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American Jews and Israel

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: As the US tries again to broker a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, American Jews are speaking in unusually diverse voices about what Israel should do. Generally, older Orthodox Jews are strongly opposed to anything they think might weaken Israel’s security. But more and more younger, less religious American Jews are publicly critical of some of the policies of the Israeli government. Betty Rollin listened to the full range of opinions.

BETTY ROLLIN: This year’s New York Salute to Israel parade honored the 100th anniversary of Tel Aviv. Unsurprisingly, the spectators included many fervent supporters of Israel.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: I just went and I was in love with it. The people are amazing, the spirituality and everything about it, you can’t find it anywhere else.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I think it’s important for my kids to know their tradition, their history, and for them to grow up with that love of Israel that my parents instilled in me and I would pass it on to them.

Rabbi Avi Weiss

Rabbi AVI WEISS (Hebrew Institute of Riverdale): The history of the Jewish people is wed to the land of Israel. The Bible talks about a special mission that the Jewish people have, and whenever it talks about the covenant, which is our contract with God, it talks about children, people, and land, and from the very beginning that land as defined is the land of Israel. That’s where Abraham and Sarah walked.

ROLLIN: Rabbi Avi Weiss, an Orthodox rabbi in Riverdale, New York, has strong personal ties to Israel. Two of his children live there with their children. He travels there often, and Weiss’s spiritual connection to Israel runs deep.

Rabbi WEISS: As wonderful as I feel in America, in Israel I feel like I’m spiritually flying. I can’t explain it. It’s like asking someone why they’re in love.

ROLLIN: Many American Jews are very moved by the concept of Israel. What’s behind that?

Professor STEVEN COHEN (Hebrew Union College): In part, they are reacting to Israel as a response to the Holocaust. For years, Jews have suffered from persecution. That persecution never reaches the height that it did in the destruction of six million Jews in Europe, and American Jews are very aware of that narrative from ashes to the glorious, miraculous state of Israel and that really cements the American-Jewish relationship with Israel.

ROLLIN: Whereas American Jews overwhelmingly support the state of Israel, there is more and more criticism of its policies, even on the part of some rabbis. Rabbi Michael Paley is a scholar in residence at the UJA Federation in New York. Although a strong supporter of Israel, Rabbi Paley is troubled by its treatment of the Palestinians.

“American Jews are very aware of that narrative from ashes to the glorious, miraculous state of Israel, and that really cements the American-Jewish relationship with Israel.”

Rabbi MICHAEL PALEY: We’re now in control of other people, and sometimes we’ve been too aggressive. Sometimes we haven’t listened to their rights. Sometimes we’ve blotted out their voices. Sometimes they made us blot out their voices.

ROLLIN: Philip Weiss is a nonreligious American Jew who writes a blog that is very critical of Israel.

PHILIP WEISS: Israel is pursuing disastrous policies on its own that, as a Jew, I have to stand up and say this goes against all my training as an American. This goes against the civil rights struggle in which I took a part. This goes against the Vietnam War struggle in which I took a part, and so I’m going to stand up as a Jew, as a proud Jew, and denounce these policies and say you have to find a new path.

Israel came out of a movement that responded to horrific conditions for Jews in Europe. Those conditions don’t exist anymore, and that is why this summoning the Holocaust—which is what the Jewish leadership is reduced to again and again in order to maintain support for Israel in the American Jewish population—that has run its course.

ROLLIN: Abby Bellows is a young Jewish American who is sympathetic with the Jewish need for a homeland, but she also has reservations.

ABBY BELLOWS (Community Organizer): I feel complex in my feelings towards Israel. My grandmother escaped from Germany, and a lot of our family was killed there. So I get the need for a Jewish state from that kind of visceral level, and I recognize that anti-Semitism still exists in the world. But at the same time I feel that there’s something fundamentally tense for me about having a state that by definition gives preference to one group over others, because my Jewish values taught me about egalitarianism, and I feel like they are not being represented necessarily in the policies of Israel.

A lot of my friends are into progressive Israel activism. But I have a lot of other friends who just feel really alienated from the state. I’m a community organizer, and a lot of left-Jews really don’t connect or are embarrassed by Israel or feel really alienated.

ROLLIN: Professor Steven Cohen has studied the wide range of opinions American Jews have on Israel. He found that non-Orthodox Jews over 65 are far more committed to Israel than those under 35.

Prof. COHEN: In large part that’s because younger people are more likely to marry non-Jews, and it’s the result of that marriage that their attachment to Israel is lower than older people. Among non-Orthodox Jews, most young Jews marry non-Jews.

ROLLIN: And many non-Orthodox young Jews feel they can fully express their Judaism in America without reference to Israel. In contrast . . .

Prof. COHEN: . . . Orthodox Jews, as opposed to everybody else, have become more attached to Israel: more travel to Israel, more study in Israel, more settlement in Israel. They are more conservative, some say hawkish, about Israel’s conflict with its Arab neighbors, and their approach to Middle East politics will come to more and more influence the way American Jews relate to that part of the world.

Professor Steven Cohen

ROLLIN: The Orthodox, among others, are greatly concerned that the two-state solution, which Obama favors, would result in a loss of land — and security.

Rabbi WEISS: We withdrew from Lebanon, and what happened was suddenly the rockets came in. We withdrew from Gush Kativ, from Gaza, and the rockets came into Sderot, and I have great fears at this point if we are going to withdraw from the West Bank, from Samaria and Judea, then Tel Aviv is right there in the line. I desperately want to live in peace with Palestinians. Rabin used to say you have to make peace with your enemy—which you can only make peace with an enemy who wants to make peace with you. Having Gaza which is controlled by Hamas, by terrorists, or withdrawing from the West Bank, which could then be taken over by Hamas or Hezbollah, that’s not good for Israel and it’s not good for America.

ROLLIN: However American Jews feel about Israel, the important thing, according to both sides, is that they feel.

Prof. COHEN: Criticism of Israel indicates engagement with Israel. American Jews should be worried when their children stop criticizing Israel.

ROLLIN: The question is whether the growing criticism in America will affect US policy toward the state of Israel.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Betty Rollin in New York.