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Michael Auslin: American Jews Must Reach Out to the World
Michael Auslin: American Jews Must Reach Out to the World

In June, I visited Istanbul for the first time.  As a professional historian of East Asia, it had long been my dream to visit the city that straddles Asia and Europe, and which has played such an important role in the history of the world.  Since I am not a professional scholar of Turkey, I could be a simple tourist, looking with fascination at the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cisterns, and the continuous stream of boat traffic on the Bosphorus.  Visiting Istanbul was just as I had imagined it, and I left after my short visit wanting to return as soon as I could.

Yet I am also an American Jew.  Though I was raised Reform, I have become steadily more religious over the years, and my family and I now practice much of Judaism that I did not even know about when I was growing up.  As much as I feel religiously Jewish, though, I feel just as culturally Jewish, and since I am a historian, I am equally fascinated with the long and fascinating history of the Jewish people. 

I knew that Istanbul had a large Jewish community, and I made arrangements to meet with some of the leaders of that community, and visit the Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews.  While I have been surrounded by American Jews my whole life, I have not had too many opportunities to meet my fellow Jews from around the world.  I was overwhelmed with the warmth and hospitality of the Jews I met in Turkey, and I felt as though I were meeting a part of my family for the first time.

But beyond these important, yet simple, feelings, I realized during my short visit to Istanbul that American Jews need to reach out far more to their brethren around the world and develop a truly global view of Judaism.  Jews are still a people largely in diaspora.  More than any other people we should have an instinctive understanding of the interconnectedness of world Jewry, even if we are separated by political nationalities. 

However, because America is home to the largest number of Jews in the world, there is often an assumption that we have a unique insight into the global issues of Jews.  Our Jewish worldview is largely limited to Israel, though we certainly are aware of the issues of Jews in other countries (the Soviet refuseniks of the 1970s being the best case).  We encounter Jews from around the world usually through major organizations like the American Jewish Congress or B’nai B’rith.  At the same time, however, since most American Jews have been in the United States for less than 100 years, there is still a remnant feeling of alien-ness, of being apart from America.  We cannot have the perspective of Turkish Jews, who have been part of the life of Turkey for over 500 years.  Thus, American Jews are in some ways particularly unrooted: feeling at times not part of America, yet also not fully aware of the world of Jewry around us.

This unique position is why many American Jews are particularly concerned over the current state of US-Israeli relations.  Americans of all religions and all political persuasions have long felt a special tie with Israel, as it is the only true democracy in the Middle East, and by far the most liberal country in the region.  Yet, in recent years, the American political establishment has increasingly put pressure on Israel to curtail its self-defense actions against the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Hezbollah.  Over time, this has caused increasing strain between the two allies, as Washington has pressured the Israeli government to make more and more concessions to its enemies while receiving no security in return.

Yet now diplomatic relations between Israel and the United States are at the lowest level ever.  President Barack Obama from his first day in office seemed not to share the general feelings of support for Israel that all his predecessors did.  His Administration has put more pressure on Israel more publically than any previous Administration, and the President’s words on numerous occasions betray a distinct lack of sympathy for the Israeli state.

This has put most American Jews in an awkward position.  American Jews overwhelmingly vote for the Democratic Party, and share most of the policy goals of the liberal side of the American political spectrum.  They eagerly voted for Barack Obama in 2008.  Now however, they are increasingly worried that the US and Israel are drifting apart, which can only mean that Israel will find itself more isolated in the world.  They see the lack of warm feeling on the part of the Obama Administration (despite its diplomatic assurances of support), and they worry that Israel and Jews are again being seen as problems, even by their longtime friends.  Ultimately,(eninde sonunda) not being part of the American mainstream(ana görüşün) is something that American Jews fear, as that brings up deep-seated concerns about their position in the country.  While we are not yet near that stage, I believe that it is operating at some unconscious level in the minds of many Americans.

Thus, it is more important than ever that Jews worldwide work to increase the bonds among us.  The two great communities of Turkish and American Jews in particular must become closer.  As the world’s largest Jewish community (America) and the one Jewish community that has been a bridge between Asia and America (Turkey), we have a special responsibility to share our concerns and present a united front to the world, not only as Jews, but as Turks and Americans.  For this reason, and many others, I hope to visit my brethren in Istanbul again soon, and become part of a dialogue linking us to our shared past and common future.

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