Ready for a president of the Jewish people?

Ready for a president of the Jewish people?

With Israel-diaspora relationship in crisis, calls for giving world Jewry a voice in Israel

People march the annual Celebrate Israel Parade on June 3, 2018 in New York City. The parade marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel. Getty Images
People march the annual Celebrate Israel Parade on June 3, 2018 in New York City. The parade marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel. Getty Images

Events in Israel in recent days — including the Knesset’s passage of a controversial nation-state bill and the police detention in Jerusalem of a Conservative rabbi for performing a non-Orthodox wedding — are but the latest evidence of the increasingly sharp divide between the Israeli government and the majority of world Jewry.

“It’s like they have a checklist of our hot buttons and they’re pushing each one,” a frustrated local communal leader grumbled to me about the Netanyahu government this week.

The only good news is that the rift has grown so deep and worrisome that it has led some who fear for the future of global Jewish survival to propose creative ideas to ease, if not solve, the tensions.

Several important examples of that in a moment.

But first, a look at the latest controversies and the underlying cause of the growing alienation between the right-leaning Netanyahu government (representing mainstream Israelis) and the great majority of American Jews who are liberal politically and in their religious practices.

The nation-state bill, which passed by 62-55, with two abstentions, and will become Israel’s 15th Basic Law, has been fraught with controversy from the outset. Proponents insist that it simply codifies what is already in practice: that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, united Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, “Hatikvah” is its national anthem, the Israeli flag is the official state flag, etc.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the bill’s passage after years of debate as “a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the annals of the State of Israel.”

But critics, including mainstream Jewish organizations here like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), are fearful that the law discriminates against minorities and makes Israel’s goal of being both a Jewish and democratic society that much more difficult. They cite the fact that the bill preserves the right of national self-determination as “unique to the Jewish people,” not all citizens. It’s certain to alienate Arab Israelis, who make up more than 20 percent of the national population. In addition, the legislation will no longer consider Arabic an official language of the state, having been downgraded to “special status.”

The new law also calls on the government to promote Jewish settlement in Israel, though the wording was toned down from an earlier version that would have permitted building “Jewish-only” settlements.

The political context here is that Israelis on the right believe the courts have leaned left in rulings in recent years in the name of democracy, and that passage of the nation-state bill was needed to restore and bolster the JEWISH component of the delicate balancing act.

Israelis on the left, and many in the center, suggest that the new bill tips the scale dangerously rightward. They contend that it was enacted because those on the right are seizing the moment, given their political ascendancy, the nationalist mood in Europe, and the Trump administration’s open and enthusiastic support for the government in Jerusalem.

A picture taken on June 27, 2017 shows the right-part of the Western Wall with the dome of Al-Aqsa mosque seen on the right of the photo, taken from the archaeological site known as Robinson’s Arch where renovations for the egal. section have started. The kotel bill was one point of contention between American Jews and the Israeli gov. this year. Getty Images

In other words, they believe coalition legislators pushed through several contentious bills this week because they could.

As for the police detaining Rabbi Dov Haiyun, a popular Conservative rabbi in Israel, for officiating at a wedding outside the boundaries of the Chief Rabbinate, mainstream American-Jewish groups, including the federation movement, spoke out sharply in opposition. A statement from Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey president Scott Krieger and executive vice president and CEO Dov Ben-Shimon, and signed by almost 60 local rabbis and leaders of federation groups, said they were “appalled by, and strongly condemn” the arrest.

“For Israeli police, on the orders of Israel’s Rabbinate, to detain a Jewish spiritual leader just before Tisha b’Av is especially shameful, evoking images of religious coercion normally seen in some neighboring countries in the Middle East,” according to the statement. “This action is more evidence that the Rabbinate’s official grip on matters of religion is fundamentally incompatible with a society that professes to guarantee freedom of religion.”

But most Israelis would dismiss suggestions that their democracy is weakening, and they are less concerned these days about offending liberal American Jews, viewing them as unaware of, or insensitive to, Israel’s realities and, some would argue, on the way to extinction through assimilation.

A picture taken on June 27, 2017 shows the right-part of the Western Wall with the dome of Al-Aqsa mosque seen on the right of the photo, taken from the archaeological site known as Robinson’s Arch where renovations for the egal. section have started. The kotel bill was one point of contention between American Jews and the Israeli gov. this year. Getty Images

The Jewish People’s Council

These Israel-diaspora tensions are not new, but a lengthy and thought-provoking essay by Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy describes “the present moment” of “mounting mutual anger and alienation on both sides” as “especially volatile.”

Sharansky is the famed human rights activist who recently stepped down as head of the Jewish Agency for Israel; Troy is a professor of history and a popular commentator on Israel-diaspora issues.

The article in the online Mosaic magazine, headlined “Can American and Israeli Jews Stay Together As One People?,” argues that “our era of bad feelings has fed a deepening pessimism about any prospects of a shared Jewish future.”

Sharansky and Troy offer a new version of an old proposal (going back to Theodor Herzl and the first World Zionist Congress, 1897) in calling for a Jewish People’s Council that they think could ease the tensions by giving world Jewry a voice, though not a vote, in determining a linked Jewish future.

“We have in mind a forum — part mediating institution, part reconciliation vehicle, part safety valve — for debating and acting together as a people,” they write, making clear that it would not be a power-sharing or legislative body. “Its character would be voluntary, its actions advisory, its spirit covenantal.”

The authors are a bit vague about how it would all work, suggesting that it be composed initially of members of Knesset as well as representatives of major Jewish organizations from around the world. Eventually, they say, the council would increase in popularity and representation, with Jews throughout the diaspora participating in the election of members.

(In a response, also in Mosaic, Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and now deputy minister in the prime minister’s office, praised the Sharansky-Troy analysis of the problem as “singularly accurate,” but suggests that Israel and the diaspora need to define who they are, how they relate to each other, and who would participate. Anti-Zionist charedim? BDS supporters? Messianic Jews?)

In their essay, Sharansky and Troy cite the demise of the Kotel compromise (which Sharansky sought to preserve) as a lesson in how NOT to find consensus between Israel and diaspora leaders. They write that the process of the Kotel negotiations, which dragged on for several years, was artificial. It was top-down, secret, and lacked “legitimacy” and “resilience” with the public, they contend. Sharansky and Troy say that face-to-face talks — even contentious debates — among representatives of Israel and world Jewry would clarify Jewish identity issues and allow for meaningful attempts at resolution, with each group better understanding the goals and concerns of the other.

“It’s democracy 101,” the article states. “Better to argue with, rather than about, each other.”

The Jewish wisdom of crowds

Adding a new voice to the longstanding discussion about the Jewish future, or lack thereof, Tal Keinan, an American Jew who made aliyah on his own and became a pilot in the Israeli Air Force (IAF), has written a provocative book with sectional headlines like “America: Dying In Our Sleep” and “Should There Be Jews?” (The original title of this part memoir, part manifesto was “Extinction.”)

Due out in September from Spiegel & Grau, it’s now called “God Is In The Crowd: Twenty-First-Century Judaism.” In it, Keinan describes his own exploration of the value of membership in the Jewish people, which led him to make aliyah at 19 and commit eight years to the IAF. Along the way he determines that “in an era of seemingly personal options, our choice as a community is stark: Create meaning in Judaism or accept extinction.”

A group of Birthright participants pose during their trip to Israel. New ideas for improving Israel-diaspora relations include a “Birthright 2.0.” Wikimedia Commons

A theme of the book is to take “the wisdom of crowds,” the theory that a diverse group of people will make better decisions on issues than even experts, and apply it to the Jewish community. Keinan, who now runs a hedge fund based in Tel Aviv and New York, proposes an intriguing incentive to stay connected to the Tribe. He calls for the creation of The Jewish World Endowment, “a sort of Birthright 2.0” that would offer married couples with a child to “commit 1.25 percent of their pretax income each year, for each child, to the Endowment, beginning when the child is five years old,” noting that paying those annual dues would ensure membership in the Endowment.

The benefits include:

  • Two years in a summer program for young people combining overnight-camp activities and Jewish identity classes and projects — one summer in the U.S. and one in Israel, with campers from America, Israel, and Jewish communities around the world attending together. The entire program would be kosher, with common Shabbat services and meals.
  • Two months of participation in a Tikkun Olam mission. High school students or recent graduates — a mix of American, Israeli, and international youngsters — would choose from a wide range of volunteer projects, from reading aloud to residents of local nursing homes to participating in an international disaster-relief unit.
  • Most dramatically: free tuition for a full undergraduate education at a university of one’s choice (assuming admission).

The particulars in terms of the summer programs, Jewish identity courses, etc. will be determined by The Crowd, according to Keinan, with an emphasis on tzedek (Jewish ethical justice), social action, education, challenge and dissent, tradition, and community.

A chart of assumptions for the proposed Jewish World Endowment is included, stating that initial enrollment would be 5 percent of Jewish families around the world; that the average financial returns over time would be 6 percent; and that “at full potential,” the endowment would “generate resources of approximately $13.75 billion.”

A president of the Jewish people

Perhaps even more ambitious is Keinan’s suggestion that the presidency of Israel be transformed from a largely ceremonial position to one that would give him or her the right to make policies that affect Jews around the world — including defining Who Is A Jew for issues of Jewish citizenship in Israel, birth to marriage to burial.

“The presidency of Israel would be the convening point for Jews around the world to debate fundamental questions of Peoplehood,” with the president elected by world Jewry. “The president of Israel would be, in effect, president of the Jewish People.”

Anticipating strong criticism, especially from Israelis, Keinan defends the proposal by saying that the issue is “not just a question of moral justice but of practical survival. If Israel is to be a Jewish asset, all Jews must have a seat at the table where Israel’s Jewish character is set and maintained.”

Do enough American Jews care?

Intriguing, exciting ideas, all, but there’s a dirty little secret here, and a sad one, too, that makes such bold innovations highly unlikely: The great majority of American Jews are not engaged with Jewish life and Israel enough to make these proposals practical.

The Sharansky-Troy idea of a Jewish People’s Council would need at least a few hundred thousand votes cast to be at all representative of the six to seven million Jews in the U.S. Yet the World Zionist Organization elections, which represent the best and only chance for American Jews to have a representative voice in key issues facing Israel and world Jewry, total around 50,000 votes, almost all from within the various Zionist organizations.

Tal Keinan’s plan to create a superfund to address Jewish identity, connect Jews from around the world at a young age, and provide a free college education to boot would require young parents to pay in to the Jewish World Endowment each year. How many care enough to stay in for the payoff? (Especially when Birthright Israel, American Jewry’s greatest success story, was made possible because the founding philanthropists made it all free for participants.)

Keinan’s idea of a President of the Jewish People is both inspiring and frightening. It could result in actually resolving some of the contentious issues we constantly debate about Jewish identity and representation. Israel’s current president, Reuven “Ruvi” Rivlin, has performed admirably, but Keinan’s vision of the post is a huge responsibility.

Best of all about these proposals is that they spark the imagination and allow us to think beyond the limits of today, which have resulted in such misunderstanding, anger, and alienation between Israelis and American Jews.

It was Herzl who said, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Are we prepared to meet the challenge?

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