- Israel and American Jewry:New Israeli Perspectives
Over the first decades of the 21st century, relations between American Jews and Israel became decidedly paradoxical. The period introduced Birthright Israel tourism, a rite-of-passage visit to Israel for American Jewish young adults. It also featured a proliferation of advocacy organizations across the political spectrum, the rise of Israel studies in the academy and Israel education in Jewish schools and summer camps, a profusion of direct philanthropic ties, and an expansion of everyday engagement with Israeli film, television, and cuisine. Yet the same period also saw the eruption of fierce conflicts between American Jewish organizations and the Israeli government. The two sides repeatedly came to loggerheads over issues ranging from religious pluralism to asylum seekers, Iran, Israel's conflict with the Palestinians, and the rights of non-Jewish citizens. As might be expected, this has led to a growing concern over the putative distancing of liberal American Jews from Israel.
The confounding dynamics of the period provided material for a sizeable body of scholarship by American Jews about their community's [End Page 198] hanging relationship to Israel. Recent books have examined the attitudes of American Jews towards Israel1 and their trends in tourism, advocacy, and philanthropy.2 Other works address the prophetic political tradition of American Jews, centered on the values of pluralism, liberalism, human rights, and humanitarianism,3 and argue that despite a history of persecution, diaspora life can be good for the Jews.4 Until recently, the topic received scant attention from Israeli scholars. In quick succession, however, Israel-based scholars have published three books that offer Israeli perspectives on the changing relationship between the world's two largest Jewish societies.
YOSSI SHAIN, THE ISRAELI CENTURY
In the course of many centuries, argues Yossi Shain, the Jewish people adapted to the conditions of their diaspora existence. They became a People of the Book, a nation of merchants, and denizens of imperial courts. During the modern period, they redefined themselves as a religious community rather than a nation and embraced the principles of universalism and liberalism which they believed would enable their full participation in the modern state. Faced with persecution, they construed statelessness and powerlessness as virtues, and asserted that Judaism's mission was to offer the world an example of moral leadership devoid of the corrupting influences of power.
The State of Israel, now in its eighth decade, has transformed the meaning of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, according to Yossi Shain, a political scientist at Tel-Aviv University. A myriad of accommodations to diaspora existence fell by the wayside, Shain writes, as Israel emerged as a sovereign power and the global center of the Jewish people.
The State of Israel has gradually become the most important force in all areas of Jewish life around the globe. Israel has consolidated its hold as the dominant institutional and cultural entity in the Jewish experience, defining and determining the place of Jews and Judaism among the nations, and serving as a self-appointed spokesperson for world Jewry wherever they may be.(p. 11)
A best seller in its Hebrew edition, Shain's book covers a vast historical terrain from the Babylonian exile to the present. The main chapters describe political arrangements and ideological movements during brief stretches of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel and lengthier periods of [End Page 199] diaspora existence in Europe and the United States. Shain often interrupts his historical narrative to follow a thread to the present, underscoring his main purpose: to frame Israel's history-defying rise as a powerful sovereign state, and the extraordinary transformation it has wrought in Judaism and the Jewish world.
Today, Israel is a regional military power and an important geopolitical actor with a strong economy, a high standard of...