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What divides Israel and American Jews
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What divides Israel and American Jews

The growing rift between Israel and non-Orthodox American Jews widened last week when Religious Services Minister David Azoulay called Reform Judaism “a disaster for the people of Israel.” 

He’s not the first nor will he be the last to make such charges. He represents the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party, whose leaders have a history of scorning those they consider less pious than they. Shas not only holds a balance of power in the Netanyahu government but also controls half of the country’s Chief Rabbinate; the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi rule the other half.

Together they comprise an extreme religious establishment with enormous religious as well as political influence and are a major reason for the rift with the American Jewish majority. The Rabbinate has vastly restricted religious freedom for all but the Orthodox, who make and enforce the laws governing birth, marriage, conversion, death, and everything of a religious or semi-religious nature in between.

The result is that Conservative and Reform Jews have far more freedom to practices their religion in the United States than in the Jewish state. Especially if they’re women.

Let a woman try to wear a tallit or tefillin and pray from a Torah at the Wall in Jerusalem and she could wind up in jail. To Azoulay that’s not prayer but “provocation,” and he has vowed to roll back whatever meager progress has been made in recent years.

Michael Oren, who has just published a hyper-partisan memoir about his years as ambassador to the United States, said one of the reasons the relationship is unraveling is that American Jews don’t understand Israelis. As for the clashes with Women of the Wall, he said, what Israeli officials see as a matter of law and order and status quo agreements, Americans see as issues of freedom of religion, women’s rights, and free speech.

What he appears to be saying is this: Successive Israeli governments have made a Faustian bargain, trading away principles for the votes of the ultra-religious. Israeli law may guarantee freedom of religion for all, but it doesn’t work that way in practice out of deference to an extremist minority. 

It may be heresy, but if you’re a Reform or Conservative Jew and you want to practice your Judaism as you see fit, America may be your Goldene Medina. The separation of church and state as enshrined in the Bill of Rights is unknown in Israel, where the religious establishment is a branch of the government with considerable and often intrusive power. Moreover, the religious establishment has become increasingly right-wing in both religious and political influence.

The State Department’s recent report on International Religious Freedom found that in Israel “governmental and legal discrimination against non-Jews and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism continues.”

A Rabbinate hostile to the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism and backed by a political leadership indifferent, at best, to Diaspora concerns is a major factor in the growing rift but not the only one. There are fundamental policy differences and personal animosity between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government. A particularly damaging factor is increasing Israeli involvement in domestic American politics, with the prime minister as well as the ultra-Orthodox and nationalist-settler movement identifying with the Republican Party while 70 percent of American Jews consistently vote with the Democrats.  

But the religious pluralism rift is personal. Jews enjoy a high comfort level in America. More and more, they feel — not without justification — that their brand of Judaism is unwelcome in the Jewish state. Haredi lawmakers and leaders are demanding that conversions, particularly in the Diaspora, conducted by rabbis not approved by the Rabbinate not be recognized as valid.

American Jews feel an affinity and great affection for Israel, they are proud of its impressive achievements in science, technology, and the arts. It is the start-up nation. 

But as the generation that has firsthand memories of the Holocaust and the birth of Israel recedes into history, the potent sense of Israel as a necessity for endangered Jewry is diminishing. 

American Jews would again be quick to rally ‘round Israel in time or war or emergency, but today there is no feeling that Israel’s survival is at stake, not even with all of Iran’s talk about wiping it off the map. They know that while Iran may be trying to build the bomb, Israel is a regional superpower with an estimated 200 or more nuclear weapons and the planes, missiles, and submarines to deliver them.  

The growing religious gap adds new layers to American Jewish estrangement from the Jewish state.

As long as pubic officials like Azoulay ridicule the branches of Judaism followed by the majority of American Jews, and a deputy interior minister like Yaron Mazuz tells Arab and leftist Jewish Knesset members they should surrender their ID cards because “we are doing you a favor that you’re living here,” and there are no consequences, the rift will continue to grow.

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