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by Ron Skolnik
MILLIONS of American Jews have traditionally regarded Israel as the ultimate backup plan. While relatively few have chosen to live there (and many of those who do end up returning to America), Israel has always been cherished as a place of refuge, the go-to country if, Heaven forbid, the situation in the United States ever became untenable. In this context, I sat up and took notice when I read recently that Barbra Streisand had said in an interview that if one Donald J. Trump were elected president this November, she would leave the United States, her country of birth, and become a new immigrant to . . . Australia. Or Canada, if the gates to her first choice were locked.
No mention at all of the Yidishe Medina.
Poor Israel. If Streisand’s selection of country of residence were an Olympic event, Israel wouldn’t even rate a bronze medal. If Barbra were a college applicant, Israel would, at best, be considered her “safety school” –- that middling institution of higher learning that she was sure would accept her if all the top schools turned her down. If Babs were a high school senior, Israel would be the cousin with whom she ended up going to the prom once she discovered that all the boys she wanted to go with were taken. You get the idea.
From Israel’s perspective, this wouldn’t be a big deal if the American Jew in question were some undesirable –- say, Noam Chomsky, who was denied entry to Israel some years back for criticizing the country’s policies; or Norman Finkelstein, declared non grata by Israel in 2008 and barred for ten years; or even billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who has had the khutspe to fund American Jewish groups that oppose the Occupation and seek to preserve Israeli democracy. I imagine many Israelis saying, “Who needs them anyway?”
But Barbra Streisand? That’s a Jew of a different color. Streisand’s warm ties to Israel go back a long way. In 1968, she was awarded the “Israel Freedom Medal . . . in recognition of exceptional service in strengthening the freedom of the State of Israel through the promotion of its economic development,” as the inscription read. She has done fundraising on behalf of Israeli causes, such as her appearance at a gala held by the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, where she reminisced warmly about the wisdom of Golda Meir.
Then, in her 2013 visit to Israel to help celebrate Shimon Peres’ 90th birthday, the American Jewish icon, upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, described the country as “a shining beacon of hope in the world.” And at her ever-first concert in Israel during the visit, she sang Israel’s national anthem, “HaTikva,” noting that the “roots of my heritage” gave her a special connection to the country.
So why, when she imagined the need to take refuge outside her native land, did the possibility of Israel never come up?
STREISAND DID OFFER a hint about her reasoning during her 2013 visit. While receiving an honorary doctorate from Hebrew University, the singer felt it necessary to violate etiquette and call out Israel for its treatment of women, relating how “distressing” it was that “women in Israel [are] being forced to sit in the back of the bus,” that Women of the Wall are assaulted when they try to pray at the Kotel, and that female singers are sometimes prevented by Orthodox politicians from performing at public events. “To remain silent about these things,” she explained to the assembled crowd, “is tantamount to accepting them.” So it’s possible that the feminist Streisand realizes that Israel is a tad too misogynistic for her taste.
The larger, more important question, however, is not this or that celebrity’s personal choices, but Israel’s meaning to American Jews generally. Streisand is a singer and actor, after all, not an American Zionist spokesperson or a philosopher on the American Jewish condition. So her remarks are best utilized as an opportunity to assess what role we assign to Israel in each of our lives. How many of us, like Streisand, would omit Israel as first or second choice if asked where we’d want to go if the U.S. was no longer an option? The results of such a poll question would be fascinating. And if, as I imagine, Ms. Streisand is representative of large swaths of the American Jewish community, how strong can the link to Israel actually be when all is said and done?
Only a minority of American Jews have ever set foot in Israel, although the percentage is rising due to the Birthright program, which takes over 40,000 young American Jews there each year on a free ten-day excursion. Over half a million have already done the trip (Birthright Foundation data). Still, according to estimates, only very small numbers have made aliyah to Israel as a result. Between Babs and Birthright alumni, has Israel become that proverbial locale that American Jews consider a nice place to visit but where they would never want to live?
Ron Skolnik, associate editor of Jewish Currents, is an American-Israeli political analyst, columnist, and translator. For many years he directed Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA), prior to which he served as political adviser to the British Embassy in Israel. You can follow Ron on Twitter @Ron_Skolnik.