In discussions this morning about internal Jewish dynamics, people wanted to know how it is that we get the organized mainstream to see that it’s in their interest to make the conversation more inclusive. This invariably turns into a conversation not just about how to get them to accept critical pro-peace views, but how to keep young people involved in general and various other continuity concerns. Daniel Sokatch of the New Israel Fund pointed out that decline in support of Israel may not be the symptom of lack of engagement in Jewish community. We may be confusing cause and effect.
At the same time we heard about the need to state our pro-Israel credentials up-front and often. When someone from the audience questioned why she should have to do this, the reply was pragmatic: just deal with it because it will make people listen to what you have to say. For some American Jews, however, having to do this is not a question of principle. Many American Jews do not necessarily have that “pedigree.” Are their voices less important? And for Jews who did not attend Jewish summer camp, never traveled to Israel, and know little Hebrew, why should they feel any connection to Israel?
At the Kavana Cooperative in Seattle, we are in the midst of an identity workshop about Israel and difficult questions. One topic of discussion has been the significant differences in how Americans and Israelis identify as Jews. We often base our identity on experiences that are specific to this country: being just another religious minority, supporting a separation of church and state, supporting civil rights, and social justice. It’s no surprise then that most of us so strongly support President Obama. Not only do we support President Obama for domestic political reasons, but, as Sokatch also pointed out, most of us believe him to be “pro-Israel.” Most Israelis don’t agree. Israeli and American Jews are not the same thing. As an organization of American Jews, J Street ought to also focus on convincing Americans who do not already strongly identify with Israel, whether they be Jews or non-Jews.
This afternoon, General Jones, President Obama’s National Security Advisor, provided an excellent rational for why they should care. He spoke about President Obama’s strong support for Israel, as exemplified by his efforts to engage the issue from the very beginning of his term. Not only that, he made a strong case for why this is in America’s interest as well as Israel’s. He said that if he had to advise the President to solve just one international problem this would be it, because the ripples effect so many other conflicts around the globe.
If we emphasize the reasons that we should care about this issue as Americans (without trying to make everyone into an ardent Zionist), this will engage additional people, including disengaged Jews who legitimately need another reason to care. And in general, if we emphasize the unique aspect of our identity as American Jews, then whether we are talking about Israel or not, we may also find more points of connection with Jews who feel alienated from mainstream organizations.