The year of living divisively

The year of living divisively

Rents in the Jewish fabric, from here to Jerusalem

In a year in which conflict seemed to define the Jewish world, Jerusalem was often at the center of the debate. JTA
In a year in which conflict seemed to define the Jewish world, Jerusalem was often at the center of the debate. JTA

2017 was the year when the very notion of a “Jewish community” was stretched to the breaking point. 

On President Donald Trump — a rent in the fabric.

Nearly eight-in-10 American Jews disapprove of the job he is doing, according to a September poll by the American Jewish Committee (AJC); 71 percent of Orthodox Jews approve of his job performance. A June Pew poll found eight-in-10 Israelis saying they had a favorable view of the U.S. under Trump.

On Jerusalem — a rent in the fabric.

Regarding the president’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which overturned decades of U.S. policy, only 16 percent of Jews favored the move and an additional 36 percent thought it should be done at a future point, the AJC poll found. Forty-four percent opposed such a move. By the time the announcement was made official earlier this month, together with the president recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, groups on the Jewish left rapped it as ill-timed and lacking a wider strategy, while those on the right hailed it as stating the obvious. Many centrist-minded Jews support Jerusalem as the capital, even if they question why or how the U.S. decision was made.

On Israel-diaspora relations — a gaping rent in the fabric.

One of the searing images of the year was Union for Reform Judaism head Rabbi Rick Jacobs getting roughed up as he carried a Torah at the Western Wall. It vividly captured the bitter controversy over egalitarian prayer at the Kotel and diaspora Jews’ anger over Israel’s suspension of an agreement that would have expanded and upgraded a non-Orthodox worship space at Judaism’s holiest site. In the wake of Israel’s move, perceived as a slap in the face to the non-Orthodox world, liberal donors threatened to hold back donations. At the recent Reform movement biennial in Boston, Jacobs went so far as to reject the whole notion of Israel and a “diaspora.” “Today,” he said boldly, “there is more than one center of Jewish life.”

Observers of the American-Jewish scene say they don’t remember a situation this dire. “The Kotel controversy, hardly the most critical issue for Israeli society, symbolizes that the chasm between Israel and American Jewry likely is wider today than at any point in recent memory, if ever,” said AJC’s Steven Bayme, a close watcher of American-Jewish life. “What we do to bridge that chasm, to say nothing of what can be done, likely will be the most critical challenge to Jewish leadership short-term, mid-term, and long-term.”

To be sure, the fabric has been fraying for years. Pick an arbitrary event: Israel’s ever-expanding settlement enterprise; the perceived right-of-center leanings of AIPAC and the emergence of J Street; Barack Obama traveling to Cairo instead of Jerusalem at the outset of his presidency; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepting then-House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address Congress on the Iran nuclear deal, a move that turned Israel into a wedge issue and a political weapon; Obama’s failure, as his second term was ending, to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction; Netanyahu, on election night in 2015, in an apparent moment of get-out-the-vote panic, announcing publicly that “Arab voters are coming out in droves”; surveys showing young American Jews pulling away from Israel, in part due to the actions of Israel’s right-wing political and religious establishments. All of it has led to serious strains within the Jewish community here, and between Israelis and American Jews.

But something happened in 2017. The divisiveness, and the bitterness, deepened, leaving the fabric threadbare.

The president’s travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries and his idea of creating a national database of Muslim Americans prompted Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt to say that “this proud Jew will register as a Muslim”; it was a sentiment that reverberated through the liberal Jewish world.

The spike in hate crimes and the rise of white nationalist activity after the election of Trump was, in liberal quarters, laid at the door of a president who had tapped alt-right champion Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist. (It didn’t help when the president said of the neo-Nazis and white nationalists marching in Charlottesville, and those who gathered to protest them, that there “were good people on both sides.”) 

But when it was announced that many of the bomb threats called into JCCs around the country — which bumped up the hate statistics —were hoaxes perpetrated by a disturbed Israeli teenager, it reverberated through the Jewish right, whose members cried foul that Trump was ever deemed the cause of all the hate.

It turns out, quite unexpectedly, that a practically unknown Israeli politician, Tzipi Hotovely, captured the mood of 2017. At the Israeli-American Council’s annual conference last month in Washington, Hotovely, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, who rejects the idea of a Palestinian state (“All of the land is ours,” she has said), was discussing the Western Wall controversy with her liberal Knesset colleague, Merav Michaeli. The latter drew cheers when she said she opposed allowing “the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate to determine who is a Jew.” Hotovely, who said she believed the issue of egalitarian prayer at the Wall was being used politically by the government’s opponents, then asked her liberal colleague, “Merav, when was the last time you prayed at the Kotel?” It had a triumphalist edge that seemed to sum up a troubling year.

A few weeks later, speaking on Israeli TV, Hotovely seemed to disparage American Jews as soft (or perhaps she was just stating the obvious), suggesting that they didn’t have standing to weigh in on Israeli life. She said American Jews “never send their children to fight for their country” and “Most of them are having quite convenient lives.” It was a shot heard from Jerusalem to New Jersey. Hotovely apologized but the damage — in a year where there was so much of it — was done.

And so we come to another Israeli woman, but not a politician, alas.

Gal Gadot, in a bronze, bare-shouldered, curve-hugging warrior get-up, and showing off killer moves that marry grace with power, became the new face of Israel in 2017 as the star of the mega-hit “Wonder Woman.” She amplified her Israeli bona fides by speaking some Hebrew in her “Saturday Night Live” opening monologue, then stepped into the middle of the national conversation about sexual harassment against women in the workplace; she demonstrated her social conscience — and Hollywood power — by declaring that she would not appear in a “Wonder Woman” sequel in which accused sexual harasser Bruce Ratner is producer.

When it comes to healing the “Jewish community,” to stitching together that tattered fabric, perhaps only a superhero like Gadot can knit up the raveled sleeve of care.

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