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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Arms and class - the disconnect between American and Israeli Jews

While my readership is likely mostly sympathetic to Israel's actions in Lebanon, I am well aware that the vast majority of Jews abroad - especially in the United States - are horrified at the 'civilian casualties' that they are undoubtedly seeing on their nightly news or in bytes on CNN.

If American Jews don't support this war - and I haven't seen any surveys on the subject but it would not surprise me if that were the case - then there is a real disconnect between American and Israeli Jewry. Yesterday, I saw a survey that indicated that 81% of Israelis (with Arabs included in the survey) support the current action in Lebanon. 81%. You can bet that the percentage of American Jews in favor is much lower.

I think that most of us have noticed that the strongly pro-Israel community (which I define to mean the people who either are contemplating or who have made aliya, or who visit here on a regular basis) is moving more and more to the right of American politics, while the majority of Jews are remaining Democratic and on the left. There is no shortage of attempts to explain why American Jewry remains so liberal - particularly in light of the fading Democratic support for Israel. At the rally in New York this week, Hillary Clinton winced when Elie Weisel said "Thank God George Bush is President." But I think that most of us realize that if Al Gore was President - let alone John Kerry - there would be enormous pressure on Israel to let up in Lebanon.

In today's Jerusalem Post, Samuel Freedman takes a stab at explaining the disconnect between American and Israeli Jewry, and in the process he may even be explaining why most Jews remain Democrats in the United States: Jews don't do the army. Here are some excerpts:
No aspect of daily experience more separates American and Israeli Jews than the role of military service and the broader sense of physical power and a classless society that it has come to represent. At a time when Israel has once again been compelled to take arms in national defense, the ignorance of soldiering among Jews in the United States is an essential element in the disturbing disconnect between the two largest Jewish communities in the world.

This realization occurred to me when reading newspaper coverage of the mass rallies held by American Jews during the Six-Day War in 1967. The current struggle, what should be known as the Iran-Israel War, is as much an existential conflict as were those in 1967 and 1973. We all know now, if we didn't before, that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meant exactly what he said when he pronounced his desire to wipe Israel off the map. He is perfectly willing to have a democratic, reviving Lebanon sacrificed merely as an opening skirmish.

BACK IN 1967, when Nasser and secular pan-Arabism were Israel's enemies, American Jews rallied and gave money and volunteered and ultimately made aliya in unprecedented numbers. The gatherings in the United States, at least thus far in the Iran-Israel War, pale in comparison. CNN estimated that 2,000 people attended the protest outside the United Nations on July 17. Should the current war drag on, it is entirely possible that American Jews will equal, if not surpass, their philanthropy during 1967 and 1973 (adjusted for inflation), but I would bet that the money will come from a much smaller number of donors.

During the Six Day War, a large share of American Jews had first-hand memories of the Depression, World War II, and the revelation of the Holocaust. As the historian Deborah Dash Moore has pointed out in her invaluable book G.I. Jews, thousands of young men had simultaneously reified their Jewishness and their Americanness by serving in the armed forces. During the Cold War years and the Korean War, the United States continued conscription. Those Jews who passed through the military understood full well the necessity, at certain moments in time, of fighting. They understood that some enemies cannot be bargained with, only broken or at the least deterred.


If you have grown up in material comfort and social ease, like most American Jews, than there is something unsettling, disquieting, d class about the army. There is something difficult about holding in your brain two truths - that it is terrible to see Beirut being pummeled and to know civilians are dying but that it is more terrible to give Iran the moral victory of a stalemate now, emboldening it to mount even greater attacks against Israel. Or, as Sheik Hassan Nasrallah of Hizbullah put it in a quite precise phrase, "occupied Palestine." This is, after all, a war against sovereign Israel, a war fought after withdrawals from both Lebanon and Gaza.

Through the Oslo years Israeli conservatives indulged themselves in all sorts of fulminations about how the new historians and their post-Zionism were going to corrode the national will to exist. Well, after the Aksa Intifada and now the Iran-Israel War, we know that fear was utterly unfounded. Maybe the concerns everyone should have had was about post-Zionism American-style, the post-Zionism not of passionate, informed disagreement but a shrug and a yawn and a certain comfort level at the cocktail party.
Read the whole thing. I found it fascinating.


At 2:50 PM, Blogger Red Tulips said...

I think it's more fundamental, because Orthodox Jews in Israel don't fight, and yet are big right wingers.

I simply believe that many Jews in America are quite secular, and have stopped really thinking of themselves as Jewish. It's as simple as that. I have many friends who don't give a fig about Israel in a large part because they don't give a fig about their Judaism.

For me, I am not sure why this is, but I care a great deal about my Judaism. To me, Israel is a major deal - but not from a religious perspective. I consider myself a Jewish atheist. While I do not believe in God, I am still of Jewish identity. Maybe this is because I am so close with my grandmother, who was in the Holocaust. But I shudder when I see antisemitism on the rise. And I will never feel comfortable in my own skin if Israel ceases to exist.

Actually, I have reached a point in time where I do not feel comfortable in my own skin, simply because I live in NY, and not in Israel. I cannot explain this one, because I have never even been to Israel. But for the past six months, I have felt like half a person, living in NYC.

Carl, maybe you can explain this one for me. You made the aliyah from Boston, which is similar in many ways to NYC. Why did you do it?

At 3:07 PM, Blogger Jersey Joe said...

I think most Jews, as well as most Americans, support the war.

At 3:44 PM, Blogger Yael said...

As an American Jew who cares deeply about Israel, I would urge that we don't concentrate on the "disconnects," but instead act to strengthen the unity that exists. Sure, American leftist Jews are noisy, but I think that most American Jews, like most Americans, support Israel in this. Rallies are being held all over the country, and at least in my "circles," many American Jews are planning to come to Israel ASAP, either individually or as part of emergency solidarity trips being organized. Please remember too that most American Jews have family and friends in Israel. We are one family. I think you have to forgive us for living in the diaspora. The family of Jews has enough problems right now; this is not the time to accentuate the divisions among us.

I refer to your blog several times a day. Keep up the great work and may HaShem bless you and keep you safe.

At 4:29 PM, Blogger Carl in Jerusalem said...

Miss R,

Some Orthodox Jews do fight. But you're right that those who don't are big right wingers. That's partly because they'd rather that no one have to fight and believe that getting the job done right once and for all will prevent future fights. And partly because Orthodox Jews have a strong belief that Jewish lives come first.

As to secular Jews not caring about Israel, I've made the argument before that for many Jews liberalism has replaced Judaism as their religion. But clearly there are many secular Jews like you who strongly identify as Jewish even if they don't practice many of the religious tenets. Perhaps it's due to your family background that you remain sensitive to Jewish concerns.

I made aliya because I wanted my children to grow up in an environment where there would be no question that they would be proud to be Jewish and where the Jewish education is the best that it can be. I think that's here.


I think we need to understand why some people might feel disconnected if we want to bring them back. And I suspect strongly that your circles and mine are not the (for example) liberal New England circles that many Jews in that area frequent. I would bet that support for the war among Jews in Boston or Berkeley is considerably lower than it is in Israel or in the Orthodox neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

At 4:32 PM, Blogger Harry said...

I'm guessing that more American Jews than you think support this war. Even most of the liberal Democratic Jews, (at least the ones I know) are supporting the war. I agree with miss r, that those who care about their Judaism, care about Israel. And that care is spreading to our children.

My son returned from Israel last night. He and over 200 other Jewish teens from the Detroit area had their trip to Israel cut short by this war. They know whose side they're on. And my son is determined to return. Of course, he met an Israeli girl so there may be other motives at play.

Would the experience of military service help galvanize more support? It might. But just as important is a good Jewish education, and as mentioned earlier, considering yourself Jewish.

At 5:06 PM, Blogger David said...

Let me say Thank You to Carl for his excellent blog. I just found it, via Little Green Footballs, a few weeks ago and now I check it most days. Please keep up the good work.

On the article about military service, I think the issue is broader than Jews in the military. It extends to all people in the middle to upper class. Few people serve in the military in the U.S. and, there are, I believe, even fewer Jews who serve, in relative proportion. This means, as the article says, that those who don't serve have less support for the people who do serve and at times, a near revulsion to military action.

This is why many in the "higher classes" don't support the U.S. in Iraq now and see military service almost as a cop-out. The unspoken line is "you must have joined the military because you couldn't get a different job." Sad, very sad.

That said, many people I know, mostly Jews though, support the U.S. in Iraq. And my Jewish friends clearly support Israel, but almost all of them are Orthodox, which goes to a point made earlier.

Lastly, I still think Jews support Israel, even the secular Jews. Somehow we Jews believe (in general) that Israel is vital to Jewish survival even for those Jews who do nothing Jewish in their own lives.

At 6:32 AM, Blogger M. Simon said...

I'm a luke warm Jew.

I am a commited Zionist.

My politics are libertarian/Republican.

My father was a Navy man (staunch Democrat too). I was a Navy man.

I have one son who is considering the Israeli Army.

I have no idea why so many Jews support the Dems. Historical I supose.

BTW I'm 61 but would like to get in the fight. I can do electronics from maintenance to design. Any ideas would be welcome.

My e-mail is at my blog sidebar.


At 7:03 AM, Blogger Kranky (in the civilized world) said...

For whatever its worth ...

I used to be a democrat. I happily voted for Mr Clinton in 92, less happily in 96, more of a vote against Dole who I was not impressed with. In 2000 I held my nose and voted for Gore.

That was the last time I voted democratic.

Born and raised in NY, moved to the midwest US for grad school. Standard american jewish kid. Not strictly observant, haven't been in 2 decades.

None of this stops me from being Jewish, or proud that I am Jewish.

I strongly support Israel. I am an unabashed zionist, living in an area where being such is personally dangerous (around Dearbornstan Michigan area). When I was teaching courses at a university in Detroit, I would hear of jewish students mocked by the many arabs with "Yehudi Kelb" or similar phrases. That and the virulent anti-semetic/anti-israel litmus test in academe made me reconsider tenure track positions. I won't bow to pressure to conform my political views.

I voted for Bush last time, and after finally seeing the extreme stances of my elected officials, I did what I could to help friends in other districts find candidates who didn't overtly/covertly support terror and terrorists.

The sense I get is that there are many more like me out there. We don't stop being jewish. We don't disolve into society. A rapidly decreasing number of us are liberal democratic, in large part due to the existance of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Conyers, McKinney, Dean and all the rest of the barking moonbats in the democratic party. These people are dangerous when in power, Mr Clinton had a terrorist with blood on his hands sleep in the white house.

Most of my family has quietly switched, as have many other jews I know. The liberals are loud. They are also rapidly aging, and diminishing in number.

Israel is experiencing a strong upsurge in support in the US. This is in part due to the excellent PR that Dan Gillerman and team are doing. Bibi is great on TV. Israel needs to keep up this PR offensive. When it concedes defeat and pulls back on PR, then all you hear is the enemy narrative, and that does nobody any good, especially when they lie and no one calls them on it.

Keep the sane narrative going, constantly. Never let it up for a moment. Losing the PR war is not an option, and is, IMO one of the major reasons why Israel had lost lots of the US jewery in the first place. The enemy repeats their message over and over. Regardless of its many falsehoods, this narrative sticks, and jews feel more inclined to not fight against it.

At 8:48 PM, Blogger Shanah said...

I've never felt such a disconnect with America/American Jews as I did three days ago, when I woke up, watched the news and thought, "I just can't relate to these people." The disconnect started with the expulsion last year, but it's grown into a regular valley it seems-- I think one of the greatest effects of this war on Jews in the galut will be seen in the massive increase in aliyah rates during the war and after victory is declared.


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