(March 19, 2019 / JNS) In recent months, some Jewish community leaders and pundits have been sounding an alarm about a rift developing between American and Israeli Jews. As evidence, they point to specific instances where Americans disagree with Israel’s political or social policies and decisions. They say that for younger generations of American Jews, Israel no longer resembles the beloved underdog of their parents’ or grandparents’ generations.
However, these critics miss the far more important point: There is more that unites Jews in America and Israel than divides us. We should not let individual points of contention distract us, sow division and embolden our enemies when the broader story between Diaspora and Israeli Jewish communities is one of unity and a shared sense of purpose.
We should not mistake temporary disagreements for an irreversible fracture. Just as all families disagree from time to time, the Jewish people—whether they live in Israel or the Diaspora—are not immune from the occasional dispute. Yet most American Jews side with Israelis on the big, existential issues: the belief in Zionism, in the sovereignty of the Jewish state and are supportive of Israel.
Knowing that both sides share the same starting point, it is less concerning when inevitable disagreements arise on smaller, tactical matters. And in the 70-plus years of Israel’s existence, there have been many areas where Jews in America and in Israel disagreed.
Indeed, almost immediately after Israel’s establishment, the relationship between the nascent Jewish state and the American Jewish community faced its first test. The re-establishment of the Jewish people in their historic and ancient homeland raised the important question: Where would the global center of Jewish life be? The destruction of European Jewry made the United States the demographic, financial and political center of world Jewry. Considering how welcoming America was to its Jewish citizens, many believed America to be the epicenter of Jewish life.
This matter came to a head when Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Jacob Blaustein, president of the American Jewish Committee, both vied for which country would be considered the “Jewish” state. Eventually, an agreement was signed that recognized the necessary support American Jews would provide to Israel, while Israel would respect the autonomy of American Jewry. This agreement set the foundation for relations between the two countries’ Jewish populations and has held for decades.
The critics also miss an important aspect to relations between the two communities: the fact that more American Jews than ever are visiting Israel. I have long advocated that the best way to get to know Israel and Israelis is to visit the country and meet the people; I have led trips for dozens of U.N. ambassadors that show them the history, beauty and ingenuity of Israel and its people.
Today, travel to Israel is common, easy, and, with certain programs, virtually free of cost for participants. Access has never been simpler, and American Jewish teenagers, college students and young professionals in particular are taking advantage of these opportunities. For most of its history, only 15 percent of American Jews visited Israel; today, that number is more than 40 percent and growing. And increasingly, there are programs that bring Israelis to America to work in local communities, further increasing interconnectedness and understanding.
This increased interaction creates deeper ties, with both communities learning from the other. In today’s hyper-politicized and polarizing world, polls continually reflect the favorable opinion American Jews across the religious and political spectrum have of Israel.
This feeling is mutual. Although Israel is enjoying a period of unprecedented strength and independence, we look to our American cousins as our greatest supporters, allies and benefactors. Polling in Israel consistently reflects that Israelis believe that a thriving American Jewry is important for the security and welfare of Israel, and they support programs that bring young American Jews to visit, study and live in Israel. What’s more, the Israeli government prioritizes this investment by budgeting millions of dollars per year to programs like Taglit-Birthright, Masa and others that bring Diaspora Jews to Israel.
The connection between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry goes both ways. Around the world, the Jewish community carefully tracks events in Israel and does not sit idly by when Israel is in need; it mobilizes its resources to help us. It is clear that Israel occupies a central role in the lives of most of Diaspora Jewry.
Israel is equally committed to the Diaspora. We, too, respect and appreciate the bond with world Jewry and always want to offer our help. When terrorists hijacked an airplane and held Jews—regardless of nationality, political ideology or religious observance—hostage in Entebbe, Uganda, we felt a responsibility to act. When Jews are murdered in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, we, too, feel that pain and want to stand with our grief-stricken brothers and sisters.
History teaches us that our enemies do not stop to consider a Jews’ observance level, nationality or political ideology before attacking us. To the anti-Semites of the world, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. And, increasingly, as we see in Sweden, in France and even in the halls of U.S. Congress, these bigots take refuge in justifying anti-Semitism as anti-Israel rhetoric. Let’s not help them out.
If our enemies view the wonderfully diverse tapestry that is world Jewry as a monolithic bloc, why should we do them the favor and start chipping away at what is our greatest strength: our unity and sense of shared purpose? When the Israelites wandered in the desert after leaving Egypt, they were attacked by our greatest enemy, Amalek. Amalek targeted the weak and vulnerable, striking at small groups, rather than the whole unit. The Israelites only defeated Amalek when they stood as one people. We are strong when we stand together, and recognize that the Jewish people—whether you live in Israel, America or anywhere else—are part of one family.
This coming week, as thousands of Jews gather in Washington, D.C., in an impressive display of support for Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship, let us remember that despite our disagreements, we all support and are a part of the incredible Zionist story.
Danny Danon is Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.