Sunday, May 07, 2006

Dialogue of the Deaf?

Today seems very hot, and the apartment construction project across the street doesn't seem to be running the noisy compressor. So I'm staying in and catching up on the newspapers online. Ha'aretz has several articles in response to a speech a few days ago by Israeli writer A.B.Yehoshua. He spoke in New York at the 100th anniversary meeting of the American Jewish Committee. Not a low-profile event, the meeting also included speeches by President Bush, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Yehoshua's speech apparently shocked and aggrieved the audience, who wondered if he spoke for all Israelis. Yehoshua said that for him the only Jewish identity was Israeli. "Unless they lived in Israel and took part in the daily decisions, he told the delegates, they did not have a Jewish identity of any significance," said Ha'aretz. The response of David Harris, American Jewish Committee executive director was: "that Yehoshua expressed a 'classic Zionist position' -- a polite way of saying that Yehoshua's position was somewhat outdated and out of touch with the reality of American Jews."

Other than the articles in Ha'aretz, I have been unable to find any coverage of Yehoshua's talk, suggesting that it's not regarded as a big deal by American newspapers (or that coverage hasn't yet been indexed by Google or the NYT search engine). Therefore, I think this is a conversation among a small number of Jews in the US and Israel, which looks important to those few.

So what are they fussing about? Are American/Diaspora Jews inauthentic? Are Israeli Jews ignorant of American Jews' role in forming Israeli policy in the US? (Even if you don't agree with the ultraparanoid view that the Israel lobby caused the Iraq war to advance its own interests, the US position on Israel is no doubt influenced by the American Jewish community.) Needless to say, the reps to the American Jewish Committee are the most committed to Israel of just about any American Jews so their indignation, I would guess, is hightened by a sense of personal insult.

To figure out if Yehoshua has a good point, you can check all kinds of statistics about American Jews beyond the Committee. A recent study says that 1 of 5 American Jews doesn't care about Israel -- extensively discussed elsewhere in Ha'aretz recently. Contributions to Jewish organizations that support Israel declined several years ago (but I think they are on a slight increase now). Americans who go to Israel become much more interested and committed than those who don't, so there's a program for free trips for young American Jews. Mixed marriage decreases support and interest for all things Jewish or Israeli, and it's prevalent. There are many ways to be Jewish in America, from ultra-religious to ultra-unaffiliated, and I don't much like the idea of labeling anyone "inauthentic."

In Israel the facts are in contrast: "Indifference, ignorance and alienation characterize the attitude of the Jewish public in Israel toward the Jews of the U.S. ... The ignorance is shown by the fact that pupils in Israeli schools do not learn anything about the existence of Jews in the world today. The country that had no trouble absorbing billions of dollars from Diaspora Jews does not see fit to devote even a single hour of class time to teach its citizens about the existence of those Jews and the problems troubling them." So wrote Amiram Barkat in an op-ed piece responding to Yehoshua's speech.

Barkat cites a number of Israelis who agree with Yehoshua. For example, philosopher Menachem Brinker, he says, takes the view that "the Arabs of Umm al-Fahm and Lod are part of his nation much more so than the Jews of Manhattan or Chicago - the connection with whom, in his eyes, is a thing of the past."

If the Israelis (at least on some political side) want to have a pluralistic state, American Jews may have varied reactions. I am not the only American Jew who has accepted the American embrace of many ethnicities. Americans debate the details about issues like immigration. But I think most of us share the idealism that we can all live together and govern ourselves justly. I'm comfortable as a member of a minority in a Christian state, despite occasional threats to me or other minorities from various bigots or fanatics.

Some deep American values are uneasy with Israeli Jews' attitudes towards Israeli minorities. I hope Yehoshua and the others mean that Israel should be more idealistic about pluralism. I know they have an unsupportable challenge: members of one Israeli minority are under pressure from a billion of their fellows to hate Jews and to hope to destroy Israel. But if Yehoshua means Israelis should have a more open democracy I think no one heard him. And in turn he didn't hear the 4 out of 5 American Jews who say they support Israel.

No comments: