My parents made aliya from the US in 1932.
They came from a liberal-secular background, and those family members who did go to a synagogue went to a Conservative or Reform one. My father’s family and my mother’s maternal family weren’t Zionists, but usually took some interest in Zionist and Israeli affairs, and those who could invested in Israel Bonds.
I remember as a child in Haifa in the 1950s, and again when I was raising my own children in Jerusalem in the 1970s and 1980s, that every spring and summer we had visits by relatives from the US, both adults and youths. Today hardly anyone ever comes.
I am sure that in the case of Orthodox Israelis of American origin the situation is different, and in a way this reflects the growing rifts within the Jewish- American community on the one hand, and between Israel and the majority of American Jews on the other.
Today the number of Jews in Israel and in the US is more or less the same – 6 million. However, the makeup of the two communities is very different. In Israel an overwhelming majority of the Jews – both religious and traditional – identify themselves as belonging to the Orthodox stream of Judaism, while those who consider themselves totally secular, or alternatively as belonging to the Conservative or Reform streams of Judaism, constitute a minority.
Among American Jews the statistics are the exact opposite. Furthermore, while in Israel the majority of Jews are politically right-of-center, in the US the majority of the Jews – 69 percent – voted for the Democrats in the 2012 elections.
These facts certainly bode ill for both inter-American Jewry and Israeli-American Jewry relations, given the fact that on the spectrum of options between total acceptance of the pluralistic nature of the Jewish people and the desire to work out workable compromises whenever possible, and the inclination to sharpen differences and strive to exclude opponents, we seem today – and not for the first time in modern history – to be closer to the latter position.
A variety of recent events clearly manifests this reality, which is fermenting beneath the surface. I shall mention two.
The first was the decision of the Conference of Presidents of the Major Jewish Organizations on April 30 to reject the request by the liberal, left-wing lobby J Street to join the Conference, even though the request was supported not only by the Reform and Conservative movements, but by the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (a body bringing together the largest synagogue movements, several national organizations and scores of local community relations councils) as well.
To the best of my knowledge, the list of those who voted to turn down the request has not been published in full, though they clearly do not reflect what the majority of American Jews feel, but rather the voice of AIPAC, and the inclinations of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who refuses to meet the executive director of J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami.
True, J Street frequently exaggerates in its public criticism of Israel, and does not always seem to distinguish between what is desirable and what is feasible, or between what serves the true interests of Israel and what does not. However, J Street does what it does out of true concern for Israel’s fate, and most American Jews and liberal-left Israelis, if forced to declare whether J Street or AIPAC more closely expresses what they think and feel, would choose the former.
The decision to keep J Street out of the Conference, thus placing it in the same category as the Jewish Defense League, as if it were the League’s left-wing counterpart in terms of extremism, is not only likely to enhance the popularity of J Street in the American Jewish street, but also in the corridors of the American administration, where AIPAC’s activities are all too frequently viewed as being out of line, to say the least. What the rejection of J Street will mean in the longer run to the increasingly non-cohesive Jewish American community remains to be seen.
The second event I should like to mention is a little less dramatic than the first, but nevertheless a reflection of a very real problem, which is likely to grow with the passage of time.
Last week several participants of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly Convention that took place in Dallas, Texas, attacked Yesh Atid Knesset Member Aliza Lavi, who was invited to address the Convention, after she had stated, apologetically, that at this stage it was not politically feasible to institute Conservative and Reform religious marriage ceremonies in Israel, and that all that could be done was to try and introduce Conservative and Reform ceremonies under the guise of civil marriages.
The fact that in Israel the marriage ceremonies officiated by Conservative and Reform rabbis are not recognized is without doubt a stain on Israel’s claim to be a liberal and democratic state on the one hand, and the state of all the Jews on the other. Why this reality developed is well known, and certainly the Conservative and Reform movements know full well that the problem emerged during mandatory times, when the British Mandatory government established the predecessor of today’s Chief Rabbinate in 1921, at a time when there were no Conservative and Reform Rabbis in Palestine. Of course, that does not justify what happened after the establishment of the state, but by then the Orthodox establishment had gained much power, which it was unwilling to relinquish to other streams of Judaism, which it refused to recognize.
However, as MK Lavi explained, hardly anyone in the Knesset today, even within the liberal-left parliamentary groups, gives a damn, which makes any attempt to introduce non-Orthodox marriages in Israel at this stage a lost cause. It is for this reason that she, together with MK Ruth Kalderon, decided to try to promote the civil marriage alternative.
For presenting this sad reality she was accused of talking like a politician rather than a prophet, even though if politics is “the art of the possible” hopefully Lavi will not decide, in an altruistic act, to turn into a prophet, for the sake of applause from the Rabbinical Assembly.
However, what is most worrying from an Israeli perspective is the reality that the American Conservative and Reform movements are losing patience, and understandably so. According to reports, the chief executive of the Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, stated in Dallas that if Israel’s attitude to the non-Orthodox Jewish streams doesn’t change soon, world Jewry is liable to become alienated from Israel, which might find itself facing a nuclear Iran all on its own, and a world that blames it for its mere existence.
This prophecy of doom is unlikely to convince the Orthodox establishment in Israel to budge in its attitude toward the other streams in Judaism by a single inch. However, it should serve as an alarm to Israel’s non-religious and more liberal religious population.
If the non-Orthodox and non-right-wing American Jews drift even further away from Israel than they have done to date, because their views are considered extreme and dangerous, and their religious practices no better than idolatry, then Israel will really be in trouble – perhaps not in the extreme terms allegedly used by Rabbi Schonfeld, but in terms more similar to those recently used by Martin Indyk (himself a liberal Jew) when the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority collapsed.
What are the chances for a voluntary change of mind and attitude within American Jewry and within Israel? Not very good I am afraid. Apparently we shall all have to learn the hard way.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.