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It’s Up To Israelis To Bridge The Gap With American Jews

From: Shmuel Rosner To: Gregory Levey Dear Gregory, “For some time now, I have been testing them,” you write in your book. We both agreed the book was full of funny moments, and those looking for it can find it … Read More

By / April 17, 2008

From: Shmuel Rosner To: Gregory Levey

Dear Gregory,

“For some time now, I have been testing them,” you write in your book. We both agreed the book was full of funny moments, and those looking for it can find it in this episode. Or, they might think that this one is rather sad:

During tedious UN sessions, I would look straight at the Syrian, Libyan or Iranian diplomat until they felt that they were being watched and turn to face me. When they saw who was looking at them, they would quickly turn away, desperate not to make contact with the Israeli delegation…what’s the worst that could happen, I thought. They lodge a formal complaint with the UN saying ‘the Zionist entity was looking at me?’

Now, let’s think about these moments of pleasure for a second. What was it that made you want to tease the poor Syrian and the miserable Libyan? It was your young age, no doubt, and your boredom in this shrine of nothingness, and the oddness of you being there. However, I suspect there was something else too. Can it be a sense of pride? Or maybe the urge to tell these people that as far as you’re concerned they can all go to hell?

In your second response you felt the need to remind me that the uniqueness of Israel’s situation “doesn’t mean it’s not part of the rest of the world.” Well, I know that. But you have a point: I also think that Israel is more different than other “different” countries, including many of those mired in territorial, religious and national conflicts.

And you know what? I think you know that too — hence “the stare!” episode at the UN. You were looking at the Syrian as to let him know that ignoring you will not make you disappear. That nothing will make you disappear. Israel is only a “part of the world” in the eyes of those who accept it as such. For many others it is still a temporary nuisance.

The May issue of The Atlantic Monthly asks (on the cover), “Is Israel finished?” That’s an interesting question for someone like me, as I’m planning on going back to Israel someday with my four children in tow. The author of this Atlantic essay, Jeffery Goldberg, is someone whose work I respect and can even admire. But then this nagging question arises: Why doubt the future of Israel of all countries? And also — why is it that The Atlantic was asking the same question about this same country again? (I have a long memory. Here is Benjamin Schwarz asking, “Will Israel live to 100?” in the May 2005 issue of The Atlantic.) This can seem like a weird choice for an editor if he believes — like you seem to do — that mentioning Israel “in the same breath as Canada and Switzerland” is a natural choice.

Of course it is no coincidence that I now mention this work of Goldberg’s, who just like you lived in Israel for a while (and wrote about it the book Prisoners that we discussed a long time ago), and eventually decided that it was not the place for him and went back to live in this land of the brave. He has doubts about the future of Israel. Do I not share these doubts? Of course, we all have anxieties about the feasibility of Israel’s existence. Doubts painfully similar to those you espouse in your own book.

That brings me to your conclusion that “bridging the gap” between Jewish Israelis and Jewish Americans “is obviously a noble desire, but I’m pessimistic about its feasibility.” If both parts of this sentence are true — if we both agree that such desire is noble — then the question we should be asking is not whether this is possible, but rather how can it be achieved, if not in full than at least partially.

The answer to this question has both technical and more philosophical aspects. On the technical level, some measures have proven results. Take, for example, the Birthright program, which bets that getting young Jewish Americans to visit Israel will enhance their attachment to it, and their Jewish identity in general. (Somewhat ironically — judging by your book — it might be more advisable to have people coming for a short, touristic, kind of trips, rather than having them actually experience Israel.)

The more complicated aspect is the one you relate to: Israel has indeed “been able to create a new culture all its own” — and the same can be said about Jewish life in America. How one abridges the differences in culture, and frankly, differences in all aspects of life-experience, is a serious question. I think my answer might surprise you: The burden, as I see it, lays more on Israel’s shoulders than it is on the shoulders of American Jewry. Let me explain.

For fifty years now, the relations between Jewish Americans and Jewish Israelis were a one-way street: Israelis were supposed to live their lives; Americans were expected to follow, understand, admire, and applaud their achievements. It was not by design of any malicious force, but rather the natural evolution of these relations. But this can no longer hold. In order to have an understanding, a bond, we need a two-way street. We need Israelis to understand Jewish Americans better, to applaud their achievements, to show interest in their lives (rather than money and support). This “new culture” needs to be one that relates not just to the lives of Israelis, but to Israelis and American Jews alike.

Is this a reasonable expectation? I think it is. After all, this is exactly what Jewish Americans were doing for decades now. Think about Jewish American culture, and you’ll find the influence of Israel written all over it. But where is Jewish America when Israel’s culture is considered? In most cases, it is absent. I think its presence is essential if one wants to foster a meaningful dialogue.

“Sometimes I worry that Israelis forget” that their country is part of the world, you wrote. Let me be less ambitious here, and more particularist in expressing my own hopes (danger zone — this is really going to make me sound like the oldest, most out-dated, guy on the Jewcy block): Israelis tend to forget that they are part of a larger Jewish world. And this should be fixed.

Thank you so much for this conversation, and for the kind words (note to self: make parents read this dialogue) — and most of all for the book. Looking forward to hear your thoughts on this matter.

Shmuel Rosner

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