The Common Destiny of Israeli and American Jews

By Michael Oren

As someone born and raised in the United States, I get to represent the land of my forefathers to the land of my father.

I have the best job in the world, though sometimes it's tough.

I have to describe the monumental challenges facing Israel on a daily basis: The tens of thousands of terrorist rockets aimed at our homes. The entire Middle East roiling around us while the Iranian centrifuges continue to spin.

I explain how Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, his government, and the Israel Defense Forces are grappling with these threats and defending the people of Israel. But I also get to talk about the multiple miracles occurring in Israel today: The fact that Israel is one of the healthiest, happiest and most educated societies in the world. Half of our universities are in the top 100 globally.

We reclaim a greater percentage of our water than any other country, conserve one of the largest shares of our territory for nature and are the only Middle Eastern country with a growing and thriving Christian population.

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ON COLLEGE campuses, in churches, on TV talk shows, I get to introduce Americans to the Israel I know and cherish. Not the Israel of conflict, but the Israel of gorgeous beaches, fabulous food, progressive gay rights and non-stop innovation. But you know all that. I don't have to tell you.

And today, I have the opportunity not merely to speak, but to converse. I want to share with you my concerns about our future. I want to talk about us, Israeli and American Jews, where we are and how we can move forward. I want to envisage our common destiny.

We live at an utterly extraordinary time in Jewish history - I have to pinch myself sometimes. For the first time in 2,000 years, Jews throughout the world are free.

More amazingly, the vast majority of Jews live in two places where being Jewish is, well, cool. In Israel and in North America, we revel in our Jewish creativity.

We ply the limits of Jewish vitality and test our Jewish concepts in the free market of ideas.

Not ever, not even in Talmudic times, since Sura and Pumbeditha, have two centers of Jewish life proved so dynamic. When I grew up in this country, there was scarcely a Jewish day school. Now there are more than 800 nationally - 20 of them right here in the Greater Baltimore Area.

I travel to synagogues throughout the country, I hear young people reading from the Torah in fluent, confident Hebrew. I attended a Conservative Hebrew school and at my Bar Mitzvah read the Torah in transliteration.

There are nearly 1,000 Hillel chapters and Jewish fraternities and sororities on North American campuses, over 150 Jewish summer overnight camps, and countless adult education programs.You've got the JCC, the JDC and JDate.

We, the Jewish communities of Israel and America, are living in a Golden Age. But are we experiencing that Golden Age together? Are we celebrating this moment as a single people, or are we in danger of becoming divided? Can we talk candidly about the issues that threaten to separate us: Issues relating to security, to the peace process, and the relationship between religion and the state. Can we discuss whether we should serve our own people first or serve all of humanity - klal yisrael or tikkun olam.

Most fundamentally, can our two diverse and flourishing communities learn to rejoice in our individual successes and help shoulder one another's burdens? How can we not only co-exist but co-flourish? That question is hardly new. The American Jewish experience defied so many Diaspora assumptions.

Jewish immigrants to America did encounter quotas and anti-Semitism. But unlike the Jews of Europe and the Middle East, American Jews could achieve anything - they could become doctors, lawyers, heads of industries, movie stars.

Perhaps that is why so few of those immigrants were attracted to Zionism. The first Zionist activist in New York, the poet Emma Lazarus, garnered only a handful of followers. And on the eve of World War I, out of the more than two and a half million Jews, a mere 10,000 were Zionists, and less than 50 of them made aliya. Indeed, most of the major American Jewish organizations were either indifferent or opposed to Zionism. They had found the solution, de Goldineh Medineh, the Jewish utopia - America.

Which is precisely why European Zionists preferred not to deal with America.

The globe-trotting Theodor Herzl never visited here. And of the 200 delegates to the first Zionist Congress in 1897, only four were from the United States. Much of that changed with World War II and the Holocaust.

Zionist leaders such as David Ben-Gurion realized that America would dominate the post-war world.

American Jews, for their part, vowed that our people would never again be powerless, and that the emergence of a sovereign Jewish state strengthened their American Jewish identity. Consequently, American and Israeli Jews joined in the struggle for Israeli independence.

Then, in 1950, Israeli prime minister David Ben- Gurion had a correspondence with American Jewish leader - and noted Baltimore philanthropist - Jacob Blaustein. Ben-Gurion pledged never to question the loyalty of American Jews to America. In return, Blaustein promised American Jewish help in forging a secure and robust Jewish state. And the agreement pretty much worked.

Israelis mostly refrained from calling for a mass aliya of American Jews. Indeed, in many of the Israel Experience programs for Americans, Israeli counselors were forbidden to press for aliya. American Jews, for their part, gave selflessly to Israeli universities, communities and hospitals. They put support for Israel squarely on the political maps of both the United States and Canada.

Israel's alliance with both countries has burgeoned into the world's deepest and most multi-faceted - thanks in no small part to North American Jewry.

But in recent years, something has happened. We, Israel and American Jewry, have changed. Israel's security situation has grown vastly more complex.

 

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The writer is the Israeli ambassador to the United States. This text is based on a speech he gave to the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly on November 13.

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