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.

So even as Prime Minister Barak quickly visited Kehilat Ya'ar Ramot to inspect the damage and denounce the arson as "shocking"--a condemnation echoed by the Modern Orthodox rabbi who is his minister for Diaspora affairs, Michael Melchior--Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert did not come until two days after the June 24 attack. And when Olmert did, the Jerusalem Post reported, he complained that the synagogue president was "not respectful" in criticizing the mayor for not having ordered an aggressive investigation to an incident in early June when Kehilat Ya'ar Ramot's front door was set afire.

The disparity between Barak's and Olmert's responses could have been predicted. Olmert, a leading figure in the conservative opposition party, Likud, governs a city that is largely Orthodox. Barak has his roots in the left-wing Labor Party and has been seeking a kind of peace trifecta--final settlement with the Palestinians, unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, and, at least until Hafez Assad died, a deal with Syria.

Several months ago, a professor at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, one of Israel's few academic experts in American Jewry, posed a question that could just as well come from Barak himself: Why don't we ever hear from the American Jews who support the peace process? Why is the American Jewish voice mostly the voice of a conservative minority? The answer, in short, is that the majority remains variously passive, disinterested, and alienated. The right wing of American Jewry has not seized the peace issue as much as it has obtained it by default.

It is true that certain American Jewish liberals like Leonard Fein and Letty Cottin Pogrebin labor hard and visibly on behalf of the land-for-peace formula. And it is true that conservatives have traditionally dominated the most important communal bodies on foreign affairs--the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the lobby better known as AIPAC, and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, which represents about 50 groups. As long as Likud prime ministers led Israel, which they did for all but five years between 1977 and 1999, the presidents' conference and AIPAC could couch their opposition to territorial compromise as support for the Israeli government.

But at ground level, the 90% of American Jews who are not Orthodox have ceded the peace issue to the 10% who are, the most vocal of whom are also the most right wing. Orthodox Jews are twice as likely as Conservative Jews, four times as likely as Reform Jews, and eight times as likely as unaffiliated Jews to have made repeated trips to Israel. Far more than other American Jews, the Orthodox speak Hebrew, have studied in Israel, and have friends and relatives there. As total American immigration to Israel declined after the 1973 war, the Orthodox portion of it steadily grew. By some estimates, half of all American immigrants since 1985 are Orthodox.

The Jewish establishment essentially admitted to the severity of the situation recently. Dubious that less-observant and unaffiliated American Jews care enough about Israel to pay their own way there--and indeed more American Jews visit Italy than Israel--the Israeli government, private American philanthropists, and the United Jewish Communities umbrella organization have jointly committed more than $150 million to the Birthright Israel program, which provides 5,000 American students annually a free trip to the Jewish state.

And all of this matters in the peace process because, as polling by the sociologist Steven Cohen has shown, the Orthodox Jews, who are the most tightly bound to Israel, are also the most hawkish of American Jews. It was oddly appropriate last week that as major Jewish newspapers around America reported on the synagogue arson at moderate length, not treating it as a lead story, many of the publications ran a full-page advertisement paid for by American Jews opposed to the Barak agenda.

So when the High Holy Days arrive in late September, scores of Reform and Conservative rabbis in America will surely decry the Kehilat Ya'ar Ramot attack. A handful of their listeners may be moved to donate money to the Reform and Conservative operations in Israel, and some of the students and young adults may even study at the non-Orthodox seminaries there. But for the rest, once they have finished grumbling about the crazy fundamentalist fanatics, once they have indulged in a purifying moment of vicarious victimhood, they will push Israel that much further from the center of attention.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad