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Do American Jews get a vote in Israel?

If you hate politics, I get it.  Please move along.  Just skip this post.

When I started this site, I feel like I made a promise to you and to myself that I wouldn't get political.  If you want to know more of my thoughts on getting political, in a book that weirdly doesn't get very political, I urge you to read my book, Getting Political: Scenes from a Life in Israel.  (Hey, even if you don't want to know my thoughts, pick up the book anyway!  Seriously, it doesn't get very political...)

And yet.

And yet.

There are times when I feel like I have to get political.

Because when you move to Israel, you cease, in some important way, to be a "diaspora Jew" and become an “Israeli Jew.”

You live here, you walk the daled amos basically every single day of your life, you breathe the holy and sometimes stinky air.

You live with the noise, or block it out with a nonstop stream of English podcasts and audiobooks.

You vote in the elections.

And I don't even have a post I can link to about the elections, because I haven't talked about politics.

But just for a minute, I want to.  So please cut me some slack.
Because I came across this article about how the Canadian diaspora, and presumably, the rest of the diaspora, can influence Israel.

And it scared me.

Spoiler alert: the way that diaspora Jews can influence Israel, apparently, is to participate in the World Zionist Congress coming up in October.  In fairness, it's held in Jerusalem, so they do have to have some contact with Israel to participate.

But I'm still leery.

Should diaspora Jews decide for Israel?

According to the article, "Despite its low profile, [the WZC] makes big decisions about the policies and leadership of those organizations – and has money. The congress “represents the entire political and religious spectrum of the Zionist movement” and is “by far the largest and most widespread democratic exercise in the Jewish world today,” it says."

The problem is that the list of representatives from Canada is overwhelmingly liberal.  This is probably true for the U.S. delegation as well.  And liberal Jews all over North America have made it clear in recent years that they do not have Israel's best interests at heart.

Sorry, but it's true.

North American Jews are not Israeli Jews, and vice versa.  This isn't my opinion, this is statistics.
Bear with me here.  I know statistics can be boring, so I will sum them up here in two cold, heartless generalities, in case you want to skip over the numbers.

  • Israeli Jews care deeply about Israel, and strongly support its right to exist as a Jewish state and defend its own territory.
  • American Jews care little about Israel, and are wishy-washy on its right to exist as a Jewish state and defend its territory.

Fortunately, I have statistics to bear out these heartless generalities.  Because the American Jewish Committee did two surveys in 2019, one of Israeli attitudes about Israel and America, and one of American Jewish attitudes about Israel and America


(In fairness, these folks would probably not call themselves liberal Jews… but ironically, they share at least one particular value in common, that is, denying Israel’s right to exist and defend itself…)

(photo credit © Alisdare Hickson via Flickr)

Who are these North American Jews?

On the survey of Israeli Jews, when asked, "Do you think that a thriving State of Israel is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people?" -- 91% of Israeli Jews said yes.  48% "approved strongly" of Trump's strong support of Israel.
And 63% said it was "not appropriate" for American Jews to attempt to influence Israeli policy on issues like national security and peace negotiations.

Now let’s see what American Jews think. 

To start with, even though only 38% said caring about Israel was a "very important part" of their Judaism and 59% had never visited Israel, 57% thought it was appropriate for Americans to try to influence Israeli policy.  Hmm…

Weirdly, despite not caring much about Israeli in their own lives, a strong majority, 72%, "think that a thriving State of Israel is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people."

Getting down to nitty-gritty, let’s see what Israeli Jews think of the so-called “peace process.”  It turns out that the biggest single block, 33% of Israeli Jews, strongly oppose a two-state solution with Palestine.  Because, and here I'm editorializing, they have seen the reality on the ground.

Want to guess what American Jews think on this issue?  In a complete reversal of the Israeli view, the biggest single block, 33%, of American Jews strongly support a two-state solution with Palestine.  And now I'm editorializing again, but given the statistics it's fair to say most have not experienced the reality on a daily basis.

One more statistic.  Again, bear with me.  It’s almost over.  And I think these numbers are important because these are not small numbers.  They are vast numbers.

How vast?  Well, 88% of Israeli Jews said they supported the U.S. recognition of Israel's sovereignty over the Golan, and 50% said that Israel should not dismantle "any Jewish settlements in the West Bank" in return for peace (I don't know how the question was worded in Hebrew; I might have said something more like "Jewish communities in Yehuda and Shomron").

That’s a pretty clear statement.  Half of all Israelis are either okay with Jews living in these areas or don't believe that giving up these communities will lead to peace.

Now to our cousins in the U.S.  And over there, 41% said it was okay to dismantle some Jewish communities in return for peace; 25% said they should ALL be dismantled.  I said these were big numbers, and if you add those together, it makes a whopping 66% of American Jews who believe, even after all the lessons of the past, that destroying Jewish homes is going to get us that long-awaited peace.

As they say in Hebrew, "halevai" -- if only.

Oh, and when it comes to the Golan, 39% of American Jews oppose U.S. recognition of Israeli areas there.  Maybe they don’t realize that Jews are living there, or maybe they really are dreaming of even more "settlements" they can dismantle.

sign community banner education politics political demonstration protest israel protester

(because who wouldn’t want justice???)

Why sovereignty matters

Given all this, the idea of North American Jews pulling the strings on Israeli policy from afar is troubling, to say the least. 

Now, if you read my post about proudly voting in the last Canadian election, you might want to point out that I’m some kind of huge hypocrite for wanting to pull the strings on Canadian policy from afar.  But the difference in my mind is that I spent most of my life living in Canada and indeed, still have skin in the game in many ways on Canadian soil (a gruesomely mixed metaphor if ever there was one!) -- in ways that most North American Jews don't when it comes to Israel. 

Where I live, far from the centre of the country, Judaism is in deep, deep trouble.  Here in Northern Israel, Jews are not a majority of the population and perhaps never have been.   Beyond the core spiritual identity which unites us, and which is increasingly absent due to a massive influx of non-Jewish olim, many of us are also physically in danger with startling frequency, whether we live near the Golan, Yehuda and Shomron, or the Gaza envelope.

Yet both of these central issues (identity & defense) are now considered controversial and certainly not foregone conclusions among North American Jews. 

I would honestly fear having to live in an Israel under the influence of policies created by Canadian and U.S. Jews.  I think that influence will inevitably attempt to tie our leaders' hands when it comes to either our proud Jewish identity or our self-defense. 

But you’ll notice I said attempt.  Because you can say what you want about Netanyahu (Please, really!  Just not here!!) but he has taken strong stances on both those issues: (1) Israel's right to be the only Jewish country in the world, and proudly Jewish at that.  And (2) Israel's right to defend itself against all existential threats.

Some would say he hasn't done either quite enough, and others would say he's done both a little too much.  I'm not taking sides.  But what Netanyahu he has done very, very well, all told, is not bow to pressure from diaspora Jews.  And I hope our future leaders won't either.

Now, I want to point out here that I believe Israel is absolutely the birthright of diaspora Jews. 

But a birthright isn't something you can  just take for granted, keeping it in the closet, and never dusting it off and trying it on for size.  I believe you need to step up and claim it as your own by actually living here before you can be taken seriously enough to be given a vote.


(photo credit © humbleslave via Flickr)

The historical rift

This huge gap between North American and Israeli Jews is nothing new.  It’s been with us since the earliest days of the Zionist endeavour.  And I’m not the only one who’s noticed that this fraught history rarely gets brought up in discussion of Israel-diaspora relations.

A brand-new article by Caroline Glick last week also shares some of this history -- and also points out the hypocrisy behind the current move toward liberal Zionist participation in events like the WJC and lobbying on Israel issues.  And the fact that liberal Zionists claiming their stake in Israel are denying 75 years of history during which they actively railed against Zionism and tried to defeat it.  As Caroline Glick writes, 

"Jewish nationalism flew in the face of the prevailing zeitgeist in elite Jewish and non-Jewish circles in the mid and late nineteenth century."

I hope you'll read her full exploration of last week’s Holocaust Forum – and what it means for Zionism today with an open mind. 

(Oh, and for more on the history and educational solutions for some of the problems between American Jews and Israel, well, there’s always my book-slash-thesis, Building a Better Birthright: Israel Education for American Jewish Identity.  Maybe more dense than what I usually write, and a little more historical / political, but well worth reading.)

And then there’s the following quote (citing Yossi Klein Halevi), which sums up the current mood so well that I'm going to lift it directly and maybe even send you to read the whole New York Times article -- I hope you will.

Israeli Jews believe deeply that President Trump recognizes their existential threats. In scuttling the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, which many Israelis saw as imperiling their security, in moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in basically doing whatever the government of Benjamin Netanyahu asks, they see a president of the United States acting to save their lives.

American Jews, in contrast, see President Trump as their existential threat, a leader who they believe has stoked nationalist bigotry, stirred anti-Semitism and, time and time again, failed to renounce the violent hatred swirling around his political movement.

What it comes down to is that I honestly wouldn't want to be a liberal North American Zionist today.  It's a position that must be fraught with conflict, allying yourself with Israel's enemies on the one hand, seeking to dismantle and weaken the Jewish presence in Israel even while you claim to support it.  I feel like there’s some degree of cognitive dissonance in reconciling the history with liberal politics with the modern realities of Israel.

But my sense is that most won't trouble themselves to find out much about the history or the present realities.  They'll just reject Israel's claim to represent Judaism and the Jewish people, reject Israel's sovereignty, reject Israel's right to self-defense, and then rush to the aid of those who'd destroy us.  Claiming to know better than those on the ground how to handle our security and identity concerns.  Claiming Israel doesn’t speak for them.

Those are the folks who will be voting in October's World Zionist Congress.

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(photo credit © Jewish Voice for Peace via Flickr)

Diaspora colonialism?

Reading through what I've written here, it's interesting... because what this situation sounds a whole lot like is nothing less than colonialism.  Doesn't it? 

Think about the American Colonies under British rule.  Where the British royalty and parliament tried to make all the decisions for the folks who were actually living in the states.  Sure, Britain funded lots of the early settlements and provided lots of money in trade, just as diaspora Jews do today, but ultimately the states rebelled because they felt that their British rulers had no clue what life was actually like in the colonies.

And look what they eventually rose up and said:

"all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do."

The original article about the Canadian delegation points out that the WZC "has money" -- dishing out about $1 billion annually for organizations like the Jewish Agency and JNF.

I don't know how much power and influence the WZC actually yields in practice.  But given the headline – “How the Canadian diaspora can influence Israel” – it certainly seems like a threat to the exact kinds of rights and powers mentioned in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

I’m about to get off my soapbox, so stick with me just one second more.  Because sovereignty matters.  To Israel more than to almost anywhere else in the world.  Jewish sovereignty matters.  Sovereignty and the rights of self-determination within our own borders. 

In a proudly post-colonial era, it’s ironic that we have to stand up and claim these rights over and over again.  It’s also somewhat exhausting.  And, as Caroline Glick points out, perhaps a losing battle if we forget the lessons of history.

A losing battle it may be, but it’s up to us, as Israeli Jews, to keep on resisting even as the diaspora rallies forces once again to tell us how we really ought to live our Jewish and Israeli lives.

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(photo credit © Uri Baruchin from Tel Aviv, Israel via Wikimedia)

(pro-Israel rally in LA photo © Israeli American Council via Wikimedia)

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jennifer: I always look for your articles and books. I always read your articles, like this one. I remember you from before you moved from Canada, when you moved permanently to Israel, and read several of your books and urged others in the LinkedIn group, CHILDREN'S BOOK WRITERS, to read them. I can really appreciate your progress. It is impossible for me to understand the positions of the Jews of New York, Florida and California. Sometimes I get this weird feeling that they are leaders of the Liberal Movement, not the followers. Your future as a writer is assured; just keep writing, please. And if you have any book trailers or even just videos of the Israel you are close to, please allow me to broadcast them a little farther. Earl H. Roberts,


I'd love to hear what you have to say.