NEW YORK — In honor of Valentine’s Day, the table at the New York home of Israel’s Consul General Dani Dayan groaned with fancy canapés and sugary desserts. The wine flowed freely and members of the diplomatic staff wore red. The invited guests were Jewish members of the press corps, both Israeli and American. The occasion was dubbed “Couples Therapy” — an opportunity for a conversation about “the intricate marriage between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.”
As she introduced the host, consul for media affairs Almog Elijis quipped that when Dayan was appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Dayan “probably didn’t know he was going to be with a sex therapist as part of his posting.” But, she added, “diplomatic life is full of surprises.” Notably, the therapist engaged to guide this particular encounter was none other than 91-year-old Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
“My relationship with Dr. Ruth has always been very special,” Dayan said, “though I have never been a patient,” he clarified.
“Whoever says that…” piped up the 4’7” red-headed dynamo, getting a roaring laugh from the room. After the good-natured crowd quieted down, Dr. Ruth told them she would moderate the conversation with a strong hand. To drive the point home, she let them know that as she had served as a sniper in the IDF, she can put together a STEN gun with her eyes closed — and that though she’s grateful she never had to kill anybody, she would have if necessary.
And from there, the conversation smoothly transition to the topic at hand: Israeli and American Jews.
“What do they say, men are from Mars and women are from Venus?” asked Dayan. “Our relationship is very interesting. We are different. We developed our characteristics with different development strategies. We Israelis had to build a society, a Jewish society, for the first time in 2,000 years. American Jews had to blend into an existing society while keeping their special characteristics, their special communities. The challenge is to keep the marriage alive.”
In spite of the differences, Dayan said, both communities need each other. “Although we are Jewish,” he said, “our marriage is like a Catholic marriage— there is no divorce allowed.”
Dr. Ruth nodded her head. “That’s a nice way of putting it.”
And so, the stage was set for a conversation that didn’t turn out the way anyone had expected.
“What do you think is the media’s role in bridging the gap between you? And what specifically do you feel is your role?” asked Elijis. To encourage an honest and open discussion, the Consul General requested that none of the speakers be identified.
A young Israeli journalist spoke first. “When I arrived [in the United States] years ago, I had no idea there were so many different ways of doing Shabbat,” she said, again to general laughter. “And so many different religious denominations. Because we don’t get taught that as Israelis. But I feel that American Jews are making a bigger effort to learn about Israelis than Israelis are trying to learn about them.”
An American journalist was no less critical of her own countrymen, suggesting that many American Jews were ignorant about Israel and nevertheless judged the country harshly. She guessed that many of them had deep conflicts about their own religious identities, and through ignorance or lack of interest, had let their tie with the Jewish people wither, which affected their views of Israel. She said she felt it was her duty as a journalist to explain the Israeli side to Americans, because there was so much of value to learn.
Another American Jewish reporter opined that Israelis are quite confused about American Jews because their views vary so widely. “You’ll have American Jews, some of whom are friends, and some are foes. And then you’ll have everything in between. And then you have this massive group of apathetic Jews who don’t know anything.”
One American journalist who made aliyah, served in the IDF, and returned to the US, said American Jewry since World War II “has always felt a very strong connection” with Israel, but the group as a whole thinks its opinions “matter way more than the opinions of Israelis.”
As an example, he recalled being in high school in the US when Israel was weighing whether to trade 1,000 security prisoners for the then-captive soldier Gilad Shalit, who was being held by the Hamas terror group.
It seemed to him to be wrong, disproportional and dangerous, he said, but “the second I got to Israel, my thinking completely flipped.” He understood that Shalit was “somebody’s son.” All of a sudden, “it was me, it was my friends, it was people that I served with.”
Room for improvement
What was so striking about the conversation was that neither side blamed the other, but rather found room for improvement in themselves and their own communities.
Elijis offered another question: “What will it take for Israel to notice the Diaspora?”
An Israeli journalist offered that every effort should be made to improve the bond between the two largest Jewish populations in the world because “the work to sever that bond is continuous and methodical by various parties on the outside.”
He said he believed the consequences of these malign efforts could be “very consequential.” He said Israelis ought to “be carrying the American Jewish experience back home, which is key to maintaining that bond.”
Dr. Ruth offered that perhaps Israelis should appreciate how much money American Jews raise for Israel.
“I don’t know anyone who is not involved in some way in fundraising for Israel,” she said. “And Israelis are not aware of the amount of effort, fundraising and energy put into Israeli causes and organizations all over the world — but particularly in the US and the New York community. That’s something that American communities may think Israelis are taking for granted, and something that a lot of the organizational leaders are now worried about because the same feelings are not resonating with the younger generation.”
A member of the Israeli diplomatic community said she was astonished to learn of the manifold successes of American Jews.
“I’ve only been here seven months and I am amazed. I didn’t know the power that the Jewish people have here or their success stories. Every corner that you go, it’s there.” She had a suggestion: “I really feel that if Israelis were much more knowledgeable not only about the different religious practices here in the US, but also the stories of the success and survival of the Jewish people here, they would feel more connected.”
Contrasting the shooting attack on a US synagogue with a stabbing attack at an ultra-Orthodox rabbi’s home on Hanukkah, Elijis asked those assembled why they thought the coverage of the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh resonated more in Israel than the stabbing attack in Monsey, New York.
One reporter attributed it to anti-Semitism fatigue. An American Orthodox reporter thought that because secular Israelis have a highly negative attitude toward the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) in Israel, when they see religious people in the news in the US, they feel a similar scorn and indifference. He said Israelis don’t know there is another way for ultra-Orthodox to live. For example, he said, in the US many haredim have regular jobs.
“When you go on the train, you see Hassidic Jews going every day to 47th Street to work. And they assimilate. They work. They don’t assimilate by going out to bars and parties and networking, and attending cocktail receptions, but they are a part of society,” he said.
He said he feels great sympathy for Israelis — secular and otherwise. “We American Jews don’t really understand that Israelis live in constant fear of their kids not coming home at night. We don’t have mandatory military service. And not too long ago, people going on the bus didn’t know if they would be blown up. When I was there recently, I was looking over my back to see if a guy was coming with a knife. Sometimes when I look at Israelis having a good time, I think, God bless them, they deserve it,” he said.
He said that he felt it was his responsibility to show Israeli Jews there is a different way to be religious and simultaneously a part of society. He brought a delegation of Israelis to Crown Heights, “and we were sitting on the grass and I explained the life of an Orthodox Jew in New York, and they were utterly fascinated that it was a totally different than what they see or know.”
But, again being critical of his own group and forgiving off the other, he acknowledged that it was easier for him to work among the less religious because his own community doesn’t really care what the outside world thinks of them.
“It’s on all of us to first of all respect one another and know everyone is different, but also to try to be more sympathetic to each other and know that everyone goes through his or her challenges. In the end, we are all one,” he said.
The language barrier
An American journalist suggested that it is very hard for Americans to really understand Israel unless they speak Hebrew. “The national conversation takes place in Hebrew,” she argued, “the national psyche is expressed in their music and TV in the Hebrew language. American Jews think they understand Israelis because most Israelis speak English. But they don’t.”
On the other side, she said, “Israelis who speak English can access all of our culture.”
There was a discussion of budget limitations and the difficulty of teaching Israelis about American culture through quick tidbits of TV breaking news. But it was clear something unexpected had happened. Dayan acknowledged that his preconceptions had been shattered.
“I thought that some of the blame should go to the press, but now I don’t think so,” Dayan said. “The problem is much deeper. I think that a friend of mine described it well when she said that an Israeli kid growing up doesn’t know he or she is a part of a people that numbers 15 or 16 million. Rather, he thinks only that he is a member of a country of nine million.” He said that this must change.
A freelance writer born in the former Soviet Union but who has lived in the US for 30 years and considers herself an American Jew, agreed with Dayan that it is mutually detrimental for the two groups to look away from each other.
“One of the most troubling things I hear on the American Jewish side is when people question whether they need this relationship at all, and that maybe we are so different that we just should go our own separate ways. And to me, especially as a Soviet Jew, it’s just so completely unconscionable. Russian Jews understand the importance of Israel and what can happen [to Jews] without it,” she said.
Dayan turned to Dr. Ruth. “I assume you will agree with me, Dr. Ruth, when a difference of opinion arises in an environment of indifference, everything goes south.” She nodded gravely.
“The last thing I will say,” said Dayan, picking up the thematic thread of the evening, “is that I think there are 50 shades of American Jewry.”
“Now I know what you’re reading!” said Dr. Ruth, to another bout of laughter.
Although there was still much left to talk about, Elijis wrapped up the conversation on a decidedly Jewish note: “As you know, discussion is very important for relationships, but so is dessert.”
The last and most therapeutic word was left to Dr. Ruth: “Don’t forget to eat!”