Between American Jews and Israel: Are Pressure Tactics Fair Game? An Exchange

Daniel Gordis and Elliott Abrams debate the proper response to the Israeli government’s recent decisions on prayer at the Western Wall and conversion to Judaism.


Israelis gather outside prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem on July 1, 2017, to demonstrate against a government decision to abandon a deal to allow women and men to pray together at the Western Wall. THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images.
Israelis gather outside prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem on July 1, 2017, to demonstrate against a government decision to abandon a deal to allow women and men to pray together at the Western Wall. THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images.
Observation
July 24 2017
About the authors

Daniel Gordis is Koret Distinguished Fellow and chair of the core curriculum at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His new book, Israel: A Concise History of a People Reborn, won the Jewish Book Council’s “Book of the Year” award for 2016.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he maintains a blog, Pressure Points.


For a Jewish Filibuster


Daniel Gordis

Among the finds in the Cairo Genizah, that famous repository of ancient Jewish texts, are documents attesting to a little-known medieval practice known as ikuv tefillah, or delaying the prayer service. Both under Christendom and Islam, it appears, individuals convinced that their legal or personal petitions had not been taken with sufficient seriousness by the Jewish community could stand up in synagogue and prevent worship from proceeding until they’d had a chance to make their case. The privilege could be invoked by litigants in a financial dispute, by women in matters affecting their personal status, and more.

To my knowledge, this customin a sense, an early Jewish form of filibuster—is no longer in use, but the fact that it existed remains significant. Some 1,000 years after the cases attested by the Genizah documents, Jews are still struggling, often desperately, to find ways to get other Jews to listen to them, to hear them out, to acknowledge that they matter.

We are now in the aftermath of the recent brouhaha over two Israeli government decisions, one to cancel an agreement to enlarge and improve the space for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall—the kotel, in Hebrew shorthand—and the other to delegate to the country’s ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate sole authority over conversions to Judaism in Israel. In the midst of the fracas, I published one column sharply protesting this combined slap in the face to Diaspora Jewry and a second, in the form of an open letter to American Jews elaborating on my suggestions for how, by depriving certain Israeli institutions of financial support, they could sufficiently alarm Israel’s government to pay attention to their demands.

Some of my admittedly heated recommendations aroused concern, others rebuke. Among the various responses, none has been as thoughtful and nuanced as that of Elliott Abrams on this website. I am grateful to him for his insightful critique, and to the editors of Mosaic for affording a platform for discussing an issue of existential importance to the Jewish people and the Jewish state. That issue, in a nutshell, is what kind of state is Israel going to be: a state of its citizens alone, or a state that will cultivate its longstanding relationship with world Jewry—and if the latter, how.

 

At the start of his Mosaic piece, Abrams asserts that the extreme contentiousness on display in recent weeks has “blown aside,” at least for the time being, the possibility of “thoughtful discussions of relations between the state of Israel and the American Jewish community.” I see matters differently. The discussions have indeed been heated, and often cantankerous—but not, I believe, at the expense, of thoughtful discourse. They are, rather, today’s form of ikuv tefillah, a cri de coeur on the part of American Jews who care about Israel (and Israelis who care about them), reminding the Jewish state of its critical importance to all of world Jewry and demanding that it treat them as if they matter.

True, things at the moment are rocky, on both sides. Speaking to a group of American Jewish leaders, Prime Minister Netanyahu said, unabashedly, “It was either the kotel or my government,” meaning that in order to maintain his governing coalition in power, he was compelled to acquiesce in the recalcitrant conditions imposed by his ḥaredi coalition partners—and considered this an affordable price to pay. For their part, most other Israeli politicians, including the secular ones, couldn’t care less. Israel’s chief rabbinate and other ḥaredi rabbis certainly do not care about the religious sentiments of most affiliated Diaspora Jews, and there is no reason to think that will change in the foreseeable future. For Israel’s culturally conservative Mizraḥi population, now the majority of the state’s Jews, this is also far from a pressing issue.

Nor have non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews been abandoned only by Israel’s powers-that-be. In the United States, even Modern Orthodox rabbis have chosen, for the most part, to stay below the radar. They, too, are subject to the chief rabbinate’s capricious blacklist, but this, instead of galvanizing them to express support for the principle of religious pluralism, seems rather to have elicited among many a shameful impulse to place the protection of their own fragile Orthodox credentials above all other considerations.

 

Let us return, however, to Israel. Barring outside pressure, Israel, I am convinced, could easily legislate itself into the position of being a state only of its citizens, and no longer a state imbued with the deep commitment to the Jewish people expressed with indelible conviction in the state’s 1948 Declaration of Independence. If Jews around the world believe that this would be a grave error for the Jewish state and for the Jewish people, they will have to exert some form of influence. What sort of outside pressure can be brought to bear?

Abrams notes some of the more extreme reactions to the bombshell of the government’s two unilateral decisions:

Ike Fisher, a member of the AIPAC board who is a major fundraiser and donor to Israeli causes, became famous overnight for his promise to “suspend” all further financial support for Israel. The Chicago Jewish Federation, one of America’s largest, announced that it would not host any member of the Knesset who voted for the bill granting the chief rabbinate a monopoly over conversions.

As for my own interventions, Abrams characterizes them as encouraging the American Jewish community “to make its outrage felt by taking vigorous and immediate action against Israeli officials and institutions.” This suggestion—of focused financial pressure designed to create a coalition crisis for Netanyahu—is for him a step too far and too dangerous. He is not the only one to think so. Many others in personal notes have warned me of the peril into which I was stepping. The steps I advocated, and that I intended to be laser-focused, designed to bring pressure on the government only until it relented, could morph into a wholesale boycott of Israel, period. That is a fair criticism; I share the concern that the threat of economic sanction could be used to Israel’s detriment, not to what I see as Israel’s betterment.

But the question remains: what other leverage do concerned American Jews have at their disposal? If they are determined to contribute to the shaping of Israel as a country in which they matter, how else can they exercise influence? Abrams approves the kind of positive steps advocated by Rabbi David Wolpe and also endorsed by me: that is, “giving strong support . . . to Israelis whose religious and communal views are of the kind that non-Orthodox American Jews tend to like.” But anyone familiar with Israeli politics knows that those steps cannot even begin to produce meaningful pressure on a government coalition. What then, to repeat, might serve as today’s equivalent of ikuv tefillah, a step that can get other Jews to stop and listen?

Abrams would probably respond that the question itself is out of place. Rebutting my bedrock claim that “American Jews are not citizens of Israel, but neither are [they] entirely non-citizens,” he writes, succinctly: “Having the choice to become citizens of Israel automatically by immigrating under the Law of Return, [American Jews] have chosen not to. Unless and until they choose differently, they are indeed ‘entirely non-citizens’ of Israel.”

Of course, on a technical level, he is correct. Yet even he hardly seems to resonate to his own stricture. Later on in his essay, he writes as follows:

Yes, Israel is more than a state like Denmark or Uruguay. It is the homeland of the Jews and the Jewish state: facts that permeate American Jews’ relations with it and its relations with American Jews. Those facts make our bond unbreakable, but also complex, intimate, and often (as now) infuriating.

Precisely. American Jews are non-citizens of Denmark. They have no claim on Uruguay. But their relationship to Israel is more nuanced than “citizen” or “non-citizen.” That was my point in stating “American Jews are not citizens of Israel, but neither are [they] entirely non-citizens,” and I’m happy to see that Abrams fundamentally agrees—if not with my formulation of the principle, then with the principle itself.

 

Similarly with my ostensible encouragement of American Jews to take steps that, as Abrams warns, might bring down a democratically elected government:

[Gordis] seems to have forgotten what it means that Israel is a democracy. His proposed pressure tactics are intended to affect the country’s public opinion and through it the government. . . . But what exactly is the theory that legitimizes pressing the elected government of Israel to do not what the Knesset votes for, not what a majority of ministers seek, not what Israelis may actually want, but instead what foreigners demand and use their money to insist upon?

As I’ve already acknowledged, Abrams has a point here. But I offer two major qualifications. First, in my “Open Letter,” I sketched a clear distinction (which angered many progressive Jews) between issues on which I believe American Jews must abstain from involvement—namely, those concerning war and security—and those in which they ought to become involved—namely, those concerning what kind of a Jewish state Israel will be. This is not the place to reprise my argument, but I urge readers of Abrams’ essay to consult my argument in full and ponder its virtues for themselves.

Second, if Israel is simply to become a country of its citizens, then someone needs to explain why American Jews should continue to support organizations like Friends of the IDF (what other army enjoys an overseas fundraising arm?), Israeli hospitals (do people outside of France contribute to French hospitals?), or a host of other important causes. American Jews give to all those causes, as well they should continue to do, because they do not accept the notion that they are not, in some difficult-to-define fashion, part of Israel’s unofficial citizenry.

The options here are not binary. To be sure, what strikes one person as a wholly legitimate form of involvement will seem to another an ill-advised meddling in Israel’s democracy. These are complicated, nuanced issues, with no clear guidelines. Yet, though we differ on the specifics, here, too, Abrams seems to share with me the sense that American Jews ought to be involved in supporting causes in Israel that are important to them.

 

Finally, a word on the First Amendment. For Abrams, the interventions advocated by me and others to advance the status of non-Orthodox (and Modern Orthodox) Judaism in Israel raises “the question of whether it’s appropriate to impose the [establishment clause of the] First Amendment—a unique American provision not fully matched anywhere, including in Europe—on Israel, a country with a very different history.”

I do not believe that is the issue here. The First Amendment’s establishment clause, as Abrams rightly says, is not relevant to the unique sort of state that Israel is. Israel has clearly (and rightly) established Judaism as the state’s official religion. From the Declaration of Independence, to the country’s Basic Laws, to public-school curricula, to national symbols, and much more, Israel has always been explicit that Judaism is the country’s official religion. That is perfectly legitimate, since the very purpose of the country (in radical contradistinction to the United States) is to foster the flourishing of one particular people and its national religion. Though it is home to many non-Jewish citizens who merit full civic rights, Israel is first and foremost, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, “of the Jews, for the Jews, and by the Jews.”

The issue is what sort of Judaism will Israel establish as its official religion? Will it be a Judaism that recognizes only halakhic Judaism as legitimate? Will it be a Judaism that takes Jewish peoplehood seriously? These are among the arguments that, as Abrams stipulates, “are worth having”—to which he adds that “often the Israeli side will be wrong or will seem quite wrong to Jews in the Diaspora,” and concludes: “So we need to argue some more.”

Once more, I agree. Indeed, this is the very argument “worth having” that I sought to promote in the two columns that Abrams in turn has subjected to critical scrutiny in Mosaic, thereby enriching it and earning our collective thanks. In general, I hope that this argument, unintentionally sparked by Prime Minister Netanyahu, will continue, passionate and heated though it may become, because the stakes are extraordinarily high.

Few Jews today would be disquieted by anyone interrupting their prayer. The very notion of ikuv tefillah would, I suspect, strike most as quaint, for most no longer take prayer with any great seriousness. The one issue that still animates a substantial number of Jews, even as, ironically, it also divides them, is the state of Israel.

It is for that reason, among others, that we ought to see American Jews’ sustained and deepened involvement with Israel as a sacred desideratum. Should that involvement either dissipate or be rebuffed, there will remain not a single Jewish issue about which most American Jews care at all.

 

———

No Boycotts, No Threats


Elliott Abrams

Daniel Gordis’s reply to my essay on his recent columns is characteristically generous and thoughtful, and narrows the differences between us. Yet differences remain, and are worth exploring briefly.

Gordis fears that Israel may “easily” become “no longer a state imbued with the deep commitment to the Jewish people expressed with indelible conviction in the state’s 1948 Declaration of Independence.” Not so easily, I should think.

After all, Israel’s Law of Return is precisely committed to Jewish peoplehood and not to some narrow, ultra-Orthodox definition of proper Judaism—or, in fact, to any “religious” definition at all. Today it applies to any Jew as well as to “a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion.”

This goes well beyond halakhah, Jewish religious law, although halakhah itself may be said to form the basis of the Law of Return. How many, and which, of the 613 commandments may a Jew violate and still remain a Jew? According to halakhah, this question never arises. A Jew is someone with a Jewish mother, period. That is to say, halakhah treats Jews not primarily as a religious community but as a people. And so does the state of Israel.

This definition, however, creates problems in the Diaspora and not least in the United States, where Jews have long celebrated the “melting pot” and their own integration into the American people. Here, Jews have been far more comfortable being seen as an increasingly honored and legitimate religious group, making up no less than one-third of American religious society, according to Will Herberg’s famous 1955 book Protestant, Catholic, Jew, and providing fully half of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage. “America is a three-religion country,” Herberg wrote, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish, and

the newcomer is expected to change many things about him as he becomes an American—nationality, language, culture. One thing, however, he is not expected to change—and that is religion.

Indeed, the American Jewish community, in which immigrants once saw themselves as Jews by nationality and peoplehood, became one in which their children saw themselves as Jews by religion, and where newer generations often don’t see themselves as even that.

And this raises a question. When a Jews adopts American nationality and culture, and then abandons Judaism, in what sense is he a Jew? And by whose standards? Well, he or she may have a Jewish mother—but as non-Orthodox intermarriage rates rise above 70 percent, that is increasingly unlikely. According to the 2013 Pew survey, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, 32 percent of American Jewish millennials describe themselves as having no religion. That number will continue to rise over time. Among these “Jews of no religion,” only 8 percent say they are raising their children as Jews by religion; among Jews married to a non-Jewish spouse, only 20 percent say they are raising their children exclusively as Jews without any admixture of other religions, while 37 percent say they are raising their children as “not Jewish.”

These are fateful numbers for the American Jewish community’s future, but they describe a Diaspora problem that will not arise in Israel. In Israel there are Jews and Arabs, and the Jews will obviously remain members of the Jewish people. Moreover, an Israeli Jew is almost certain to marry a fellow Jew and have Jewish children. To the extent that Israeli Jews face a problem of survival or continuity, it is not because of melting pots and intermarriage but because Iran is building a nuclear weapon aimed at obliterating them and Hizballah possesses over 100,000 missiles dedicated to the same purpose.

These differences are what has led to the current unhappy dispute between Israel and the American Jewish community about which Gordis and I have been exchanging views. There is unhappiness and misunderstanding on both sides. Some non-Orthodox American Jews, and also some Modern Orthodox American Jews, feel quite correctly that Israel’s chief rabbinate is disrespecting them and their religious choices and practices. To Gordis, American Jews are entitled to and must be allowed to “contribute to the shaping of Israel as a country in which they matter.” He disapprovingly quotes Prime Minister Netanyahu telling a group of disgruntled American Jewish leaders that, because of pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition making up his slim majority, the decision to cancel an agreement for an enlarged space for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall came down to this: “it was either the [Western Wall] or my government.”

Yet many secular Israelis say that although they loathe the power of the chief rabbinate, they do not wish to have their politics determined by the requirements of American Jews, or to have their country “shaped” for its own purposes by a Jewish community apparently in steady demographic decline. As the question has been posed by secular Israelis (I paraphrase), “if we blow up the current governing coalition to implement the agreement on non-Orthodox prayer at the Wall, will the intermarriage rate in the U.S. start dropping? If we allow non-Orthodox conversions inside Israel, will more Americans start coming on aliyah? Obviously not, so what’s the point?”

My own point is that living as a small minority in an overwhelmingly Christian country is not at all like living as a great majority with control of the state. Jewish life in Israel and in the Diaspora is inescapably very different in many consequential ways that can lead to discord. This gap is inevitable and not the product of stupidity or malice, so the thing I worry about is whether we in the American Jewish community will deal with the current discord intelligently.

 

This brings me to my second and third points. There are issues that separate most American Jews from most Israelis, be they religious or secular. Prayer at the Wall may be one of those issues: there simply does not appear to be wide support in Israel for non-Orthodox prayer at the Wall, in part because secular Israelis can simply choose not to go there. They don’t much care about which kinds of American Jews and American rabbis can pray in exactly which spot in the Western Wall plaza, and, as I’ve suggested, many don’t really see why a serious Israeli political crisis should be created in order to bring a modicum of happiness to the relatively few American Jews who do care.

But many Israelis, secular and religious alike, do care about the aspects of ultra-Orthodox domination of the chief rabbinate that impinge directly on their own lives. To take an obvious example of concern to the secular among them, the inability to be married inside Israel except by an Orthodox rabbi means that many feel compelled to go abroad for the purpose, often to Cyprus—far from their homes and friends and family. More broadly, there are many Israelis who care very much about conversion issues. As I noted in my essay, hundreds of thousands of Israelis whose families originated in the former Soviet Union are directly affected by this issue—which explains the opposition to the chief rabbinate expressed by Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose constituency is made up primarily of such Israelis.

Thus my second point: American Jews should be emphasizing not the areas of narrowest agreement between our community and most Israelis but rather the areas of widest agreement. Instead of making prayer at the Wall the central issue, the role of the chief rabbinate, which operates in effect as a government bureaucracy, and a rigid one at that, appears a far better candidate.

American-style separation of religion and state may be completely inappropriate for the Jewish state, but there are plenty of other models—in Europe, for example—in which a country has a state religion with, however, nothing like the powers the chief rabbinate has won for itself in Israel. In 2013 a vigorous debate on these issues appeared in Mosaic, sparked by Moshe Koppel’s essay, “Religion and State in Israel: A Modest Proposal.” Koppel, who is Orthodox, compares the general robustness of religion in America, where religion and state are separated, with the situation in countries where religion is enforced and where (as in Iran) it quickly declines. In Israel, “[t]he state’s influence on Judaism is bad for Judaism,” Koppel writes, concluding that “if you value Judaism and wish to see it retain (or regain) its vitality, keep it out of the hands of the state bureaucracy.” Very many Israelis will agree that the inevitable intermingling of religion and politics in the Jewish state has been twisted into a monopoly in the hands of the chief rabbinate and the ultra-Orthodox who control it.

 

My third point, a critical one, is this: there must be ground rules for the discussions, debates, and fights between American Jews and Israelis, including the Israeli government. With his initial call for American Jews to withhold contributions so that Israeli hospitals will begin to “falter” and begin to bring relentless pressure on the government in power, Gordis violated the central rule: no boycotts among Jews, no threats, no efforts to do damage.

Sure, this limits the impact American Jewish complaints can have, but it also limits the damage done precisely to our shared sense of peoplehood by American Jews using their checkbooks to force Israeli Jews to do things their own politics and culture do not yet permit or condone.

Daniel Gordis fears that American Jews will start abandoning Israel, stop contributing to Friends of the IDF or Israeli hospitals or other causes, if it becomes “a state of its citizens alone” rather than a state that “cultivate[s] its longstanding relationship with world Jewry.” The reason American Jews do give to those causes, he suggests, is “because they do not accept the notion that they are not, in some difficult-to-define fashion, part of Israel’s unofficial citizenry.”

No. They give because they are Jews. They give for the same reason Jews have always given support to other Jews—to Jews next door and to Jews in foreign lands—and did so long before there was a Jewish state. They care for the same reasons that led American Jews to care about pogroms in Kishinev in 1903 and 1905, or to support the Zionist movement before and after World War I. It isn’t about statehood or citizenship; it is about peoplehood. Gordis thinks this sacred concept of Jewish peoplehood, reflected in halakhah, is threatened by recent decisions and actions taken in Israel; I think it is at far greater risk among American Jews.

Those who care, as Gordis does and as so many American Jews still do, should engage in this debate with all their heart and with all their soul, but in this case (to complete the triad of the Sh’ma) perhaps not with all their might. The Talmud teaches that all Jews are responsible for each other (kol yisrael areyvim zeh bazeh). Within our small and threatened people, let us agree to put aside pressure tactics and ultimatums as we try to work through the complex issues that arise among the state of Israel, the citizens of that state, and those of us living in the Diaspora.

You have 2 free articles left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

More about: American Jewry, American-Israeli Affairs, Israel & Zionism, Religion & Holidays