US Jews Express Angst on Israel
Criticism of Jewish homeland, once never heard, abounds
While growing up Jewish in Argentina in the 1950s and feeling like a "second-class citizen," Roly Matalon looked on the new state of Israel with utter pride.Skip to next paragraph
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His parents had escaped from Syria, a typical story. But now, after 18 centuries of wandering, the Jewish people - who had a rich culture, but no land or power - finally had a home. In Palestine, they gathered and made the desert bloom - with industry, farms, culture - and defended it with a strong army.
Today, as head rabbi of Bna'i Jeshuron, the largest and one of the oldest synagogues in New York City, Rabbi Matalon still feels deeply about Israel. He sees its promise as a society of justice and honor, a vision he finds in the Torah and the prophesies.
But that is also why the rabbi - like many American Jews - also feels a mix of discomfort and angst about Israel, a land he lived in for five years and where his wife is from. For 25 years, if Jews in the United States disagreed with Israel, they stayed largely silent. More often, they looked with pride to Israel for guidance on questions ranging from the fate of Soviet Jews to the "Arab threat" to anti-Semitism.
No longer is this true. A schism over Israel is shaping among American Jews. Hopes for a triumphal 50th celebration have been replaced by a sober tone. The issue is not just the sharp turn to the right of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Nor is it his blustery personality.
Rather, it seems to Matalon, and to many in his congregation, that divisive policies have become ingrained in the Israeli state.
The biggest beef is over the rise of Orthodoxy - the "Who is a Jew?" question. Reform and Conservative rabbis and synagogues - some 90 percent of American Jews - are not today recognized by the Orthodox chief rabbinate in Jerusalem. This deeply disturbs these Americans.
The question of Israel's Arab neighbors closely follows: Under Mr. Netanyahu, Israeli occupation of the West Bank continues, Jewish settlements are expanding, and Jerusalem is claimed de facto in its entirety. Palestinians oppose these moves. The hopes inspired by the 1993 White House handshake between former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (now assassinated) and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat now are viewed cynically, at best.
Call for a purer view
For many rabbis, these are religious, not political issues. "The idea of Israel is a pure one," Matalon says. "That's why we need to know what is and isn't pure. Because Israel holds such a special place in our hearts, our struggle to clear out the impurities is a passionate struggle. We need to purify Jerusalem. We need to criticize, but with love."
Many Jews believe the contribution of Judaism to the world is based on a development of ethical and spiritual values that define the state of Israel as much as the geographic land does. "As Jews, we have a moral imperative to share the land, to live in the spirit of 'thou shalt not harm the stranger,' " says Jacob Bender, a filmmaker and member of Jeshuron.
Of course, many deeply religious Jews applaud Israel's current policies. At the more-orthodox Reform Center, right around the corner from B'nai Jeshuron, young men standing on the sidewalk during a break in their Shabbat service say things like "I'm happier with Netanyahu. He's not going to give away our land so easily."
Yet a broad swath of American Jews from a post-Holocaust generation are expressing discontent. They give less to old-line Jewish charities. A Los Angeles Times poll shows that while American Jews identify strongly with Israel, many no longer "feel close" to the state. Fully half of US Jews polled say Israel is "on the wrong track," according to the Israel Policy Forum in New York.
This is a far cry from the 1970s, when rabbis in the US were sometimes dismissed if they expressed criticism. While 81 US senators signed a recent letter to President Clinton supporting Israel, only 60 percent of Jewish senators signed it.
Donations to the United Jewish Agency, the largest Jewish charity, have dropped. But giving to the New Israel Fund, which supports social justice and civil rights, is dramatically up. "I won't travel to Israel right now," says Jeshuron member Eileen Weiss, a New York actress who has appeared in several Woody Allen films. "I don't want my tourist dollars supporting that government."
"American Jews love Israel. But they are mad at Israel," adds J.J. Goldberg, author of "Jewish Power," a study of Jewish lobby groups. "Our rallying cry used to be 'Let's defend Israel.' Now it is: 'What are Israel's policies on religion and defense?' In some sense, that shows a maturing process."
A diverse New York temple
B'nai Jeshuron, on 88th Street in the upscale Upper West Side, is itself in the vanguard of the emerging consensus on Israel. The temple is the fastest growing in New York, a city with about 1.5 million Jews. The congregation has grown from 30 mostly older members in the mid-1980s to more than 4,000 today, half of whom spill over to worship in a Methodist church nearby.