The Vast Ocean Between West and East

This piece was written in the Spring of 2021 for an intensive Israel education course for gap year students led by Calev Ben Dor.

Many in the pro-Israel community believe that Israel is the great outpost of the West, a shining beacon of democratic values in a region otherwise devoid of it. This is what Diaspora Jewry[1] is taught in most pro-Israel Jewish institutions. Israel is startup nation, we are told; it is the ultimate model of entrepreneurship and innovation. Its streets flow with milk and honey and cherry tomatoes.

Seth Rogen, the Jewish actor and comedian, recently claimed that he “was fed a huge amount of lies” about Israel at the Jewish schools and summer camps that he attended in his youth. He went on to conclude that having a state for Jews “makes no sense.”  Rogen received backlash from many in the Jewish community; his comments were dismissed as being ignorant. However, Rogen is correct in pointing out that much of Diaspora Jewry is taught about Israel is not fully accurate.

There exists a rift between Diaspora Jews and Israel. This divide is growing, not despite the idyllic view of Israel that we are taught, rather, because of it.

The cultural and political divide between American and Israeli Jews is rooted in the flawed understanding of Israel as a Western country like the U.S. Seeing Israel in this light is supposed to create space for American Jews to identify with the Jewish State. But, as Seth Franzman writes, the idea that Israel is, or ever was, fully Western, is “a myth invented among American Jews about Israel, in order to convince themselves Israel was like a miniature version of the Upper West Side in New York, only with tanks and a flag.”[2]

There are things about Israel that make it appear fully Western. Israel values rule of law. It boasts a (somewhat) functioning democracy, with a multi-party system and free elections. It has socialized healthcare, a booming hi-tech industry, and a thriving LGBTQ community.  

Yet it is not fully Western. Franzman defines Israel as a “hybrid civilization, with Western currents in it but a foundation that is rooted in the Middle East.” This is a much more accurate depiction, and internalizing it would allow the American Jewish community to more accurately understand the culture and politics of their Israeli brothers and sisters.

While religiously observant Jews across the ocean may practice somewhat similarly, those who are culturally Jewish are connected to wildly different traditions depending on which side of the Atlantic they live. Over half of Israeli Jews self-identify as Sephardi or Mizracḥi. Meanwhile, 90 percent of American Jews are of Ashkenazi descent. [3] This does not just mean that American Jews eat bagels and lox while Israelis munch on hummus and falafel. Lack of awareness about Sephardi and Mizrachi culture and history is a serious problem. This phenomenon, dubbed “Ashkenormativity,” is a form of eurocentrism that treats Ashkenazi culture as the default Jewish experience. Awareness of Ashkenormativity in America has recently increased. This is an important step that will not only help the American Jewish mainstream to acknowledge its exclusion of the non-Ashkenazi narrative from curricula and awareness, but also to develop a more honest connection with Israeli culture. As Matti Friedman explains, “half the country came from the Muslim world, and that informs everything about Israel — cuisine, behavior, music, religion, politics.”[4] Instead of pretending that Israel is just like the Upper West Side, American Jews should make an effort to authentically explore the Mizrachi influence on Israeli and Jewish history.

In addition, shifting the narrative to the idea that Israel is a “hybrid civilization” would allow American Jews to meaningfully contribute to debates over Israeli policy. American Jews, who are overwhelmingly liberal, are often baffled by the right’s seeming domination of Israeli politics. This political divide between Israelis and Americans stems partially from Israel’s Middle Eastern nature. Friedman points out that the Israeli right “taps into the residual anger over how Jews from the Middle East were treated here.” Understanding this, as well as the complex power structures and tribal nature of the Middle East, could lead to actual progress in the region. As Jack S. Cohen writes, “understanding of the Israel–Palestine conflict can be enhanced by considering it a tribal conflict between Jews and Arabs and realizing that a neat ‘two state solution’ or clear separation of the two sides is not practically feasible.”[5] By developing this understanding, Diaspora Jews can shift their advocacy toward more realistic peace proposals.

Perhaps pro-Israel Americans believe that portrayal of Israel as Western increases solidarity with the state, but it is not that simple. . If Israel is Western, it must be held to standards expected of Western countries. Things like an ethnically-based immigration policy make no sense to Americans (although European countries such as Germany, Greece, and Croatia have adopted such a policy) – so critics of Israel call it racist and discriminatory. However, once it is acknowledged that Israel is situated within a political climate that values loyalty to one’s tribe more than it values diversity, policies such as these can be evaluated for what they truly are. By no means am I arguing that acknowledging that Israel is not fully Western should make it immune to criticism; rather, in order to criticize Israeli policy in a way that is actually productive, the realities of its region need to be addressed.

It is sad that Rogen felt that Jewish institutions lied to him, and even sadder that he felt the need to complain about it publicly rather than take action to change the narrative. But he is not alone in his disillusionment. Because of the flawed pro-Israel narrative of Israel as a Western state, a growing number of young Diaspora Jews are judging Israel, and the conflict, with an overly American lens. They, too, are deciding that Israel “makes no sense.”

There should exist more opportunities for Diaspora Jews to meaningfully wrestle with the complicated reality that is the state of Israel. It is still important for Diaspora Jews to explore what they have in common with Israelis and form a spark of connection with Israel. But examining the reality of the situation- that American Jews fully live in the West, and Israeli Jews do not- ought to be the next step. Acknowledging this fact will make our advocacy for (and criticism of) Israel more meaningful and more productive.

Tamar Yahalom grew up in Dallas, Texas. Next year, she plans on making Aliyah, living on a kibbutz, and drafting to the IDF.

[1] While there are certainly sizeable Jewish communities in other parts of the world, the terms “Diaspora Jewry” and “American Jewry” are used interchangeably in this piece, reflecting the proportion of Diaspora Jews that are North American and my own experiences as an American Jew.

[2] Franzman

[3] Kramer  

[4] Friedman

[5] Cohen