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  • Mass Mobilization to Direct Engagement:American Jews' Changing Relationship to Israel
  • Theodore Sasson (bio)

The practices of American Jews relative to Israel seem increasingly to break with patterns established during the second half of the 20th century. Lobbying by American Jewish organizations on the political left and right increasingly competes with the consensus-oriented efforts of organizations such as AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (CPMAJO). Direct giving to Israeli civil society organizations has replaced the federations' annual campaigns as the primary vehicle for diaspora philanthropy. The number of American Jewish teens and young adults visiting Israel has surged, but most are going with private tour companies under the auspices of Birthright Israel rather than programs of the North American denominations. Aliyah is up, but managed by Nefesh b'Nefesh, a private not-for-profit organization, rather than the Jewish Agency for Israel. In short, how American Jews relate to Israel is very much in flux.

This study argues that the mass mobilization model that organized American Jewish practices relative to Israel since the founding of state has declined, and a new direct engagement model has emerged alongside it. Increasingly American Jews relate to Israel directly, by advocating their own political views, funding favored causes, visiting frequently or living there part time, consuming Israeli news and entertainment, and expressing a distinctively "realistic" rather than idealistic orientation toward the Jewish state. Their new homeland practices have given rise to (and been encouraged by) a new set of organizations that operate privately, beyond the orbit of the semi-public agencies of the established American Jewish polity. These developments are described against the backdrop of the waning mass mobilization paradigm, and their significance for diaspora Jewish organizations and Israeli democratic institutions is examined. [End Page 173]

The article is also meant as a contribution to the field of diaspora studies. Not all diasporas but many—including Jews, Greeks, Irish, and Armenians—maintain links to ancestral homelands. Most scholarly literature on the diaspora-homeland relationship emphasizes the political sphere and treats "state-linked" diasporas as more or less unitary actors vis-à-vis host and homeland governments.1 The dominant emphasis in this literature has been on diaspora lobbying of host government on behalf of homeland interests.2 A secondary emphasis, largely corrective, highlights the influence of diaspora groups on their homelands, especially their efforts to bring homeland policies into harmony with host country interests.3 Few studies have explored the circumstances under which diaspora political activity becomes partisan and plural—in which diasporas become sites for waging homeland political struggles.4

In contrast, immigration research increasingly emphasizes the diverse ties migrants establish and maintain with their countries of origin. For example, Basch, Glick Schiller, and Szanton-Blanc describe the "process by which immigrants forge and sustain multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement."5 Dufoix further describes how "transmigrants develop and maintain all sorts of relations—familial, religious, economic, and political—with the place they come from, thereby laying the foundations for non-territorial nations"6 According to this literature, migrants send home remittances, participate in homeland political parties, reproduce homeland cultural practices, and return for frequent visits.7

Although the definitional debate goes far beyond the scope of this article, the substantive overlap between diasporas and transnational immigrant communities is clearly considerable. The fact that many transnational immigrant communities qualify as diasporas is reason enough to extend the typology of diaspora-homeland relationships to include a broader range of possible connections. By distinguishing "mass mobilization" from "direct engagement", I show that there is variability in how diasporas are organized with respect to homelands, and explore the transition from one model to another in a single case.

Mass Mobilization

The mass mobilization paradigm typified the relationship between American Jews and Israel during the period between the early 1950s and the late 1980s.8 During the earlier years, responsibility for the diaspora-homeland [End Page 174] relationship shifted from Zionist organizations to the large, centralized, core organizations of American Jewry, including the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Council of Jewish Federations, and the CPMAJO. New organizations were also established...


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