Guestpost: Thoughts on the American Jewish Community
I asked Mike to write his thoughts on the American Jewish community in the comment section of one of the posts and it is so thought-provoking I thought it should be an actual post where more folks would be likely to see it. Many thanks Mike for contributing these observations for discussion!
Well, since the queen of the blog wants me to post, I suppose I have to post on some of my observations on the American Jewish community.
During the Gaza fighting last month, about a half dozen of us held a rally to counter one by our local anti-Israel group. I’ve never stood out on a street and protested for or against anything in my life, so this was new. Other than the anti-Israel people trying to bait us into a confrontation and some expletives murmured at me by one of their members, it was a really positive experience for me and I’ve heard this from others who were there too.
We got a lot of honks and waves from people driving by, many more than the other side. A woman passing by talked to us and said how much she supported us. She also said she was glad to see us out making ourselves heard. I think that’s when it dawned on me why going out was a good idea.
It’s wasn’t so we could inform people because we didn’t talk about Israel with most passersby. We tried to make jokes and seem pleasant and polite. So it was something else. Eventually, I realized that if we aren’t willing to stand up for ourselves, we can’t expect others, even if they support us and agree with us, to stand up for us.
I know this thought might seem a little far removed from a post on American Jews, but I if you stay with me I think you will see where I’m going.
If we look at polls we see that about 70 percent to 80 percent of U.S. Jews support Israel, about 15 percent don’t care and about 5 percent hate Israel. These figures have been stable over about 10 years and while there are some questions about younger Jews, other polls show younger Jews more attached to Israel than middle-aged Jews.
Of the 15 percent that don’t care, some assimilate out and some, as they get older and start having families reconnect with their Jewishness. Of the five percent who are anti-Israel, I think they are hard to define but I suspect for many of them, the only connection they have left to a Jewish identity is their hatred of Israel. SO in strange way Israel is helping them hold onto some shred of who they are and where that exists, there’s always the hope of return even if it’s rare and they do incredible damage to the Jewish people in the mean time.
But I want to mostly talk about that 70 to 80 percent who support Israel in some way or form. Some of these people will also assimilate out, some won’t. (We know assimilation rates run around 50 percent, so support of Israel alone isn’t enough to keep people from leaving, although it clearly helps.)
I’m a big tent kind of guy both in my Judaism and my Zionism, and I think most of these 80 percent are Zionists even if many wouldn’t identify themselves that way. SO far it’s hard to see the downside to this, but unfortunately, I don’t think a lot of this 80 percent is particularly well informed on issues relating to Israel (I have no idea on percentages, because I’ve never see polling data on it).
I suspect some members of the unquantified group of poorly informed Jews overlaps with another group, who while they support Israel, also see Israeli intransigence on issues like settlements as the reason for the conflict. Think Thomas Freidman at the Times. In the 1990s I suspect a lot of Jews, even in Israel held views like this but events caused us to shift our views. Unfortunately, some people remain stuck in the 90s as opposed to the anti-Israel Jews who seem more stuck in the 60s.
Some in this lost in the 90s crowd (I suppose it’s better than being lost in the 70s and having to wear bell bottoms and listen to disco) are prominent like Freidman, others aren’t. Regardless of status, I suspect that when these Jews talk publicly about Israel, whether in the NYT or to their friends, they rarely if ever utter a positive word about or even try to explain the Israeli point of view, this even though they support the continued existence of Israel and have some connection to the state.
And here’s where we come back to my little protest epiphany I talked about at the beginning of this long post. Just as standing up for ourselves empowers others to stand up for us, constant criticism of Israel by us gives other license to criticize Israel too.
“Certainly if my Jewish neighbor says such things about Israel I can too,” is what I assume some people think. I don’t think most of the non-Jews who think this way are anti-Semites, but because so much of the criticism of Israel runs on the rails of antisemitism, it’s inevitable that the comments drift into antisemitism.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. You often heard Israel’s criticism of West Bank road restrictions. They started out complaining about Jewish only road but eventually they had to admit they were Israeli only roads. The road restrictions are a valid point of comment and you can criticize them without being antisemitic.
But to do that you need to know the context for the restrictions. They were put in place after Palestinian terrorist shot a woman and her five children driving in the West Bank at point blank range (is this right Yaeli?). [Eds note from Yaeli: Actually, it was after approximately 30 people had been killed, including Arab-Israelis, and dozens more seriously wounded in constant shooting attacks and attacks with bricks and so forth thrown through the windshields on cars over a period of a couple of years. The woman and her children were killed after Israeli-only roads were built in the most highly trafficked areas for Israeli cars but they were on a section of road that was not Israeli-only]
When the anti-Israel crowd talks about roads, they leave out this context and use the restrictions to show Israel is some type of Jewish supremacist state. This works because our society has a built-in prejudice that Jews are clannish, keep to themselves and think they are better than everybody else (chosen). Even people who aren’t anti-Semitic are libel to unconsciously hold or be influenced by some of these prejudices.
Critical Jews spark the action and the anti-Israel crowd then takes advantage of the situation. That’s why I would never have the kind of conversation we are having here with non-Jews. It’s different. I might say I disagree with a specific policy, but then I try to at least give an Israeli reference point so people can understand.
Anyway, blame Yaeli if this post is too long and of course you are free to disagree.