Beliefnet

This article originally appeared on Beliefnet in July 2000.

Thirty-three summers ago, a delicatessen in Washington advertised its newest specialty with a hand-lettered sign in the window. "The Nasser Sandwich," it said, "Chicken and tongue with Russian dressing on Jewish rye." That culinary brainstorm, with its reference to the Egyptian leader of the time, typified a certain moment in the American Jewish zeitgeist. In those heady days after Israel's lightning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, the largest community in the Diaspora swelled with unprecedented feelings of solidarity for the Jewish State.

For much of the century, before and after the creation of modern Israel in 1948, the passionate and concrete attachment of American Jews to statehood had remained the province of a relatively modest number of ardent Zionists, most of them secular and socialist, some Orthodox nationalists. Suddenly, amid the wake of Israel's victory over Arab invaders and its conquest of Old Jerusalem and the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, Zionism was not merely virtuous but trendy.

The United Jewish Appeal's 1967 "emergency campaign" to aid Israel raised $307 million in six months, more than doubling the amount taken in the entire previous year. In the largest rally of American Jews in history, 150,000 gathered in New York to declare their bond with Israel. In the years immediately after the war, the number of American Jews immigrating to Israel quadrupled from its prewar level of 1,000 annually.

It was deceptively easy in that euphoric time to imagine that American Jewry would never stray from Israel's side. The fright of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when the Egyptian army successfully crossed the Bar-Lev Line along the Suez Canal and thus shattered the myth of Israeli vulnerability, only compounded the intense ties, both emotional and financial, between American Jews and their Israeli brethren. Anyone who ever sat through the predictable High Holy Days sermons about that relationship--culminating in an appeal for a sizable pledge--understood how integral a place Israel held in American Jewish identity.

Given all that history, the arson in late June of a Conservative synagogue in Jerusalem, apparently by ultra-Orthodox vandals, came as more than a repugnant act. The attack on Kehilat Ya'ar Ramot--in which flaming rags were thrown into the sanctuary, destroying some furniture and prayer books--served as a reminder of one major reason why the politically and theologically liberal mainstream of American Jewry is growing ever more estranged from Israel. And this drift has left Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak largely bereft of meaningful, active support from American Jews for the peacemaking policies that, in fact, the majority of Jews in the United States endorse.

When academics speak about the causes of immigration, they talk about "push" and "pull" factors. The framework applies to the situation of American Jews because their alienation from Israel can be seen as a sort of psychic immigration--after spending two millennia imagining the return to Zion and at least two decades actively supporting the state of Israel, they now seem to have lost interest, in favor of increased Americanization. In this paradigm, the "pull" away from Israel to America is the profound assimilation and integration of American Jews into this nation, as evidenced by such corrosive phenomena as the 52% intermarriage rate and such heartening ones as the election in 1998 of 11 Jews to the U.S. Senate and 23 to the House of Representatives. With Diaspora this welcoming, it should surprise no one that a huge share of American Jewry is abandoning all but a symbolic link to Israel.

Then, however, there are the "push" factors. One was the emerging belief on the American Jewish left, in the wake of both the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the Palestinian Intifada five years later, that Israel bore some responsibility for the bloody impasse in the Middle East. Another, as evidenced by the recent arson, was the perception that Israel disdained the Conservative and Reform denominations that together represent more than half of America's 5.7 million Jews. A whole series of similar assaults by ultra-Orthodox fanatics preceded the Kehilat Ya'ar Ramot incident: the 1997 firebombing of a nursery school operated by the Reform movement; the verbal and physical harassment of mixed-gender Conservative congregations at the Western Wall in 1997, 1998, and 1999; the vandalism of the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, earlier this year.

Were such episodes seen by American Jews merely as the acts of a crackpot fringe they would not have stirred such indignation. But with its American-born rabbi and a largely American congregation, Kehilat Ya'ar Ramot remains an anomaly in the Jewish State. Despite some recent gains in membership by the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel, they represent a tiny fraction of a nation divided starkly between secular and Orthodox factions, neither of them particularly enamored of American-style Judaism. The Israeli left wants a different American invention, separation of church and state, more than it wants parity for all branches of Judaism. The Israeli right, meanwhile, wants a continuation of the Orthodox monopoly over such civic rites as marriage and burial. It is already promoting legislation to undo a Supreme Court ruling in May that broke the Orthodox control of worship at the Western Wall.

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