New program takes on Israeli ignorance of US Jewry

Israelis know next to nothing about American Jews, who make up two-thirds of the Diaspora. A first-of-its-kind graduate track aims to change that

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prof. Gur Alroey (photo credit: courtesy Ruderman Family Foundation)
Prof. Gur Alroey (photo credit: courtesy Ruderman Family Foundation)

Israel’s top leaders and senior officials are in New York this week for the UN General Assembly and rounds of peace and security talks in Washington. Between the unfreezing of talks with Iran and the reliably crisis-ridden talks with the Palestinians, Israeli media can speak of little else.

But for the Israeli leaders themselves, the discussions on Tehran and Ramallah take up a relatively small part of the schedule. The lion’s share of their time in the US, as always, will be spent not with foreigners, but with Jews — American Jews. When influential Jews from the “east” visit New York, they are feted by equally influential, or simply wealthy, counterparts in Midtown restaurants, boardrooms and swank Central Park apartments. For the Americans, the meetings are a chance to show they care. For the Israelis, they are something far more practical.

Israeli politicians have many friends in New York, as evidenced by the primary campaign fundraising records publicized after each election by the state ombudsman. Indeed, American Jewish funds are the lifeblood of many an Israeli political campaign. American Jews are also a gateway to Capitol Hill and the Washington elite, offering an ambitious Israeli politician the chance to dabble in a political arena vastly larger than the Israeli puddle to which he or she is accustomed.

So when one asks Israeli politicians whether they are familiar with American Jewry, whether they know something about the single largest Jewish community outside Israel, a community comprising as much as two-thirds of the Diaspora and over 40 percent of all living Jews, one invariably hears the same response: “I have wonderful friends in New York.” (The more active fundraisers might add, “and in Washington and Chicago and Miami and Los Angeles.”)

This is not a new complaint. It has long been noted and lamented that while Diaspora Jews pour their affection and treasure into Israel — some $2 billion each year in American Jewish tax-deductible donations alone — there is little reciprocity in the relationship. Israelis, like their leaders, know little to nothing about their Jewish brethren in the Diaspora, and are rarely concerned with the troubles of the other side.

Now, one Israeli university, together with a philanthropic foundation that has roots on both sides of the Atlantic, hopes to change that imbalance, to tackle head-on the near-universal ignorance among Israelis about the rest of the Jewish people.

“Israelis need America, need American Jews. They don’t have anyone else,” philanthropist Jay Ruderman said, emphatically, in a recent interview with The Times of Israel.

Jay Ruderman (photo credit: courtesy Ruderman Family Foundation)
Jay Ruderman (photo credit: courtesy Ruderman Family Foundation)

A former AIPAC official, Ruderman now lives in Rehovot. The Ruderman Family Foundation, which he runs, has devoted itself to two issues: improving the lives of those with disabilities and getting the two major Jewish communities of the world, which together comprise over 80% of all Jews, to understand each other better.

He is drawn to the problem of the Israeli-American Jewish relationship in part by his own frustration in trying to have a conversation with Israelis on the subject. During his time in American Jewish advocacy, he often found himself meeting Israeli leaders “to talk about the importance of US Jewry for Israel.” Each time, “I was met with ignorance and not caring,” he recalls.

American Jewry “is an important community with a direct bearing on Israel’s security,” yet any dialogue with Israelis “is in essence a one-sided conversation, always about Israel, always about Israel’s security situation, never about what’s happening in American Jewry.”

This deafness has led Israelis to do great damage to the relationship.

“If you look at the board of any significant organization, like AIPAC for example, my guess is there’s a sizable group of Reform Jews there doing important work” for Israel’s benefit, Ruderman says.

“If Israel starts making statements to the effect that these people aren’t Jews, or that their form of worship isn’t [up to scratch], these people could walk away and say, ‘Israel doesn’t recognize us, so why should I be doing Israel’s heavy lifting in Congress?'”

Israeli leaders, he argues, “must be understanding and nuanced in how they deal with the American Jewish community. I would say to Israeli leaders: You have to understand what’s going on in this community.”

In an effort to combat that gap in understanding and nuance, Ruderman funded several trips for Israeli “influentials” — MKs and journalists — to meet American Jewry. The results, he believes, were mixed.

“These missions were one-off shots, and we were trying to invest in someone who may not retain their position” — of 11 MKs who went on a recent trip, five are no longer in the Knesset.

A few months ago, Ruderman sat down with Haifa University Jewish history scholar Prof. Gur Alroey to discuss more effective ways to tackle the Israeli political elite’s ignorance of the broader Jewish world.

The goal, as Ruderman sees it: “To create a nucleus of leaders who understand the topic, who understand what Israelis need to understand about American Jews, their impact on American society and what’s important to them as Jews, and how [Israeli] decisions, statements by ministers, etc., impact American Jews.”

The result is a new masters program at Haifa University, headed by Alroey, that will be accepting its first class of 25 students this fall.

The program is the first of its kind in Israel — indeed, it is the only graduate program engaged in the systematic study of any Jewish diaspora in the entire edifice of Israeli academia.

“The Zionist movement, for good or bad, created a monocultural, monolingual Israeli, and he’s very introverted,” Alroey lamented recently in a conversation with The Times of Israel. “[In the minds of Israelis,] the job of American Jews is to serve the state of Israel and care for its welfare. Israelis have no capacity to recognize and understand American Jewry.”

Worse, he said, “In Israeli academia today, there isn’t a single program studying American Jewry, and that’s crazy. This subject of Diaspora studies, and American Jewry specifically… has disappeared completely from Israeli academia.”

In fact, “the only content in the entire Israeli education system dealing with American Jewry is about their help in lobbying the Truman administration at the time of the establishment of the state.” Meaning, the last year in which American Jews appear in a young Israeli’s formal study of history was 1948. “There are also almost no books in Hebrew on American Jewry.”

But, Alroey enthuses, “that’s our innovation. We’re teaching about this Jewry. We’re not trying to advance any agenda, but to reveal American Jewry as a community that stands in its own right.”

That’s a big step for Israelis, and for the Zionist movement writ large.

“Historically, Zionists could come to the Jews of Eastern Europe and say to them, ‘We told you so. The solution [to the persecution of Jews] is in Israel.’ And it was undeniably true. But [the Zionists] can’t say that to American Jewry, and that makes the Americans’ situation very interesting. Maybe it’s possible to live complete Jewish lives without fear or anti-Semitism.”

That’s a powerful challenge to the consensus — and experience — of the Zionist movement, and of all the Jews of Africa, Asia and Europe who emerged from the bigotry, displacement and wholesale murder of the 20th century with a grim determination to rely only on themselves for their safety and survival. American Jews, Alroey seems to suggest, might be forgiven for approaching the world rather differently, as their experience of the 20th century, within the confines of a liberalizing, increasingly accepting America, was in many ways diametrically opposed to the experience of the Jews in the eastern hemisphere.

The East European Jew, who at the turn of the last century “decided to emigrate to Manhattan, can’t be said to have taken a bad decision,” Alroey continues. Both migrants, “the one who went to Tel Aviv and the one who went to Manhattan, made wise decisions.”

The upshot of that broader perspective is clear, he believes: “The Zionist movement now needs to think anew about how these two societies live together, in a deep symbiotic relationship. Without one attempting to dictate to the other, but through understanding. That discourse happens only when you understand the other.”

Since the program began accepting applications in recent weeks, Alroey has discovered that there are at least a few Israelis keen to obtain that deeper understanding. The program was originally slated to begin with 15 enrolled students, whose studies, including a major study trip to the US, would be funded by a $1 million grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation and a matching grant from Haifa University.

“My biggest fear,” Alroey said, “was how to find those 15 students.” In a world that has so successfully ignored American Jewry for generations, who would want to study them?

But within three weeks of the opening of the program, “I got 100 applications from students who wanted to learn” — not computers, not law, but the history and culture of American Jews.

Alroey couldn’t bear to turn so many students away. He invited 32 applicants to interviews. “These were excelling students: top grades in their BA, fluent English, more than half planning to take the research track and write a thesis. They were so high-caliber that the rector of Haifa University, Prof. David Faraggi, decided that no university can turn such students away. He promised to raise money for 10 more spots, and he did.”

It’s a lesson for other universities, Alroey believes. “They always say Haifa University is in the periphery. But Cornell is also in the periphery. When you have what to offer, people will cross the country to learn with you. Just two or three of the students [enrolled in the program this year] are from Haifa.”

The program is thus starting its first year bursting at the seams with smart young Israelis keen on discovering the Jewish civilization that flourishes on the other side of the world. Three who were not accepted this year have already asked to be considered for next year’s program — suggesting that they were not drawn by the timing of the opening of the program, but by its content.

As the program gets underway, Alroey is committed to making good on his pledge to study American Jewry “as a community that stands in its own right,” rather than through the prism of a particular ideology. First, the program includes a translation project that will make major English-language works on American Jewish history accessible to the Hebrew-speaking reader. Israelis will be able to read about American Jewry in the voice of American Jews themselves.

The curriculum, too, will focus away from the narrow questions of the community’s relationship with Israel. For example, it includes an examination of the Jews’ role in the civil rights movement, the history and ideas behind the Reform and Conservative streams, and the great turn-of-the-century Jewish migration that Israelis call the First and Second Aliyot, but which in America saw immense waves of immigrants who formed the Jewish neighborhoods of every major American city and even saw the establishment of Jewish farming communities in Louisiana.

Alroey seems to view the last subject, the great Jewish migration, as a kind of proof text for the premise that underlies the new program: that the more one studies the American Jewish experience, the more one understands the broader and more complex story of the Jewish 20th century, and thus also of Israel.

“Two historiographies deal with one migration,” he noted, “a migration that had the same source, but resulted in two culturally disconnected communities.” It is time, he believes, to reconnect the two histories, and thus also the two Jewish civilizations that wrote them.

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