After studying the relationship between American Jews and Israel, Steven Rosenthal ’68 said he knows how complex relationships can be.
Rosenthal, a University of Hartford professor and author of “Irreconcilable Differences? The Waning of the American Jewish Love Affair with Israel,” spoke about the relationship between American Jews and Israel at a Pierson Master’s Tea Tuesday. After giving a brief history of Israel, Rosenthal argued that American Jews have become increasingly ambivalent toward Israel in recent years.
Despite the current split, Rosenthal said tensions between American Jews and Israel could be traced to the early years of Israel’s existence. While American Jews were instrumental in leading to Israel’s formation, he said, they remained “astonishingly ignorant” of Israel and its culture.
“American Jews were circumscribed by their primary focus — their identity as Americans,” Rosenthal said. “They had already found their Promised Land between Brooklyn and the Bronx.”
Even though the Holocaust had galvanized American Zionism and helped lead to support for Israel’s formation, Rosenthal said, many American Jews were emotionally uninvolved with Israel.
“They were not spending Saturdays in shul,” he said. “They were suburbanizing themselves, pulling crabgrass and chasing the American dream.”
Crises such as the War of 1967 and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 continued to change the relationship between Jews in the United States and Israel, but varied between helping and hurting relations between the two groups.
“Between 1967 and 1982, American Jews walked with lock-step with Israel,” Rosenthal said. “Israel would say jump and American Jews would say ‘how high?'”
But in recent years, Rosenthal said, Israel has been answering to American Jews. He cited the October 1998 Wye River Summit, when then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lobbied American Jews for support for a settlement that proposed the withdrawal of Israelis from 13 percent of the West Bank. American Jews refused.
“It was the first time the American Jewish community asserted itself against the prime minister on an issue of utmost importance,” Rosenthal said.
Today the relationship between American Jews and Israel is as tenuous as ever, Rosenthal said, and not for unjust reasons.
“American Jews appear to be caring less about Israel today,” he said. “The Holocaust is a memory; the emotional days of the founding of Israel is a memory. The desert has bloomed and immigrants have been absorbed.”
In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, increased suicide bombing and anti-semitic sentiments in Europe, American Jews feel vulnerable and have become “ambivalent” toward Israel, Rosenthal said.
“There are not a lot of doves and hawks,” Rosenthal said. “Once there is a chance for a real peace settlement in the Middle East, American Jews will no doubt return to the kind of public debate that has become the norm.”
After his talk, Rosenthal fielded questions about a variety of subjects — from intermarriage to the future of Israel. One guest asked Rosenthal about any hopes of settlement in the Middle East.
“The only prospect for real settlement is an imposed settlement,” he answered. “Israel is a tiny power and Palestine is a miniscule power. In history, it has not been uncommon for large powers to impose on smaller powers.”
Pierson Master Harvey Goldblatt, a longtime friend of Rosenthal, praised the talk for its timeliness.
“It was an excellent talk with everything that is going on in the world right now,” he said.
For Jed Meltzer GRD ’06, Rosenthal’s talk really hit home.
“He perfectly explained my family and what I’ve seen in my life,” Meltzer said. “It’s nice to know I’m not the only person who has experienced these conflicting feelings.”