What does the future hold?

Photographer: Gil Cohen Magen/AFP/Getty Images

American Jews Finding It Harder to Like Israel

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
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There is a relatively new dimension to the ritual of taking off on an El Al flight: security, boarding, stowing bags, getting seated … and waiting. The wait is due to Haredi men, ultra-Orthodox Jews, who refuse to sit next to a woman during the flight. They demand to be reseated, not an easy task on a packed 747, all the more so because many passengers, outraged by what they perceive as medieval behavior, refuse to be complicit by moving. Because El Al security doesn't allow the plane to leave with the bags of those who deplane, even throwing the Haredim off the flight wouldn't save time. Finding their bags in the belly of the plane would take longer than the reseating.

Other Israelis increasingly resent this enormous bloc of black-clothed Jews who impose such trouble on them. They were delighted when the finance minister, Yair Lapid, led a campaign in the previous government to force Haredim to serve in the army and to curtail government subvention of Haredi schools. Now that the Haredim will once again be in the governing coalition and Lapid will not, the Haredim have already announced that they intend to undo any “damage” Lapid inflicted.

To many American Jews, this Haredi power, with its rejection of pluralism and blatant use of raw political force, is beyond distasteful. It reflects a dimension of Israeli society they cannot abide. Many of those same American Jews were distressed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pre-election announcement that he no longer supported the two-state solution, and mortified by his appeal to Jewish voters to rush to the polls because Arabs were voting in huge numbers (they weren’t, by the way). Those Americans will comfort themselves, albeit with sadness, that Israelis voted for security rather than a domestic agenda.

Yet there is only some truth to that. U.S. President Barack Obama (who most Israelis believe is about to give away the store with Iran) and Secretary of State John Kerry (who last summer proposed a cease-fire that gave Hamas everything it asked for, as if Israel had been vanquished in the battle) no doubt helped Netanyahu get re-elected. But there’s a deeper story here, too, and a different divide. It is not just security versus economy. Israeli society is increasingly divided between Ashkenazi and Sephardi, European sensibilities versus Middle Eastern pugnaciousness, a tendency toward secularism versus a reverence for religion even among the nonobservant.

Although precise numbers are not out yet, it is clear that Isaac Herzog’s voters were overwhelmingly Ashkenazi and European in origin. The Mizrachim, Israelis of Middle Eastern ethnicity who first swept the Likud and Menachem Begin into power in 1977, may surely have voted for Netanyahu because they trust him on Iran. But it’s more than that. The refined, Western, soft-spoken Herzog feels foreign to them; Netanyahu’s pugnaciousness seems better suited to this part of the world, where pride and bravado are valuable assets in conflict. Talk to the taxi drivers; these non-European Israelis are unabashed about saying that they do not want Protestant Caucasians in Washington telling them what to do.

Mizrachim now account for half of Israel’s population, and that percentage is slowly growing. Thus, values that are important to many American Jews -- openness to non-Orthodox varieties of Judaism, giving women greater access to places of religious worship, softening Israel’s footprint in the West Bank -- will matter much less to an increasing number of Israelis.

That is going to make Israel an ever more complex cause for many American Jews. To the extent that they identify with and support an Israel that seems like the U.S. except for its being Hebrew-speaking and falafel-eating, the Israel of yesteryear will have much more appeal than the Israel of tomorrow. As Israel becomes more Middle Eastern and less European, and especially as the Middle East becomes increasingly dangerous, Israelis’ instincts are likely to be very different from what many American Jews wish they would be.

That will be hard for American Jews, but it may eventually prove problematic for Israelis as well. Obama is clearly getting ready to put the squeeze on Israel. He snubbed the prime minister by not calling him to congratulate him on his victory, and the White House announced that it might consider a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, precisely what the Palestinians demand. Israelis who voted for a Netanyahu locked in mortal combat with the American president may well have assumed that they had that luxury because American Jews have their backs. What those Israelis might not fully appreciate, because they are much more at home in the rough and tumble Middle East than in the nuances of the West, is that the society they are now shaping will probably seem ever more foreign -- and unappealing -- to the very Jews whose support enables them to feel so secure.

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To contact the author on this story:
Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net