Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

70 Years of Israel-Diaspora Relations: The Next Generation

It is a complicated task to define the state of relations between communities as different from each other as Israel and the Diaspora. There are emotional elements that have to be taken into account – how the communities or, more precisely, how the members of the communities, feel about each other. There are elements of consciousness that have to be taken into account – what the members of the communities think about each other, as individuals and as groups. And there are behavioral elements that merit consideration as well – how Jews behave, what they do with regard to the relationship.

The general picture, as we noted at the beginning of this study, includes both meaningful ties and concern over the relationship’s changing character – and the implications of this change for future relations. Today’s Israel is not a weak fledgling state requiring constant assistance to survive. Accordingly, it needs to define and decipher its relationship with a large group of human beings whose support, though still significant, is of less practical necessity than in the past, and who have different expectations of it, which do not always line up with its own citizenry’s expectations. Diaspora Jews are no longer under the harsh and powerful spell of the dramatic events that preceded Israel’s establishment 70 years ago, and which marked the early decades of the state’s existence (the Holocaust, War of Independence, Six-Day War, Yom Kippur War).

By many empirical measures, the relationship is as strong as it was in the past, or stronger. Seven out of ten U.S. Jews say they feel “very close” (30%) or “fairly [somewhat] close” to Israel (39%), per Pew Research Center findings. In the UK, Jews are “strongly connected to Israel.” On the other hand, nearly seven out of ten Jewish Israelis say that “a thriving Diaspora is necessary for the Jewish people’s long-term survival. These Jews feel (79%) that Israel bears responsibility for their security. Half of them (50%) believe that Israel is also obligated to contribute to the continued flourishing of Jewish communities outside Israel. The Dialogue findings also suggest a relatively strong mutual desire for bonds and affirm the existence of a strongly shared sense of mutual responsibility, in nearly all of the communities.

Based on an array of surveys employing different kinds of questions, Jews around the world still appear to see themselves as members of a single group, among whom a relationship of mutual responsibility should prevail. This year’s JPPI survey of Israeli Jews’ practices and beliefs found that a large majority (76%) feel that “being Jewish means being concerned for other Jews wherever they may be” – a very high percentage relative to other options offered [noted] in the study. Based on a Pew Research Center comparison of U.S. and Israeli Jewish attitudes, it appears that Jews on both sides of the Atlantic feel the necessity of mutual responsibility. 88% of Israeli Jews reported a strong sense of connection to the Jewish people, a sentiment shared by 75% of U.S. Jews. 5% of Israeli Jews and 63% of U.S. Jews agreed that they have a duty to care for Jews in need of assistance. A Ministry of Diaspora Affairs survey found that half of Israeli Jews regard Israel as responsible for “continued Jewish existence [survival] in the Diaspora, not just in Israel.”

An ongoing Cohen Center study indicates that 43% of young Jews who have participated in Taglit-Birthright Israel and have two Jewish parents report, even years after their trip to Israel, feeling “very” connected to Israel. Of those with one Jewish parent, 29% report feeling very close to Israel, while another 34% report feeling “somewhat” close to Israel. Both the Israeli and the Diaspora-based studies suggest that levels of attachment to Israel are strongly affected by opportunities for encounters and acquaintance between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.

One of the survey questions posed to the Dialogue participants asked them to state the degree to which several specific factors cause them to feel distant or close to other Jews (Israel versus the Diaspora). The factor that connects Jews to the most significant degree, per their definition, is “the Jews themselves.” Even those who feel that “Diaspora Jewish politics” or “Diaspora culture” alienates them to some degree do not feel alienated from the Jews themselves. Among the Israeli respondents, a large majority ranked “the Jews themselves” as a “connecting” or “strongly connecting” factor. A substantial, though not wide, majority of Diaspora Jews identify “Israelis” as a “connecting” or “strongly connecting” factor. “I have many acquaintances in Israel whom I like a lot,” said a Minnesota Dialogue participant. A few New York participants mentioned the professional relationships they have with Israelis, and the pleasant relations that have developed between them, “as long as we don’t start talking politics.” As the graph bellow shows, politics is unquestionably the subject that most strongly hampers connection on both sides. The Israelis rate Diaspora Jewish politics as the sole issue that repels them (distances more than connects), while Diaspora Jews are also dissatisfied with Israeli political views. “I don’t quite understand what they think about politics, but one thing is for sure – they don’t think like us,” said a young Israeli at one of the Dialogue seminars. “The Israeli political sphere is complicated and I’m not comfortable with it,
or with its outcomes.” said a young American woman.

The intensiveness of communication and contact between Jewish communities around the world and Israel is another issue to be considered when assessing the state of Israel-Diaspora relations. The Jewish people’s organizational ability to transport and bring many thousands of young Jews from all over the world into contact with each other every year has a positive effect in terms of the level of connection that may be expected of the next generation. The number of Jews visiting Israel has risen over the last few decades (due, among other things, to large-scale programs such as Taglit-Birthright (see graph). The Internet, social media, and other virtual/technological frameworks have enabled Jews to communicate with each other more easily than in the past, and to share a cultural space (limited, however, by language – Hebrew for Israeli Jews, other languages for other Jews). Nor is there any lack of opportunity at the leadership level for encounters, dialogue, interaction – even if the outcomes are not always those hoped for by either side (the Israeli government’s decision to renege on the Kotel compromise framework is a notable example, one that will be discussed later in this work). A very large majority of the Dialogue participants had visited Israel, which naturally affected their perspective on Israel-Diaspora relations. But these visits themselves reflect a desirable situation: Diaspora Jews with even a minimal desire for connection to the Jewish community will make it to Israel at some point. And as many studies from both the distant and the recent past have shown, trips to Israel both reflect a desire for connection, and themselves deepen Diaspora Jews’ connection with Israel and with the Jewish community.
Of course, reciprocal visits and Jewish leadership encounters do not tell the whole story. According to Professor Ted Sasson’s calculations, donations to Israel by (U.S.) Jews are trending upward, though donation patterns are changing. Based on some assessments, even the 2017 crisis in relations between the Israeli government and the Diaspora Jewish leadership has not led to a major decline in Jewish donations to Israel. Involvement in Israeli economic activity on the part of Jews around the world, as well as involvement and investment in the Israeli NGO [nonprofit] world continues, and in some places is growing stronger. “I won’t stop investing in Israel even if I’m angry with it,” said a New York participant, “I’ll just try to invest in things that accord with my outlook.” A Delaware participant chose another option: “If there’s a disagreement, I’ll donate to a hospital [in Israel], which is something that isn’t subject to disagreement.” The Israeli expatriate presence in various countries has undergone a change in character in recent years; there have been attempts, some of them successful, to connect expat Israelis with the local Jewish communities. Thus, it would not be at all incorrect to argue that, in current practical terms, the past few decades have witnessed a strengthening of the Israel-Diaspora relationship on several planes.

Still, a number of worrisome signs and developments were discussed over the course of the Dialogue process. In light of these developments, it is hard to argue that the relationship is running smoothly or that no reassessment of the state of the relations is in order. The Diaspora’s younger generation seems less committed to relations with Israel than its predecessors. This trend is the result of changes both in the Diaspora Jewish communities and in Israel’s character. A recent study of Jews in the San Francisco area found that “an identical number of Jews are strongly connected to Israel and not connected to it at all.” The Jews less connected to Israel in this community are similar to those less connected to Israel in other communities: “Young Jews are less likely to be connected to Israel. This is also true of liberals, people in mixed marriages, and the unaffiliated,” wrote researchers Steven Cohen and Jacob Ukeles.

Many factors can be credited with driving the internal changes in the communities. Lawrence Hoffman, a Reform rabbi on the faculty of Hebrew Union College, explained the change this way: “The disappearance of the sort of ethnic solidarity that prior generations enjoyed as a matter of course…
[and] our high intermarriage rate… means that Jews of the next generation will increasingly be people with no childhood Jewish memories and no obvious reason to maintain Jewish friends, associations, and causes at the expense of non-Jewish ones.”

There can be no doubt that changes in the structure of the Jewish community, especially in the United States but to a lesser degree in other communities as well, provide at least a partial explanation for the changing relationship with Israel. Research findings suggest, for example, that “the connection to Israel is much stronger among Jews by religion (and older Jews in general) than among religiously unaffiliated Jews (and younger Jews in general).” The number of “religiously unaffiliated” Jews was found to be rising; the sense of connection to Israel is, accordingly, liable to deteriorate. The fact that the children of mixed marriages, a group whose numbers are increasing in the various Jewish communities, are less connected to Israel than are the children born of Jewish couples, is also well known and has been elucidated in numerous studies. Jack Wertheimer wrote in 2009 that “the most important trend shaping the connection of American Jews to Israel, the one that outweighs all other factors, is intermarriage.” Elliott Abrams, writing about the weakened relationship between U.S. Jewry and Israel, summed it up this way: “The beginning of wisdom is surely to understand that the problem is here, in the United States. The American Jewish community is more distant from Israel than in past generations because it is changing, is in significant ways growing weaker, and is less inclined and indeed less able to feel and express solidarity with other Jews here and abroad.”

But there are also those who attribute changing attitudes toward Israel mainly to Israel’s behavior. “There is now much more ambivalence toward Israel and much less agreement about its policies,” wrote Dov Waxman in his book Trouble in the Tribe. Young Jews, he maintained, “are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with Israel’s policies in its conflict with the Palestinians and skeptical of its government’s proclaimed desire for peace.” The Dialogue survey indicates that for several years now Jews have indeed had little faith in the seriousness with which the Israeli government is pursuing peace (see Appendix). “I’m very close to deciding that I’m finished with Israel,” said a young Oregon participant.

A substantial share of the Dialogue survey respondents disagreed with the statement “Young Jews don’t care about Israel” (38% of non-Israelis agreed with the statement, 62% disagreed – while only 28% of Israelis agreed). But a much higher level of agreement was elicited by the commonly-heard claim that Israeli and Diaspora Jews are “drifting apart.” 57% of the entire participant pool said that they discern distancing; among them, Israelis were relatively optimistic, with 48% stating that there is distancing. By contrast, Diaspora Jews were less optimistic, with two-thirds of them (60%) saying that Israel and the Diaspora are drifting apart. It should be noted that participants belonging to the U.S. Jewish community were slightly more likely (68%) to say that Israeli and Diaspora Jews are drifting apart, compared with Jews in other countries.

It was interesting to note that, in terms of age cohorts, the older participants actually tended to feel more acutely that Israel and the Diaspora are drifting apart than their younger counterparts. This, of course, may be due to a number of different reasons: their expectations of closeness may be higher, meaning that the present situation strikes them as one of distancing, compared with younger people for whom the current situation seems adequate and who therefore discern no distancing. It may be that age simply has its advantages –
a longer memory of how things once were relative to today, and thus a better ability to assess the state of relations vis-à-vis the past. It may also be that the distancing discourse is actually affecting older Jews, who have less understanding of the modes of expression of younger Jews and see distancing in it while the younger people themselves are aware that their discourse reflects changing attitudes toward Israel but not necessarily distancing. (There is a fourth possibility: that the Dialogue reflects the views of a random reference group, and that a statistically valid assessment of the entire Jewish population would produce different findings.)

There was a similar notable finding with regard to the question of whether young Diaspora Jews “don’t care about Israel.” While nearly half of the older Diaspora (over 30 years) participants agreed with this statement, a substantially lower percentage of young people – just 20 percent – agreed. That is: the older participants’ general assessment of the state of Israel-Diaspora relations, and of younger Jews’ attitudes toward Israel in particular, is much more pessimistic than that of the younger participants themselves.

In the book mentioned earlier, Waxman joins a long list of authors who hold that most of the responsibility for the eroding Israel-Diaspora relationship belongs to Israel, which does not meet the (in their view reasonable) expectations that these Jews have of a country that aspires to be the state of the Jewish people. In Israel, the situation is often the reverse: Israeli policy may be at issue – but it is the other side, inclined to act against Israel rather than stand by it, that is choosing to distance itself. “Unfortunately, I see how time after time they link up with the wrong parties, the radical and strident left that represents almost nothing of Israeli public life. They speak perfect English, they’re nice (truly), they understand the American mentality, often you have the same outlooks and they meet you where you live. But it’s a ruse […],” wrote Sara Haetzni-Cohen in the newspaper Makor Rishon. At some of the meetings with young Israelis similar thoughts were expressed: “As I see it, a Jew who goes against Israel and supports a deal with Iran that could lead to Israel’s annihilation is [himself] the problem,” one of them said. The data indicated that, at least in the United States, most Jews did in fact support the nuclear agreement with Iran, in contrast to most Israeli Jews who viewed it as a bad deal. Furthermore, the surveys showed that American Jews support the deal despite agreeing with the Israeli Jews’ assessment that it endangers Israel.

JPPI, in one of its earlier studies, established that when evaluating Jews’ connection to Israel, and the degree to which the connection is affected by Israel’s behavior rather than internal trends of the Jewish communities, one should focus on four main spheres where opinion and ideology gaps are known to affect the relationship’s quality:

  • Israeli foreign and security policy;
  • Israel’s attitude toward the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria (and, to a lesser degree, in Gaza), and toward Arab Israelis;
  • Relations between state institutions and the religious establishment –
    especially with regard to the Orthodox religious establishment’s dominance in Israel;
  • And finally, a general discomfort with Israeli culture and discourse.

Opinion gaps are evident in these spheres, which lead to confrontations that often manifest in a sense of powerlessness. “As far as I’m concerned, if Israel is in the wrong [in its foreign policy], there’s no point in going easy on it,” said a young Boston participant. With regard to Diaspora Jewry, such feelings may lead to the stance that relations with Israel are pointless, and that Jewish communities should be concerned solely with themselves.

Anger and taking offense surfaced at many of the Dialogue sessions, in the wake of what Diaspora Jews perceived as the Israeli government’s disregard of them and their sentiments. Essentially, feelings of pride in Israel – Diaspora Jewish awareness of Israel’s achievements – mingle with feelings of shame (for those who think that Israel is behaving improperly in various areas), and with feelings of anger (for those who hold that Israel is not treating them or their communities with due respect) “Of course I’m angry,” said an Australian participant, “Isn’t that natural?” A Washington participant said: “Young people’s anger worries me, since it can lead to outcomes that aren’t good even if it’s currently under control.” Participants in a number of communities made frequent use of phraseology such as: “lack of consideration”; “powerlessness”; “great disappointment”; “I’m sick of hearing excuses”; “I’ve lost confidence [faith]” and the like. As the participant survey data also show, a very high percentage of Diaspora Jews are often angry at Israel (and a very high percentage are frequently proud of Israel).

Israeli Jews sometimes argue that world Jewry is dying out and therefore merits no regard or consideration by Israel. Israeli Dialogue participants did not often express anger at Diaspora Jewry, but they did tend to voice disappointment or derision. Such sentiments were also discernible in various sectors of Israeli-Jewish society during the Kotel crisis, especially in the right-wing religious sector, as noted by Sara Haetzni-Cohen: “The Reform movement […] is a movement that we simply gave up on in advance. We, and this applies not only to the religious public, are revolted by the sight of a woman in a kippah and immediately turn our heads away. That is a mistake for which we will end up being very sorry. We don’t have to agree in order to engage in dialogue, and we don’t give up on the great Jewish Diaspora just because it doesn’t suit us politically or look good to us.” The Dialogue survey shows that many Jews agree that “Israeli politics” and “Diaspora Jewish politics” are indeed factors that do little to foster connection between Jews. As we saw earlier, only a small number of the Diaspora Jewish participants referred to Israeli politics as a “connecting” (8%) or “strongly connecting” (13%) factor. In contrast, a considerable number stated that Israeli politics instills a sense of “distancing” (16%) or “substantial distancing” (28%) from Israel.

And the same picture emerges with regard to the other side of Israel-Diaspora relations. The Israelis, most of them young adults, who participated in the Dialogue, are not encouraged by Diaspora Jewish political views. A very large proportion of them chose the “does not connect” option with respect to “Diaspora Jewish politics” (51%). A substantial number said that Diaspora politics are a distancing (25%) or even a very distancing (5%) factor. They reject all attempts by Diaspora Jews to influence Israeli policy on issues of state security. “The bottom line is that they aren’t [Israeli] citizens, they don’t know what’s going on here,” said a student at a Conservative-affiliated pre-army mechina at Kibbutz Hanaton. Some of his peers were even more blunt. Here are a few selected quotes: “You can’t let them decide what will happen here;” “Anyone who wants to have a say, should come here;” “They don’t send kids to the army;” “I don’t care what they think about the Territories, it’s none of their business;” “Those who fight are the ones who deserve to have an influence. Despite all the money and the long-distance support, you’re less important;” “I care about them, but they aren’t going to decide on policy for me, they choose not to live here;” “People who don’t live in Israel have no real right to interfere, they don’t know how it feels. They aren’t really involved [one of us].”

Similar sentiments can also be found in certain statements by Israeli public figures. In recent years Israeli government ministers have often condemned progressive Judaism (especially the Reform). Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotoveli triggered an uproar when she said that American Jews have trouble understanding Israeli positions because “they never send their children to fight for their country, most of the Jews don’t have children serving as soldiers, going to the marines, going to Afghanistan, or to Iraq.” Dr. Gabriella Berzin wrote in Israel Hayom about “sentiments, which are blossoming among U.S. Jews and to a lesser degree in the Canadian, Australian and British Jewish communities, [that] are welcomed by the extreme left in Israel, which enlists any claim, even the most ridiculous, against the state, for categorical rhetoric against the liberal values of Israeli society and its government.”

Chemi Shalev, addressing in Haaretz what he views as the Israeli right wing’s disregard for Diaspora Jews whose opinions differ from theirs, wrote that right-wing leaders “adhere to Ben-Gurion’s Zionist credo that the only Jewish life worth living is in Israel […] but they have added numerous other prisms […] through which to look down on the bulk of American Jews. Hotovely and her kind are ultra-nationalist conservatives who scoff at liberal, pluralist and cosmopolitan American Jews and their values; they are mostly Orthodox, who thus mock the modernized Reform and Conservative movements and sympathize with the Haredi claim that they’re not really Jewish. In many ways, they represent the antithesis of the most widely held American-Jewish position[s] and beliefs […] They […] couldn’t care less about the personal freedoms and democratic safeguards that are cherished by American Jews. In this regard, Hotovely was simply representing the true attitude of many right-wing Israelis, including a majority of Netanyahu’s governing coalition.”

It is, however, worth noting that for several decades now the Israeli leadership has seen itself as less politically dependent on Diaspora Jewry’s influence – and thus less in need of a close relationship with Diaspora Jewry at the institutional level. As Gabi Sheffer and Hadas Roth-Toledano noted in their study, Israeli leaders from different political parties shared “the assessment that Israel would be able to advance its interests without mediation and largely without multidimensional or large-scale assistance from professional Diaspora leaders. As noted, prime ministers […] Yitzhak Rabin, Menacham Begin and Yitzhak Shamir – as well as […] Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon – were all deeply persuaded that they had direct access to the American government and to other governments, and that they did not need Jewish mediators from the Diaspora.” Incidentally, a small majority of the Israelis who completed the Dialogue survey rejected the argument that “Israel will not survive without Diaspora Jewry.” Nevertheless, a very high percentage of them agreed with it (see graph below). Similar findings were obtained in a 2017 UJA-Federation of New York survey: over 80% of Israeli Jews feel that American Jewish support is “vital to Israeli security.”

A larger majority of Israeli Jews assume, at the same time, that Diaspora Jews “will also survive without Israel.” That is: mutual dependence for existential purposes is not obligatory. Each of the communities can survive even without its counterpart.

Diaspora Jews as a group do not share this view. Whether due to outdated notions about the Israel-Diaspora relationship, its history, and the Jewish communities’ major role in the founding and strengthening of the state, or because of a more sophisticated assessment of the current power balance (“We also have considerable political power, [because we live in a country] which also happens to be in Israel’s most important ally,” said a New York participant), Diaspora Jews disagree with their Israeli counterparts. A large majority of them are convinced that without their support, Israel would not survive. As the Dialogue survey shows, 45% of Diaspora Jews believe that Diaspora Jewry would not survive without Israel, but a much higher percentage, 71%, feel that Israel would not survive without Diaspora Jewry. The answer to the question of whether their assessment is correct – and one must hope that it will never be put to the test – is less important than the fact that this is how they see things, and then the way in which the assessment affects their connection to Israel. As long as Diaspora Jews believe that their contribution to Israel’s survival is critical, they will be more strongly motivated to maintain the relationship despite its pitfalls (out of a sense of weighty responsibility for the Jewish state’s destiny). If, however, they accept the view shared by half of Jewish Israelis, namely that Israel can manage without them, they may find it easier to disconnect.
This question also reflects an opinion gap between older Diaspora Jews and the younger Dialogue participants. Of the older group, 51% think that the Diaspora would not manage without Israel, versus 35% of younger participants with that view. The question of course remains: Does the younger Diaspora population’s more confident assessment stem from inexperience or lack of familiarity with the situation as it is, making it an overconfident assessment, or are the younger people, via this position, expressing a partial withdrawal from national-cultural dependence on Israel, and setting out on a path that allows Diaspora Jews greater autonomy alongside Israel (even if they agree about Israel’s dominance)?

All of the facts presented here point to a strange situation, at least to the degree that the relationship is also regarded as one of [at least in terms of a perceived] unavoidable power struggle over who will be plotting a future course for the Jewish people: On one hand, Israel needs to be strong enough to manage on its own; on the other hand, it would do well to keep persuading Diaspora Jewry that its support is important (since if the Diaspora comes to believe otherwise, it might distance itself from Israel even further). Of course, such a policy comes at a price: the more successful Israel is in convincing Diaspora Jewry that it cannot survive without Diaspora support, the greater the chance that Diaspora Jews will make demands on Israel, on the assumption that such decisive power justifies and facilitates intervention in Israeli affairs. Should Israel not accede to these demands (at least in part), it puts the first goal at risk (that of persuading Diaspora Jewry of the importance of its support). Should Israel accede to the demands (if only in part), it may offend a large proportion of Israelis (who do not view Israel’s need of the Diaspora as self-evident).

To sum up: many indicators point to stability or even improvement in the state of Israel-Diaspora relations. Other measures, including ones anchored in a multi-layered political discourse, suggest that the relationship is eroding or changing in character. Erosion of a cultural-political nature is more strongly in evidence among young liberal Diaspora Jews, while this type of erosion is more readily discerned among Jewish Israelis aligned with the political and religious right.