The recent debate about conversion in Israel has brought to the fore an important question for Israeli society. Let’s leave aside for now whether the proposed legislation in fact constitutes a change in policy toward Conservative and Reform conversions in the United States, or whether it will be at all helpful in facilitating conversion in Israel for the roughly 300,000 non-Jewish citizens. I believe that the answer is “No,” in either case, and the debate is more about politics than substance.
The question remains, however: To what extent must Israel take into account the beliefs, concerns, and ideologies of those who do not live in Israel?
It seems that every government in Israel faces this core dilemma at some point: choosing between the agendas of its coalition partners for whom liberal Judaism is either irrelevant or a convenient punching bag around which to rally its supporters, and Israel’s supporters around the world.
Israel and world Jewry today are at a crossroads in which each, while often reflecting and representing very different populations, political interests, and Jewish beliefs, have to decide whether we are going to continue to function as a religion with one nation and one people, or whether we are going to proceed alone.
For world Jewry, the key question is not whether they are willing to take a leap of faith and support every policy decision, legislation, or action taken by the Israeli government, Knesset, or society. The question is whether they are willing to take a leap of loyalty in which their commitment to Israel as a critical and essential part of their modern Jewish lives is strong and secure.
Such a commitment, far from demanding agreement, in fact encourages debate and criticism. It requires a commitment to Israel not as it is, but as it ought to be, and a willingness to invest in creating such an Israel. It requires a deep caring, whereby, in times of failure and in times of need, they stand by staunchly and work to build and sustain an Israel that they can respect and love.
We Israelis, despite brash statements to the contrary, yearn for and need that love. The problem on our part is that we are often not willing to do what is necessary to sustain and support it. We think all that we need to do is to wave the military “crisis du jour” to rally the troops and reap financial and political dividends.
Israel, as the homeland of the Jewish people, can no longer claim a self-evident, essentialist argument for its necessity for the future of Jewish survival, or for that matter its birthright as the leader of world Jewry and world Judaism. The future of the relationship between Israel and world Jewry is not dependent on claims of necessity but rather of meaning and importance. Jews in many places around the world — particularly in North America — have created a home and a vibrant and vital Judaism for themselves. If Israel is to have a role in their lives, it must earn it.
To earn it, Israel must be a place where religious pluralism and diversity reign. It must be a place where the various “Judaisms” have footholds and a place of respect. It must be a place where our foreign and military policies are morally and Jewishly defensible. It must be a place where the impact of our policies on world Jewry is an integral part of our political deliberations. It must be a place which strives to represent the best of what the Jewish people stand for.
Such a place will emanate an energy and creative light that will attract loyalty and sustained love in good times and in bad, in times of agreement and in times of disagreement.
It is time to stop bemoaning the chasm which is being torn in the foundation of our people and begin the task of reestablishing this foundation anew. The first steps in doing so are to avoid moves which deepen the growing alienation that threatens to spin out of control.
World Jewry must be careful and certain about the battles it chooses to fight and the criticism it levels. It must be careful not to allow its own political denominational politics to lead it into confrontations that are more about form than substance.
Israel, for its part, has to avoid language and policies that are both hurtful and harmful to our relationship and must not only avoid doing new harm but actually begin to repeal the harms of the past and begin instituting policies of healing.
It is time to reclaim our shared loyalty and commitment and join together in building an Israel which can serve as the cornerstone for our love.