The tension between Israel and the American-Jewish community caused by suspension of the Western Wall agreement and conversion bill reminds me of Yogi Berra’s famous quip: “It’s déjà vu all over again.” The challenge to religious pluralism in Israel is as old as the state itself.
In 1947, in return for support from the Orthodox parties, David Ben-Gurion, soon-to-be first prime minister of Israel, agreed to give the Orthodox authorities exclusive legal control over marriage, divorce, and personal status. The latter concerned who could be considered a Jew, including supervision of the conversion process. Over the years, the non-Orthodox movements in Israel backed strongly by their counterparts in the diaspora — representing some 85 percent of religiously-affiliated American Jews — have gradually chipped away at this monopoly.
Rabbi Arnold Gluck of Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, who has held national positions in the Reform movement, said that the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) is taking a lead in advancing religious pluralism through the Israeli Supreme Court. Among the principal achievements is a decision requiring the Israeli government to provide financial support for the building of non-Orthodox synagogues. The government is also mandated to pay the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis. Yet, full state recognition for non-Orthodox Judaism still seems as elusive as Israeli-Palestinian peace. Will this latest crisis trigger fundamental change?
Without Israeli electoral reform, it is hard to see how that kind of change will occur. The Orthodox religious parties, whose constituents are dead set against religious pluralism, are essential to the formation of coalition governments. Thus, if an Israeli prime minister must choose between getting a mandate to govern or pleasing the largely non-Orthodox, American-Jewish community, the former will win out. Since charedim are the fastest growing demographic in Israel, the leverage of religious parties will only increase over time.
Beyond the religious pluralism issue, the current electoral system has produced governmental instability. In fact, the last Israeli government to complete a four-year term was under Prime Minister Menachem Begin, 1977-81. Nevertheless, neither electoral reform nor a constitutional provision separating religion and state in Israel is on the agenda.
How should the American-Jewish community respond to the current Western Wall/conversion controversy? There have been calls to withhold donations to Israel and boycott Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of the Knesset who back the conversion legislation, including by refusing to host them in our communities. In a widely discussed column in The Jerusalem Post, Daniel Gordis, the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, urged American Jews to start playing “hardball.” Among his suggestions is to avoid flying to Israel on El Al.
Such punitive measures by and large have been rejected, appropriately so in my opinion. They would be both ineffective and counterproductive. On a recent conference call convened by the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey and in partnership with NJJN, Rabbi Bennett Miller of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick asserted that the preferred response ought not be to pull back, but rather to “double down” on our efforts to promote religious pluralism. “We won’t let anyone take our unconditional love of Israel away from us,” he said.
It was announced on the call that the federation established a new fund to support religious pluralism in Israel.
The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey has been directing hundreds of thousands of dollars toward this cause in recent years. Federation president Scott Krieger of Livingston told me that this support will continue in the coming fiscal year. Rebecca Caspi, who heads the Israel office of The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), told participants on the call that JFNA, as well as religious movements and other national organizations, are in the process of formulating a comprehensive strategic plan.
When it comes to assigning culpability for the present situation, it’s easy to point an accusing finger at Netanyahu, at the religious parties, and at the electoral system. However, there is another party on whose shoulders I believe some blame must rest — us, the diaspora Jews, especially the large and influential American- Jewish community. I don’t discount the efforts put forth over the years by the non-Orthodox movements, the federations, and others to promote religious pluralism in Israel, including advancing this cause through the Israeli Supreme Court. But I don’t believe we have done nearly enough to educate Israeli leaders and the public about how crucial religious pluralism is to us.
Jay Ruderman, whose Boston-based foundation has invested much time and treasure in trying to help Israelis understand the American-Jewish community, agrees. He said that his foundation has brought about a third of the members of the Knesset on educational trips to the United States to expose them to diaspora realities. “They really don’t get us,” he told me. “Likud Party Knesset member Avi Dichter, who had visited the U.S. numerous times speaking at Jewish conferences, confided in me that he never really understood American Jewry until he participated in our trip.”
For many Israelis, Ruderman said, the Reform movement “represents not a different form of Judaism, but something antithetical to religion altogether.”
He says that we’re partially responsible as we’ve neglected to explain ourselves to them. He observed that American-Jewish organizations, “have historically not really cared about Israelis’ lack of a basic understanding of our community. Otherwise, why would it have been necessary for our family foundation to step up to provide leadership in this arena?” Also, Israeli leaders, he said, “do not fear taking positions that may anger us. They believe we have no place to go.”
They are correct in assuming that the great majority of American Jews are not going to become anti-Israel activists. At the same time, the documented trends of diminishing attachment to Israel could accelerate if American Jews feel disrespected.
An article last month in Haaretz written by David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Dov S. Zakheim of the Center for Strategic and International Studies warned, “the current crisis cannot be divorced from maintaining the overall vibrancy of strong U.S.-Israel relations. Israel cannot afford the loss of American-Jewish support, which constitutes a critical hedge against the weakening of U.S.-Israel ties and a consequent lessening of American support in the face of future threats that it might confront. Respect for non-Orthodox forms of religious practice constitutes a national security strategic issue for Israel, one that cannot be minimized, ignored or wished away.”
American Jews work day in and day out, spending hundreds of millions of dollars, to mobilize American government and public support for Israel. That includes an enhanced effort in recent years to combat the assault on Israel’s legitimacy and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS). I spent my entire professional career in that space, and I believe in its importance. I also believe that our community needs to muster the political will and resources to dramatically expand the education of Israeli decision-makers, civil society elites, and the public at large about who we are and why we are so committed to achieving religious pluralism.
By the way, has anyone reviewed how Israeli school children are taught about American Jewry? Perhaps we ought to be proposing curriculum modifications that would convey a full and accurate portrait.
This overall educational effort must be both intensive and sustained. There is a tendency to revert to business-as-usual when the furor of the moment subsides, which is of concern to Rabbi David Levy, the new regional director of the American Jewish Committee in New Jersey. “Our strong engagement here — which is based in shared Ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel) and the core Zionist ideal that Israel would be a home for every Jew — cannot simply happen in reaction to crises, but must be the product of a continuing dialogue.”
We must recognize that the status quo will not be changed overnight. The Jewish people needed 2,000 years to restore sovereignty to our ancient homeland. Time and patience will be required to build an Israel in which all expressions of Judaism are fully respected. And for this to occur, we need to be active participants.