Center Field: The GA should not be remembered as another bad date between American Jews and Israelis

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-29-08

The General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities brought over 2500 of America’s most generous Jews to Israel for a conference in mid-November. Unfortunately, the warm feelings many participants experienced have been upstaged by a controversy that continues nearly two weeks later. “GA largely ignored by Hebrew press,” a Jerusalem Post headline proclaimed on November 21. The article quoted Yediot Aharonot’s Diaspora reporter characterizing the GA as “one big kiss-up to rich people. American Jews are not authentic; they’re obsessed with money; there’s something annoying about them.” Echoing the nastiness, one of America’s top Conservative Jewish leaders sneered: “Israelis speak Hebrew, but many live lives devoid of Judaism. Just closing your schools on Shavuot is not the totality of Judaism.” What should have been a great bonding moment risked becoming another bad date between American Jews and Israeli Jews.

The Diaspora Affairs reporter’s caricature of American Jewry was particularly unfortunate considering who comes to the GA. In an era when most wealthy American Jews are ungenerous or support non-Jewish causes, the GA represents the altruistic remnant still donating much time and money to help the Jewish people in North America, Israel, and throughout the world. Walking the GA’s exhibition hall is simultaneously inspiring and stressful. It is moving to see how many different wonderful Jewish charities there are – and overwhelming to imagine how difficult it must be to decide which to fund.

The leading Conservative Jew’s contempt for Israeli Judaism was equally outrageous. Just as he would bristle at the many who define his movement by the most superficial Conservative Jews, who show up three-times-a-year and for the occasional Bar Mitzvah, flummoxed by the Hebrew and ignorant of Judaism, he should know better than to perpetuate the stereotype of the ignorant Israeli Jew. Non-religious Israeli Judaism is different than non-religious American Judaism – but in so many ways more substantive, rooted, integrated, learned. Moreover, while too many secular Israeli Jews are too distant from traditional Judaism, these contemptuous remarks ignore the Jewish renaissance taking place among non-religious Israeli Jews. When he next visits Israel on his movement’s tab, this leader should visit the Shalom Hartman Institute, and see the halls filled with supposedly secular Israeli teachers and army officers, attending advanced seminars brimming with Jewish content, which the participants then share with hundreds of others. He can visit the Hebrew Union College library, where an informal Bet Midrash involving dozens of supposedly secular but extremely erudite Jews meets regularly, discussing Tanach and Talmud in a sophisticated Hebrew most American Rabbis would have trouble understanding.

He can visit – and perhaps have his movement fund more generously – the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, the educational center of Israel’s Masorati – Traditional – movement or various Masorati congregations. In addition to granting 750 advanced degrees in Jewish studies during the last two decades, Schechter houses the TALI Education Fund, which teaches dynamic, pluralistic Judaism to 30,000 students in nearly 200 supposedly secular public schools and pre-schools throughout Israel. Closer to home, this leader should heed the expansive words of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Chancellor, Arnold Eisen, who marked Israel’s sixtieth anniversary by vowing “we will do all we can to make sure that by the seventieth, Israelis and American Jews will be more closely related to one another and appreciative of the parallel paths on which they are seeking to build Jewish communities and revitalize Jewish tradition.”

It is time to move beyond these tiresome clichés of the boorish rich American Jew and the boorish “goyish” Israeli. We should sentence all the arrogant Israeli reporters who mocked American Jews and the thin-skinned American Jewish leaders who took the bait to a ten-day birthright Israel mifgash[ encounter]. One unexpected birthright bounce from the free ten day trip to Israel for Diaspora Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 has been the mifgashim, encounters, with Israeli peers. The Israelis learn that not all Jews from abroad are rich; the Jews from abroad appreciate their new Israeli friends’ experiences, especially since most of the mifgashim are with Israeli soldiers. The IDF’s Education Unit loves this program. Most soldiers return with a greater appreciation for Jewish peoplehood, more proud of their own country, more focused on their mission. I once heard soldiers speaking after their encounter with a Montreal birthright group. The soldiers’ unit had been hit hard in Gaza – after a powerful bomb killed some of their buddies, the survivors had crawled in the sand, retrieving scattered body parts. One soldier said, “I always thought I was just defending my home. Now, I realize I am defending my people.”

These are the sentiments we need to foster, avoiding games of ideological and sociological one-upsmanship that mostly reveal the respective combatants’ insecurities. Five years ago, the last time the GA met in Jerusalem, thousands of supposedly spoiled North American Jews arrived, despite the wave of terror Israel was enduring. The climax of that GA was a march from the Binyanei Ha’uma Convention Center down Jaffa Road, ending in the midrecheov, the center of town, so everyone could patronize the all but abandoned restaurants and stores there. As the GA participants marched down the streets, hundreds of Jerusalemites cheered, waved, and cried. The merchants and restaurant owners downtown were downright giddy.

We know Jews unite during times of crisis – and love to bicker when calm returns. GA participants and organizers should know better than to consider Israel’s media a reflection of Israeli sentiment. And any Israelis who followed this controversy should also be wise enough to dismiss the foolish, thin-skinned responses of defensive Americans. The world’s challenges today are too great – and the bedrock of unity we share is too solid – to allow the narrow, provincial voices on either side of the Mediterranean to prevail.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

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2 Comments

  1. 100% on the mark, Gil. We must renew and redo American Jewish-Israeli ties, or both groups will suffer.

    Reply
  1. Hartman Institute in the news « Shalom Hartman Institute Blog הבלוג של מכון שלום הרטמן

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