Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig – Israeli & American Jews: The Psychological Divide

Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig – Israeli & American Jews: The Psychological Divide

Observers and commentators regarding the growing gap between American Jewry and Israel have focused on some well publicized, policy issues, especially regarding religion & state, as well as aspects of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Less attention has been paid to deep psychological differences between these two Jewish centers of world Jewry.

The recent tragedy in Israel is a good place to start. Twenty-five youth went on a planned trek to the Negev Desert, as part of their year-long preparation before induction into the army (in Israel, there are dozens of such quasi-public mekhinot kdam zavah: pre-army, preparatory institutes) – despite national warnings that there will be massive (and highly unusual) late April downpours in Jerusalem. These are dangerous precisely because you can be walking in the Negev under completely clear skies, and suddenly a wall of onrushing water charging down the hills of Jerusalem many kilometers away can wash you away (indeed, this one even overturned a different group’s tour bus!). Ten of the twenty-five teenagers died in what can best be described as a wadi tsunami.

Although shocking, in a deeper sense this is not altogether surprising, for the reigning Israeli mentality is yi’yeh be’seder – it’ll be OK. Such a gung-ho attitude is not restricted to impetuous youth – indeed, in this case, several of the dead youth actually wrote to each other a day before on their social media that they were worried about the rain forecast; one even wrote: “we’ll die!” This “it’ll be OK” mentality can be seen on the Israeli roads, on post-army sojourn-treks to the wildest parts of the world, and in myriad other areas of Israeli life.

Now for the other side of the coin. A few months ago, I was in the U.S. talking to a Jewish-American publishing house editor (very smart woman). She mentioned that she had just returned from a visit to Israel and saw something that shocked her. What precisely? As she put it: “I was on the bus in Jerusalem, and four 9-year old kids got on.” I was puzzled: “What was wrong with that?” Her reply, with genuine shock in her voice: “They were without any adult supervision!”

The U.S. has become almost paranoid about “danger”. Outdoor playgrounds need a certificate of safety; children of school age aren’t allowed to walk by themselves to their neighbors’ home across the street; not to mention the “Purell obsession” and “allergy mania” striking fear in the hearts of every American parent (I should note that this is not exclusively a Jewish-American problem; but the Jewish parent stereotype seems to be in overdrive on this “danger” front).

The result: Israelis moving to the U.S. (even temporarily) laugh at Americans’ ongoing “trepidation and dread”; American Jews visiting (or moving to) the Holy Land perceive Israelis as kamikaze maniacs. The irony, of course – or perhaps this is the unconscious explanation? – is that the U.S. is a far more dangerous place to live than is Israel: gun shootings, DUI driving fatalities, opioid deaths, natural disasters – the list goes on and on (Israel’s average life expectancy beats the U.S. by more than 3 years).

Fearless or mindless? Scared of their shadow or risk-averse? Choose which of the former you would call Israelis; select your choice for describing (Jewish) Americans. The fact is that we/they are living in completely different – almost opposite – mental worlds. There is no “right” or “wrong” here – just a situation that makes it that much harder for these two “family members” to understand each other at perhaps the most fundamental level of behavior.

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