A transoceanic mixer highlights rift between Israelis and Jews abroad

TEL AVIV, Israel – Hundreds of Jewish singles file into the ballroom of a luxury beachfront hotel and gather in separate groups. On one side are sharply dressed foreigners, almost all North Americans, wearing blue wristbands and making polite small talk. On the other side, Israelis with purple wristbands laugh, chatter loudly and smoke.

JDate, the world’s biggest online Jewish personals community, has chosen Israel’s Independence Day for its first trans-Atlantic mixer. But as the Israelis and visitors keep their distance, and their differing manners become sharply evident, this month’s event seems more than anything to highlight how the two sides have gone their separate ways. A mass wedding, this gathering won’t produce.

Jewish leaders have long warned that the Diaspora’s identity is eroding as more Jews marry gentiles and blend into the non-Jewish mainstream. Meanwhile, Israel has established its own, unique persona, foreign to that of Jews overseas.

The question of where all this is leading came into sharp focus this month at a panel discussion in Washington, at which A.B. Yehoshua, a leading Israeli novelist, raised the volatile issue of Jewishness, Israeliness, and the apathy he fears has pervaded the relationship.

“I cannot keep my identity outside Israel,” he was quoted by The Jerusalem Post as saying. Being Israeli “is my skin, not my jacket,” whereas Diaspora Jews “are changing countries like changing jackets.”

Some of his American hosts responded angrily, arousing an emotional debate over the nature of Jewish identity. Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League in the U.S., wrote in Israel’s Haaretz daily that it was better to work together to preserve Jewish identity “than to revisit old rivalries about who is more important for the future of the Jewish people.”

In a long and more nuanced explanation in Haaretz, Yehoshua acknowledged that his words to the Americans “may have been overly sharp,” provoked by his disappointment that Israel’s memorial day for its war dead, observed on the same day as the panel discussion, was barely mentioned by his hosts.

He strongly denied having portrayed Israel as somehow having more Jewish validity than the Diaspora, noting that the Diaspora had existed much longer than Israel. All he wanted, he wrote, was to draw a line “between the substance of Jewish identity in Israel and Jewish identity in the Diaspora,” to show that a Jewish existence in Israel is more of a daily living reality than it is “in New York or Antwerp.”

This year Israel’s 5.6 million Jews overtook the United States’ 5.29 million to become the world’s largest Jewish community, and it confidently bears the mantle of home to the Jewish people.

But that doesn’t mean Israelis are more religious than Diaspora Jews. Most are secular and are apt to spend religious holidays partying and picnicking rather than praying in synagogues. Their Hebrew language, the Holocaust and their war-torn recent history are what bind them most closely together.

Diaspora Jews, on the other hand, are more likely to express their identity through their synagogues and kosher kitchens, and some have even derided Israelis as “Hebrew-speaking gentiles.”

Yossi Sarid, a former lawmaker and Haaretz columnist, defended the American Jewish community, saying that in many ways it “is more Jewish than the Jewish ‘community’ in Israel, and has no reason to suffer from an inferiority complex.”

But to the dismay of both sides, apathy is setting in, particularly among the young.

Israel, which in its infancy enjoyed the unconditional love of Jews around the world, is now a seasoned 58 years old, more introverted and its relationship with the Diaspora more finely shaded. At the same time, assimilated American Jews have become more detached from their heritage. “They are American Jews, and the emphasis is on American, not Jews,” says Eliezer Schweid, a leading thinker on world Jewry and its relationship to Israel.

He thinks it’s a natural trend – “a process of ingathering on both sides.”

Dozens of Jewish organizations try to combat the estrangement. Birthright-Israel, for instance, offers every Jewish teenager a free trip to Israel, lodgings and guided tours.

American-based JDate says it had modest ambitions in bringing 130 singles to Israel this month.

“We’re not trying to convert people geographically, we are trying to convert them emotionally. We’re trying to help them love,” said David Siminoff, president and chief executive of Spark Networks, JDate’s parent.

The eight-day trip, costing $3,000-$4,000 per person, felt more like a summer break than the images of old-time Zionist endeavors, when young Diaspora volunteers would pick bananas on a kibbutz and fall in love with earthy Israelis.

The JDaters, mostly Americans plus a few Canadians, Mexicans and Britons, kayaked on the Jordan River, floated on the Dead Sea and dined in gourmet restaurants. They met plenty of eligible Israelis, but were mostly interested in each other.

“Israelis are really hot. They’d be fun for a fling, but there is no future,” said Cera Schachter, 24, from Edmonton, Alberta.

Jaime Cojac, 30, from Charlotte, N.C., agreed. She’d like to meet a Jewish man but not to move to Israel.

“You stick with what you know,” she said. “I would just feel more comfortable with an American.”

Israeli daters seemed equally indifferent, finding too large a gap in mentality and wary of seeking a partner not committed to living in Israel.

“I love Israel and I love Israeli women,” said Erez Kamai, 35, from Tel Aviv. “I didn’t come here looking for America.”

North American immigration to Israel has grown steadily to a 22-year high of 3,100 last year, but that’s a tiny fraction of the total, according to the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency.

“Among those who feel connected there is more commitment, but they are not the majority,” said spokesman Michael Jankelowitz.

Nachman Shai, a senior vice president in the Israeli office of the UJC-Federations, an umbrella American Jewish group, says the trend is here to stay.

“It is much harder to connect the younger generation of Americans to Israel than it was to connect their parents and grandparents,” he said.

“It’s a natural process – they’ve had less of a Jewish education and a Jewish environment. It’s a new reality.”