Thoughtful discussions of relations between the state of Israel and the American Jewish community were blown aside in early July, replaced by recriminations, accusations, and proposals for retribution. The immediate cause was two government decisions in Jerusalem.
The first, concerning worship at the Western Wall, canceled a compromise agreement laboriously negotiated over the past years by Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, with the blessing and encouragement of the prime minister. The agreement set aside an area of the Western Wall plaza, otherwise policed by the ultra-Orthodox, that would be open to the more relaxed practices, including mixed male and female prayer groups, of the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism (mainly Reform and Conservative) that predominate in the Diaspora and especially in the U.S. The cabinet decision reneging on this government commitment was announced on June 25.
The second decision, about the procedure for conversion to Judaism, followed hard on the heels of the first and took the form of a government-backed bill in the Knesset that in effect places all conversions in Israel in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate. Under its provisions, even conversions supervised by Modern Orthodox rabbis can be deemed suspect if not altogether illegitimate. In the face of vehement protest, the bill was hastily shelved for six months.
As we shall see, the two decisions are different. The controversy over the Wall, as the Israeli journalist Haviv Rettig Gur explained in the Times of Israel, is “at the end of the day about a symbol, however potent,” and one particularly meaningful to Diaspora Jews. By contrast, the conversion bill, although its ramifications will certainly be felt in the Diaspora, mainly affects Israelis—and potentially hundreds of thousands of them.
But the two, often discussed as a matched pair, have been treated as one and have elicited swift and harsh reactions, being seen as a concerted and singularly smashing blow aimed at the values, the sensibilities, and the otherwise ardently pro-Israel sentiments of Diaspora Jews. To David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel, the Western Wall decision in particular marked “a watershed moment”:
It’s a catastrophe, not a hiccup. . . . I fear we will look back upon this episode with the deepest dismay and regret, as a moment when Jewish masses overseas started to shift—when those who were hitherto supporters [of Israel] moved across into the ranks of those who keep quiet, and when some of those who were previously silent became strident critics.
Indeed, the greatest fury has been voiced by American Jews. (Other communities, as in Australia, have expressed unhappiness but been less demonstrative—and less extreme.) 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.
Perhaps the most outspoken and caustic critic has been Daniel Gordis, a distinguished author and Conservative rabbi who was born and raised in America but moved to Israel two decades ago. Writing in the Jerusalem Post on June 29, Gordis urged the American Jewish community to make its outrage felt by taking vigorous and immediate action against Israeli officials and institutions:
Netanyahu, his party, and anyone in his coalition must become toxic. No meetings with American Jews, not in Israel and not in the U.S. . . . Israel’s consuls-general in the US should be shunned and disinvited. Don’t forget El Al. . . . American Jews . . . should cancel every El Al ticket they have already purchased and fly United or Delta.
Citing a fierce statement by Ya’akov Litzman, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox minister of health—“Reform Judaism does not and will not have access or recognition at the Western Wall”—Gordis also proposed withholding donations to Israeli hospitals so that “they start running out of money” and “begin to falter.”
Finally, striking a more positive note, Gordis advocated raising funds instead for Israeli Orthodox rabbis of more moderate views and for “educating the Israeli public about the values of pluralism.” So did Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles in a separate piece that pointedly eschewed punitive action altogether:
Economic power is not only in deprivation but in dispensation. Jewish federations all over America should look to focus their Israel giving on pluralistic movements and charities.
I agree with these latter, positive suggestions and, generally speaking, with their goals: renewed approval of the painstakingly negotiated compromise at the Western Wall and renewed acceptance by the state of conversions conducted outside the auspices of the chief rabbinate. Indeed, the idea that there should be a chief rabbinate using the power of the state to enforce religious practice grates on my American understanding of religious freedom, and is precisely the kind of “establishment of religion” prohibited by our First Amendment.
But this raises the question of whether it’s appropriate to impose the First Amendment—a unique American provision not fully matched anywhere, including in Europe—on Israel, a country with a very different history. And that question leads to others: about the differences between Israel and the United States, the role of religion in each country, and, perhaps especially, the right of American Jews to intervene in Israeli decisions on these matters.
Sign Up For Our E-Mail List Get the latest from Mosaic right in your inbox
To be fair, Daniel Gordis recognizes that such questions are appropriate. In a long, follow-up “Open Letter to American Jews,” he justifies his assertion that American Jews have a selective right to intervene in these words: “American Jews are not citizens of Israel, but neither are [they] entirely non-citizens.”
That answer, however, is wrong: American Jews are citizens of the United States. Having the choice to become citizens of Israel automatically by immigrating under the Law of Return, they have chosen not to. Unless and until they choose differently, they are indeed “entirely non-citizens” of Israel.
Gordis does stipulate that, on some issues, American (and other foreign) Jews should limit themselves to expressing and arguing for their views but refrain from explicit efforts to change Israel’s policies. His key concern here is with Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians and with security affairs more broadly. American Jews, he writes summarily, should stay out of these issues because “you don’t have skin in the game. . . . You and your kids don’t assume the risks that we do.” Not only that, but when it comes to security, American Jews have “absolutely no idea what you’re talking about”—so “please don’t demean both us and yourselves by tossing platitudes at us.” His bottom line: “don’t imagine for a moment that you’re going to influence Israel’s policy—because you’re not, and you shouldn’t.”
But when it comes to issues related to the Jewish religion and Jewish peoplehood, Gordis shifts abruptly to the opposite line. Here, unlike on security issues, American Jews have a proper right, and duty, not just to “talk and exchange views” but to make demands—and to enforce those demands through the exercise of tough pressure. “Not all Jews are citizens of Israel, but all Jews have a stake in the kind of country Israel is.” Therefore, in promoting the role of non-Orthodox Judaism, emphatically including in such matters as conversion or access to the Wall, “you have to fight”—and each and every one of the pressure tactics he has proposed as a weapon in that fight is in his eyes legitimate.
This, too, is all wrong, and peculiarly blind to American Jewish realities. Although, for Gordis, concern over “the kind of a country Israel is” justifies American Jewish pressure in the realm of religion and peoplehood, and in that realm alone, for plenty of American Jews the same concern, real or feigned, serves instead as the rationale behind vociferous demands for Israel to “end the occupation,” “stop settlement expansion,” and “cease oppressing Palestinians.” Indeed, security issues are precisely the ones that evoke the most virulent criticism of Israel and lead to support for J Street and other, more openly hostile groups that are hardly inhibited by their putative cluelessness about “what they’re talking about.”
No less problematic, however, is Gordis’s confidence that while most American Jews “do not know nearly enough to be thoughtful partners in the [security] conversation,” “the opposite is the case when it comes to matters of religious pluralism and the value of Jewish peoplehood.” There, he asserts, “American Jews have a rich vocabulary that can, and should, shape Israeli discourse.”
Is that true? Or are American Jews as unenlightened on issues of peoplehood and religion as they are on Israeli security? Here is Haviv Rettig Gur explaining some of the intricacies behind the dispute over the conversion bill:
There are many Israeli officials who support the bill for reasons that have nothing to do with ḥaredi culture wars or Reform views on [the non-binding nature of] halakhah. In Israel, conversion by a non-citizen is not just a religious act, but confers on the individual the right to obtain citizenship. While Reform, Conservative—and ḥaredi—leaders seem to think the bill is about them, that is, about the battle for religious liberty or against heresy (respectively), many Israeli officials back the bill for a simpler reason: any process that confers automatic citizenship on a person, they feel, should be carried out under the auspices of the state.
In other words, we are dealing here with more than a slight aimed at Reform or Conservative or, for that matter, Modern Orthodox conversions. As Gur makes clear, we are dealing in part with “the state’s demand for oversight over what is not an exclusively religious act but also a naturalization process.”
And what exactly does the bill do and not do? How does it affect another compromise—the one agreed to after the work done by the Ne’eman Committee in 1998 recognizing, for purposes of the Law of Return, non-Orthodox conversions performed outside of Israel—or the March 2016 decision by the Israeli Supreme Court recognizing, for the same purposes, conversion by Israeli Orthodox rabbis working outside of the chief rabbinate? How does the Law of Return’s definition of who is a Jew interact with the chief rabbinate’s rejection of non-Orthodox conversions? Does it matter whether the conversion took place in Israel or abroad?
It turns out that this is all very complex, so complex as to convince one that on these matters, too, most American Jews have “absolutely no idea what [they’re] talking about.” As the Israeli columnist Shmuel Rosner puts it:
Should U.S. Jews be concerned with this legislation? The short answer is no. It does not affect them in any way. This law deals with people who live in Israel and want to convert, not with people converting in other countries.
Thus, it is no coincidence that Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman and his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, oppose the current conversion bill. That party was founded to represent the interests of Israelis from the former Soviet Union, whose religious status is often suspect in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox. “This [bill] is religious coercion and an attempt to transform the state of Israel from a Zionist state to a halakhic state,” Lieberman declared in blasting the Knesset vote.
How many American Jews are aware of any of this, or care enough to want to “shape Israeli discourse”? For starters, the Jewish community in the U.S., the largest outside Israel, is far from the most supportive of Israel or the most Zionist in its inclinations. Only 35 percent or so have ever visited Israel, meaning that the great majority have never once set foot in the Jewish state; and of those who have, roughly half have done so only once. This is especially true of the non-Orthodox. The Birthright program, which sends young American Jews to Israel, was needed precisely because young American Jews were not visiting there.
So American Jews—whom Gordis describes as not citizens of Israel but also not entirely non-citizens—are for the most part people who have never been there. Moreover, and without casting aspersions on the faith of non-Orthodox American Jews (among whom I count myself), there’s no denying the survey data showing that about a quarter of American Jews say they have no religion at all, fewer than a third belong to a synagogue, a mere 4 percent of Reform Jews and 13 percent of Conservative Jews attend synagogue regularly, intermarriage rates run around 60 percent for the non-Orthodox, and very large majorities hold that the key elements of being Jewish are remembering the Holocaust and leading an ethical life.
The moral basis on which the leaders of this community can place demands—not make arguments, but place demands—on Israelis to adjust to our religious practices is not exactly obvious.
These are not the only areas in which Gordis argues himself into an intellectual cul de sac. Perhaps most egregiously, he 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: when those financially strapped hospitals “falter,” voters will scream and politicians will act. 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?
Gordis insists this will “make Israel’s democracy stronger by making sure that religious pluralism and Jewish peoplehood are always in the minds of Israel’s decision-makers, whether they like it or not.” Let’s rephrase that: we American Jews will make Israel’s democracy stronger by circumventing Israel’s democracy: by using foreign financial pressure when we cannot persuade Israelis to do what we think right, by making foreign money more powerful than Israeli votes—by, with our “rich vocabulary” and our deep attachment to “religious pluralism and the value of Jewish peoplehood,” advocating or embarking on actions that can lead to bringing down a democratically elected government.
As it happens, many Israeli Jews who already resent the ways of the ultra-Orthodox and especially resent the chief rabbinate also see non-Orthodox Judaism as inauthentic and foreign. For their part, Israeli politicians who are sympathetic to the Diaspora’s desire for more space for non-Orthodox Judaism work in a democratic political system that requires building coalitions: coalitions that, in many cases, include the ultra-Orthodox and their demands. Add to this Israel’s status as, simultaneously, the sole Jewish homeland, a sovereign state in a world of sovereign states, a magnet for Jewish migration, and a country with a state religion, and it’s no wonder that the resultant mix can create not only tensions with American Jews—who have a voice and a purse but not a vote—but also the occasional explosion.
What then are American Jews to do? What will the Chicago Jewish Federation and Ike Fisher do if, tomorrow, another war should start between Israel and Hamas, or Israel and Hizballah—both of which are entirely possible? What will they do if another intifada breaks out? Look away? Stop donations to Israeli blood banks and hospitals? Refuse to meet with the minister of defense?
I hardly think so. Unlike David Horovitz, I doubt this moment is a “catastrophe.” Nor do I think the “Jewish masses” will now begin to “shift”—in part because those masses don’t care enough, busy as they are intermarrying, traveling to Paris rather than Jerusalem, and going to football and Little League games on Friday night and Saturday morning. As for the leaders who manifestly do care, and whose commitments to Israel and to their own variants of Judaism are deeply felt, they are in a different category—but it isn’t at all clear at all that they are backed by masses similarly committed.
To repeat: I oppose the two decisions that have caused so much anger among American Jews. I believe the Western Wall compromise worked out by Natan Sharansky should be implemented, and I hope the conversion bill, which still has many legislative hurdles to overcome, is reversed. I wish Israel did not even have an official chief rabbinate with the power of the state behind it. But the way to alter these circumstances is through democratic politics in Israel—and probably religious politics, by giving strong support, as David Wolpe suggests, to Israelis whose religious and communal views are of the kind that non-Orthodox American Jews tend to like.
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. That is today’s version of the “Jewish question”—a far better version than the one faced by previous generations in their struggle to survive statelessness, persecution, and worse. Today we have a homeland and argue about what that homeland means to those who choose not to live there; instead of dreaming of reuniting at the Wall, we argue about who gets to pray at it, and when.
These are arguments worth having, and often the Israeli side will be wrong or will seem quite wrong to Jews in the Diaspora. So we need to argue some more, in the process curbing our impulse to grow resentful when Israeli politicians or ḥaredi rabbis treat us, our social and political views, and our religious beliefs with contempt or indifference, and also our associated impulse to remind them that we are a great, wealthy, historically significant community that can teach them a thing or two. With luck, the more extreme rhetoric and the theatrical proposals to cut relations and abjure meetings and put away checkbooks will, in the course of time, come to seem melodramatic and immature. With luck.