Persistent controversies over the establishment of a space for mixed-sex prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall have been a recent flashpoint of tension between Israel and American Jewry. To Evelyn Gordon, the problem comes down to the twin facts that Israelis don’t understand the vital role played in the United States by non-Orthodox denominations (which have minuscule constituencies in the Jewish state) while, for their part, non-Orthodox American Jews don’t understand why secular Israelis are indifferent to their movements:
A 2013 Pew Research poll found that by every possible measure of Jewish identity, American Jews who define themselves as being “of no religion” score significantly worse [on all metrics of Jewish participation] than those who define themselves as Reform or Conservative Jews. For instance, 67 percent of “Jews of no religion” raise their children “not Jewish,” compared to just 10 percent of Reform Jews and 7 percent of Conservative Jews. . . . .
Yet the picture is very different among secular Israeli Jews, who are the closest Israeli equivalent to “Jews of no religion.” The vast majority marry other Jews, if only because most of the people they know are Jewish. Almost all raise their children Jewish because that’s the norm in their society (fertility rates are also significantly higher). More than 80 percent consider their Jewish identity important. Most obviously care about Israel, since they live there. . . . Secular Israeli Jews also engage in more Jewish practice than American “Jews of no religion.” . . . .
But because Israelis don’t need the non-Orthodox movements to maintain a Jewish identity, they often fail to understand why these movements are genuinely important for American Jews. And because American Jews do need those movements, they often fail to understand why many Israelis dismiss them as unimportant. . . .
If Israelis understood the gaping void the non-Orthodox movements fill in America, they might have realized that the Western Wall deal was genuinely important. And if American Jews understood that no such void exists in Israel, they might have realized that Israelis’ indifference to the deal wasn’t a slap in the face of American Jewry but merely a reflection of the issue’s irrelevance to Israelis’ Jewish identity, which inevitably made it low priority for them. This understanding probably wouldn’t resolve many Israel-diaspora disputes, but it might at least make them less bitter. And that, in itself, would be a step forward.