Web helps U.S. Jews lose that loving feeling, says historian

Israeli news Web sites in English contribute in part to the waning love between American Jews and Israel, a prominent U.S. historian asserted this week, adding that Anglos in Israel can help counter the trend. Since the advent of the Internet and exposure to more critical coverage of Israel, the once-utopian view of Israel Americans held has eroded, according to Jonathan Sarna, who teaches American Jewish history at Brandeis University and is currently on sabbatical in Jerusalem.

In an article appearing in today’s Forward and released this week on the paper’s Web site and on Haaretz.com, Sarna quotes sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who recently warned of “a growing distancing from Israel of American Jews.” Sarna, 54, argues that while this trend is worrisome, another sociologist, Ted Sasson, believes American-Jewish love for Israel is not vanishing but transforming.

“Sasson maintains that what we have today is not as much tension between American Jewry and Israel, but American Jews reflecting some of the same opposition [to Israeli policies] that you find in Israel. Indeed, many of them are reading Israeli Web sites and are influenced by them,” Sarna told Anglo File Tuesday in his Jerusalem apartment. He referred specifically to Haaretz.com, which he says often publishes articles critical of Israeli policies.

“The Internet has made it possible for multiple voices to be heard,” Sarna said. He says that in the days when their sole source of news was the local Jewish paper, the “Jews of America spoke with one voice, mainly [belonging to] the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish organizations – which basically followed the Israeli government’s line.” Aware today of the full range of views expressed in Israel, he says American Jews no longer buy into the notion that “in Israel we’re critical but out of Israel we’re supportive.”

Until recently, American Jews grew up with a utopian notion of Israel, Sarna says. “Everybody [in Israel] was happy, people were building a new state, people were in some ways more equal and egalitarian,” he recalled of his own education. “Israel was going to be that Little America in the Middle East, a country that shared the same values, a true commonwealth. Israel was like America, only better.”

Yet over time, American Jews discovered their idealized perception of Israel was at odds with reality, seeing, for example, the lack of a true separation of church and state and the plight of minorities. “Gradually the utopian vision that had so exited the community was transformed into a more realistic Israel,” Sarna said.

Sarna, whom the Forward in 2004 named one of America’s fifty most influential Jews, said the key to repairing the relationship between Jews in America and Israel lies in education. “Once upon a time Jews felt responsible for and related to one another. This feeling of “Klal Yisrael” [Jewish unity] has greatly declined. That a Jew in America should feel the pain of a Jew in Israel who is taken prisoner – is strange to some American Jews. There is a lot of evidence that roughly half of American Jews don’t quite feel the same sense of connectedness to all Jews that once they did.”

If the concept of “Klal Yisrael” were more emphasized in American Jewish schools, Sarna said, it would be much easier to communicate the idea that Israeli and American Jews are brothers and therefore it is beneficial to support the one another. Israel’s Anglos have a special role in this endeavor, Sarna added.

He believes that Anglos who oppose Israeli policies can “help their relatives and friends in America to understand why they still love Israel, why they remain in Israel, why they still serve in the army, notwithstanding their dissent. After all, Americans Jews often dissent from the policy of their government and still love America.”