Many of us know the feeling. We are traveling somewhere around the world – it could be a desolate town in Arkansas, or in the Austrian countryside – when we hear a word or an accent. It could be we see someone who looks Israeli, or they’re wearing a Kippa, a clear sign that they are a member of the tribe.
This sense of kinship is familiar to many Jewish and Israeli travelers. A small people, we tend to cling to one another. When Israelis meet Israelis, and in some cases when Jews meet Jews, we strike up a conversation even if we share nothing else in common. It is who we are as a people.
I was reminded of this phenomenon in the aftermath of the terror attack in Nice, and the failed coup in Turkey last week. In both cases, the Israeli media reported extensively on the larger stories – of ISIS terror spreading in France, and the subsequent crackdown in Turkey – but it also zoomed in on the Jewish communities in both countries.
What were the local Jews saying? Were they scared? Did they want to leave? Were they still loyal to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan? For two days, the story of the two elderly Jewish sisters who were missing after the Nice attack featured prominently on Israeli and Jewish news sites.
After they were reportedly located in a local hospital, Israel let out a collective sigh of relief.
The draw Israelis and Jews feel for one another seems to be the result of our tragic national history. Centuries of persecution, the Holocaust and increasing anti-Semitism in Europe has created a nation of the concerned.
We worry about one another, and therefore go the extra step to find and engage with our people.
This connection is not just theory, it’s backed up by data: in March, the Pew Research Center published a 237-page study based on extensive polling among Israelis. Called “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society,” the poll found that 75 percent of Israelis feel they share a common destiny with American Jews; 28% said they felt this way “to a great extent”; 69% of Israelis said that a “thriving Diaspora” was necessary for the long-term survival of the Jewish people; 59% said that US Jews had a good influence on the way things were going in Israel; and finally, more than half of the Jews in Israel and over 60% of the Jews in America said they felt a special responsibility to care for fellow Jews in need across the globe.
This is special.
The problem, though, is that when contrasted with new legislation coming out of the Israeli government this data simply does not add up: if Israelis care so much for the Diaspora, why do a growing number of Jews around the world feel alienated from the Jewish state? If 69% believe in the need for a “thriving Diaspora,” then why is the country not allowing Jews of all stripes and denominations to pray freely at Judaism’s holiest prayer site? Why is the government backtracking from previously-approved decisions? On Tuesday, the Knesset was supposed to vote on a haredi-sponsored bill that would prevent Reform and Conservative rabbis from using public mikvaot ritual baths for conversion ceremonies. Banning progressive Jewish movements from mikvaot is not new in the Jewish state, but under the new bill, the groups would be singled out. The haredi monopoly on matters of religion and state is all encompassing.
There is no way around it.
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, head of the Agudat Yisrael faction in United Torah Judaism, was recently asked why he wasn’t willing to reach a compromise on the Kotel, which for the most part, is being held up because of haredi opposition to moving the security checkpoint at the entrance 100 feet to include the pluralistic prayer platform at Robinson’s Arch.
“Why should I?” he asked. “We already won.”
With Netanyahu’s coalition completely dependent on Litzman and his fellow haredi members of Knesset, that statement is true. There is no reason for Litzman to budge. He gains absolutely nothing. A rift between Israel and the Diaspora? Apparently among the Gur Hassidic sect which he belongs to, this is not something they need to lose sleep over.
The problem is that this rift will not remain below the surface. While there is likely truth to the claim that the frustration is mostly felt among the Jewish leadership in the US and not by their constituents, that won’t last for long. The more people come to Israel and don’t feel respected, the more they feel alienated, there is a growing chance that the situation will explode into a full-blown crisis.
“All you need to do is look who attends AIPAC conferences every year,” one top American Jewish leader recently told me. “There are some kippot, but they are the minority. How much longer do you think Conservative and Reform Jews will come out to support Israel if they don’t feel that Israel supports them?” When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to take his fight against the Iran deal to Capitol Hill last year, he and Ambassador Ron Dermer worked hard to rally the American Jewish community behind them.
It led to a real divide, making many American Jews feel like their identity was at stake: as Jews, do they have to automatically support Israel and its prime minister, or can they sit out what appeared to be a personal spate between Netanyahu and the White House? It left many Jews feeling torn between their devotion to Israel and their loyalty to their president.
Last month, Netanyahu met with a group of leaders from different Jewish organizations in an effort to ease tensions.
During the meeting, the prime minister cited his success in passing the complicated gas deal as proof he can ultimately succeed with religious issues as well.
There is no question that Netanyahu is a talented politician. But while passing the gas deal is commendable, it can’t really be compared to the Kotel and the mikvaot.
First, because there was no religious opposition to the gas bill, which - as we’ve witnessed more than once in Israel’s 68 years of statehood - can bring down governments.
Second, while gas is an important asset for Israel that will contribute greatly to the country’s continued economic growth, Diaspora Jewry is more about kinship, peoplehood and a shared destiny. It’s time Israelis back that up with action.
Words are not going to be enough this time.
Speaking of words, what is going on with rabbis lately? Last week, Eyal Karim, the man tapped as the next IDF chief rabbi, almost lost the appointment over controversial comments he made a few years ago – seemingly permitting rape of non-Jewish women at times of war, and for saying that homosexuals were sick and deformed.
A few days later, Yigal Levenstein, another prominent rabbi from the prestigious Eli pre-military academy, called gays “perverts.” Levenstein also denounced the Reform Movement as “a stream within Christianity and not Judaism.”
Karim and Levenstein are two rabbis who receive their salaries from the state. They represent a stream within the national-religious camp that is moving away from the state and becoming more radical and closed-off from society. Many of their followers openly speak about the establishment of a halachic state in Israel.
Nevertheless, they need to stop talking about homosexuality.
Is there nothing else for rabbis to talk about these days? Do these rabbis not have bigger problems to deal with, like unifying the splintered Israeli society? Shouldn’t they work to reengage disenchanted youth who are leaving the fold and not looking back? What benefit do they gain from speaking incessantly about gay people? This is without mentioning the fact that Karim will find himself advising and commanding gay soldiers. Levinstein already has a number of graduates from Eli who are gay and more to come. Do they both enjoy alienating and insulting their students and subordinates? Their comments are nothing less than incitement, and while I could understand their anger if the gay pride parade was marching through Mea She’arim or next to Levenstein’s home in Eli, that is not the case. In Jerusalem, the parade takes up just a few streets, far from the religious neighborhoods.
The rabbis are also not alone. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, in an apparent political move aimed at attracting religious voters, said he would not attend the parade on Thursday because it hurt some of his residents’ feelings.
Barkat apparently forgot that the Likud Party, which he has joined, already has a gay Knesset member. He – mayor of a city still reeling from the brutal murder of Shira Banki during last year’s parade – also apparently doesn’t understand the importance of his attendance, to show the municipality’s support for the city’s gay community.
It is time for rabbis and mayors to do what they have been chosen, elected and are being paid to do – be true leaders for their communities.
The first step: stop alienating!