Bucking the sentiment expressed by others at the outset of a discussion about the relationship between American Jews and Israel, CNN political analyst David Gregory asserted that the Jewish state has become “TOO central to our Jewish identity.”
Last Wednesday evening, two days after the U.S. embassy opening in Jerusalem and the deadly border clashes in Gaza, he told author and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, with whom he shared the stage, and an audience of 700 people at Central Synagogue that the news from Israel “reaches my mind and heart but not my soul.” The former host of “Meet The Press” explained that he tries not to let political events in Israel “overshadow how I live as a Jew.”
In his remarks, Gregory offered an honest and heartfelt response to those who insist that American Jewish allegiance to Israel must never waver, asserting that fealty to Israel should be a critical, but not sole, factor in one’s Jewish identity. And as a self-identified Jew who would not be recognized by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate — his mother was not Jewish — he spoke for many liberal American Jews when he said: “As a community we are asked to rally around Israel, but we still stand apart.
“I love Israel, but does Israel love me?”
In response, Halevi said, “We in Israel need to take your quest for Jewish identity seriously,” adding: “And American Jews need to take existential threats to Israel seriously.”
The evening, sponsored by The Jewish Week in collaboration with UJA-Federation of New York and Central Synagogue, was a launch for Halevi’s new book, “Letters To My Palestinian Neighbor,” an eloquent attempt to begin a meaningful and sustained dialogue between Palestinians and Israeli Jews. (See “Reaching Out Across The Barriers,” April 27 issue.)
But given the events of recent days in Israel — both the jubilation prompted by the embassy move and the despair over the casualties in Gaza — much of the discussion, moderated by Central Synagogue’s Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, focused on how American and Israeli Jews do and don’t relate to Mideast events and to each other.
A dramatic example of the growing disconnect between the two societies was the contrast in their reactions to last week’s Mideast events. Many Israelis focused on the embassy move, which they celebrated as not only righting an historical wrong but showcasing the Trump administration’s full-throated and all too rare support of the Jerusalem government on the international level. Much of the American Jewish community, though, was troubled and embarrassed by the number of Gaza protesters’ deaths and the negative U.S. media coverage for Israel and the IDF.
Halevi, who grew up Yossi Klein in Brooklyn and made aliyah more than 35 years ago, described his journalistic career as seeking to interpret Israeli life for American Jews, and vice versa. He explained, for example, that geography plays a critical role in the behavior of the two cultures. American Jews, he said, live in the most welcoming diaspora in history and reflect that freedom and openness in their behavior. Israelis, on the other hand, live in a hostile environment and “need to be the toughest kid on the block” to survive. Commenting on Israeli forces shooting at Gazans trying to break through the border fence, he said, “In the Mideast that makes sense, but on CNN in America it looks horrific.”
Halevi said he set out to write a personal memoir of why Israel is important to him and to the Jewish people, hoping that Palestinian Muslims, dismissive of Israel’s historical narrative, would relate to its spiritual and religious framework. His other target audience is young American Jews who feel more distant toward Israel, particularly to its policies regarding the Palestinians, the settlements and the fact that liberal forms of Jewish religious practice are not recognized as authentic by the chief rabbinate.
“Each community feels hurt, betrayed by the other,” observed Rabbi Buchdahl, who is Reform. She said she felt sorry for Israeli Jews who have little access to more liberal forms of prayer.
Halevi acknowledged that he, too, shares a sense of betrayal over Israel’s increasingly narrow policies on issues of Jewish identity. He said that American Jews “own their Judaism but Israelis feel owned” by the chief rabbinate. “In some ways we don’t deserve to be loved by American Jews,” he said. “For 70 years, Israel has been insulting and alienating to diaspora Jewry” in excluding non-Orthodox Jews when it comes to equal prayer at the Kotel and laws regarding conversion, marriage, etc.
But he also said many Israeli Jews “felt betrayal” over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which he said 90 percent of Israelis opposed, and which the majority of American Jews either supported or chose not to oppose. “For me,” he said, as a strong critic of the deal, “it was a blow to the heart.”
On a hopeful note, Halevi said he sees “the beginnings of change” among Israelis in their attitude toward liberal expressions of Judaism. He encouraged non-Orthodox Jews to “create facts on the ground” by taking advantage of the designated egalitarian prayer area at Robinson’s Arch, the southern portion of the Western Wall. “It’s available but not being used enough for prayer,” he said. “There should be non-stop prayer services there” to prove that the liberal demand for equal prayer access at the Kotel has traction.
Gregory called for more open, civil discussion within the Jewish community about vital, if controversial, issues. Following the 2015 publication of “How’s Your Faith?” — his memoir describing his spiritual journey — he said he was told in Jewish communities “don’t talk about God. But now, in the Trump era,” he said, “they tell me don’t talk about politics.”
Halevi and Rabbi Buchdahl agreed with Gregory that more and deeper dialogue is needed not only within our Jewish community but between American and Israeli Jews to help heal the growing rift. “You are both spiritual seekers and journalists,” Rabbi Buchdahl told them, and she reminded Halevi that he has written that a religious Jew is forbidden to despair.
“Is it naïve to hope?” she asked him.
As a self-described curmudgeon on Mideast politics, he pointed out that he was a skeptic during the optimistic Oslo years of the 1990s, yet not as bleak as many others today, when peace talks seem far removed. (He noted the “unimagined” security alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia, given their common enemy, Iran, and other signs that give him hope.)
“Israelis believe that our lives have metaphysical meaning,” Halevi said at evening’s end. “You can be pessimistic in the short term, but profoundly hopeful and faithful about the future.”