fall into the trap of getting a one-sided picture of few nuances.

Writing about the "attitudes and attachment" of American Jews to Israel, the book contends that a "new realism" now controls Americans' view of Israel. "The ascendance of this view" – sober, rooted in reality – "reflects, perhaps, a maturation of American Jewry beyond a mythic relationship to Israel to one more reflective of the complex realities of contemporary political choices and compromises". Maturity, though, has its downside: in this case, the threat of eliminating the idealistic drive that motivates communal work on behalf of a cause larger than politics-as-usual.

Sasson's book is a descriptive-analytic work, not one which advances specific policies. But the conclusions from it seem to write themselves without much effort. The challenge for those who care about having healthy and worthy Israel-diaspora relations is neither to battle "distancing", nor to promote a more "critical discourse" – these two components of the relations are already taken care of. The challenge is to find a formula that combines the advantages of direct engagement - the personalization of Israel in the eyes of so many Jewish Americans – with those of the old communal model of mobilization. In other words: to find a way to make the sweaty, imperfect, confusing, enraging, chaotic, contentious Israel a place for the advancement of which the American community can also work in unison. Israel needs it, for sure, as the current personalized model decreases its ability to benefit from the support (political and other) that only a community that speaks with one voice can give. The American community also needs it, as Israel – and Sasson's book proves it – is still one of the few causes that a vast majority of American Jews consider relevant to their Jewish identity, one of the few causes that make it a "community" rather than a large group of people who just happen to be Jewish.

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