A Crisis Between Israel & American Jewry

A Crisis Between Israel & American Jewry

Some 2,400 people gathered for the Global Assembly in Israel from the American Jewish Committee.

Rabbi David Geffen

Rabbi David Geffen is a native Atlantan and Conservative rabbi who lives in Jerusalem.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin

Last week, June 10 to 15, it was “Jewish Religion” week here in Israel. But you can challenge me and ask: “Isn’t Jewish Religion a major component of Israel all the time?” From what happened in those six days in June one would wonder. Israel was filled with 2,400 members of American Jewish Committee (AJC), here for the first time for its Global Assembly.

The newspapers wrote a lot of stories; not sure there was much on TV. That was natural because Israel TV enjoys exploiting Jewish religion. The newscasters recognize haredi Judaism or the settlers’ Judaism only. The AJC made a different point dramatically and I think it was done well. Not sure it will change much, but the AJC took this “Jewish Religion” matter very seriously.

On Monday, June 11 Harriet Schleifer, chairwoman of the AJC Board of Governors, appeared before the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs. She was there with several colleagues each bolstering the other. She warned that “with young Jews increasingly distancing themselves from Israel, AJC might not have the means to continue to advocate for Israel.”

Then she made an even stronger point. “We go around the world to speak on behalf of normalizing Israel among the nations of the world, and we have access like almost no other Jewish organization to world leaders.”

Then she wanted the Knesset members to know how much Israel means to her and her members. “We have Israel in our kishkes (guts) already. But if you don’t have the succeeding generations willing to devote their time and personal money, to speak on behalf of Israel and Jews worldwide, you’re going to lose not only the U.S. diaspora but our voice around the world.”

Her statement was only carried in the Haaretz English edition. Neither Haaretz Hebrew edition nor any other Hebrew paper, not even the Jerusalem Post, carried her comments. Schleifer was dealing with a real issue: “Jewish Religion in Israel and the United States.”

At the meeting on Monday, June 11 of all 2,400 of the AJC delegates, it was labeled as an “extravaganza” in the newspaper. Although every attempt was made to slide over the differences between Israel and the rest of the Jewish world, President Reuven Rivlin noted, in his welcoming address, that “the gaps are getting deeper and deeper.”

Yehudah Glick, a religious Jew in Likud, tried to play down what is happening. He said that “the press and the polls paint a more negative picture than the reality of Israel-Diaspora ties.” A lot of laughter was heard when he said, “the very fact that the Israel-Diaspora ties is a central topic of discussion proves that Israel cares about it.”

The president of the German Jewish Student Union argued that Israeli leaders frequently speak in the name of Diaspora Jewry but have failed to sufficiently take their stance into consideration. She suggested the creation of an instrumentality in Israel which would deal with worldwide Jewish issues. This is a nice pipe dream, but the Jewish Agency, which is supposed to act in this fashion, rarely deals with issues equally for Israel and Jews around the world.

In terms of “Jewish Religion,” wrote Jeremy Sharon of the Jerusalem Post. “Divides are also clear and significant on attitudes to Jewish life in the Jewish state. An overwhelming majority of 80 percent of American Jews want progressive Jewish weddings, divorces and conversions to be recognized by the State of Israel, compared to just under half, 49 percent, of Israelis.”

The number of American Jews who want changes in issues dealing with Jewish life events is high because they do not live in Israel. The Israeli number indicates that Israelis don’t want changes because they are still afraid of what will happen to the Jewishness of the Jewish state if major changes are made.

This, to me, is very significant. Case in point, 73 percent of American Jewry feel a mixed-gender prayer area should be established at the Wall. Only 42 percent of Israelis want such an area while 48 percent oppose such an area.

“In the face of rising extremism, more Israelis leaving Orthodox Judaism” was a headline one day last week. The longest article on “Jewish Religion” was how Orthodox individuals were found to be leaving that group. The story was extensive and carried many examples about the first time an orthodox Jew broke the halachic rules and he or she was not struck by lightning. In Israel the phenomena are such that a Hebrew name has been created for them: “datlashim,” an acronym for “datiim lesheavar” (formerly religious). The article by the Jewish Religion columnist, Judy Maltz, dealt in depth with many problems that Israelis of this ilk face. In many instances, their parents will not allow them in the house and will not speak to them on the phone.

Minister of Education Naftali Bennett had his own personal approach to the “Jewish Religion” problem. “If there is one thing that keeps me up at night, it’s not Iran but the future of the Jews in America and we have to face this together,” he stressed in his speech at AJC Conclave. Bennett told the story of how his non-religious parents came to Israel from San Francisco 40 years ago. In Israel they became “religious” modern Orthodox, so the minister was raised as an Orthodox Jew moving more to the right in his political career.

When challenged about the great divides in the AJC poll, he wanted people to know it was a concern. “What the poll reflects is that Israelis are going more rightward and favoring more traditional Judaism, as opposed to secularism which exists here, whereas American Jews are more to the left and more liberal.” Then he used his favorite lines. “I’m not going to whitewash that, but it shouldn’t be the reason for us to fall apart. So, we don’t agree on everything, but we are all Jews, for heaven’s sake. We’re all one family.”

So that is how an Israeli right-wing religious minister left it: we are all one family. In families there can be compromises, but not in this “Jewish Religion” family. Only one branch of Judaism believes themselves to be authentic. When they get back home, they may try to make something happen. Israel grew and reached 70; American Jewry started 364 years ago.

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