Michael Oren is one of my heroes. I’ve studied and taught from his books. They
are the best in their field. I’ve seen him with Jewish and mixed audiences in
the United States, and admired how expertly he represents Israel. It is from
this perspective of unabashed admiration that I write this critical response to
his recent op-ed, in which he criticizes American Jews for their attitude toward
To be sure, Oren’s critique is far more nuanced than what is
usually heard on this subject.
His historian’s analysis of changes in the
Israeli and American Jewish communities is illuminating. His peroration
emphasizing the importance of our two communities learning to talk to one
another about challenging issues is “just what the doctor
Moreover, many of his complaints about American Jews are well
founded, such as his impatience with rabbinical students who protest having to
take a required first year of study in Jerusalem, and with synagogues that
refuse to display posters warning of an Iranian bomb.
However, as with
most Israeli opinion on tensions between Israel and American Jews, he places
virtually all blame on the Americans, and suggests that adjustments must come
from them. There’s a great deal of validity in this. Some American Jews may have
been alienated by the magnitude of Operation Cast Lead, or even Operation Pillar
of Defense. But they’re not the ones living under the threat of Hamas
On the other hand, Israelis need to ask themselves whether
there isn’t some validity in the American critique, or at least come to
appreciate that American dissent does not necessarily reflect an erosion of
Jewish commitment (a strange accusation to hurl at rabbinical
Values are shaped by life’s experiences. Ambassador Oren
observes that in many ways Israelis and their American cousins live in different
But he doesn’t apply that insight with sufficient rigor in urging
an honest, two-way dialogue.
To even hint that the only authentic Jews
are those who support Israeli government policy leads us into some very
While a constructive dialogue between Israelis and
American Jews will take time to develop, there several things Israel can do
right now to ease the tension.
1. Stop expanding
settlements. There is a third alternative to dismantling settlements,
which should be done only as a result of negotiations, and expanding them.
Placing an indefinite hold on initiating new settlements and enlarging existing
ones won’t undermine national security.
Would it motivate the
Palestinians to abandon rejectionism and come to the table with an open mind?
Who can say? The 10-month suspension in 2009-2010 achieved
Perhaps Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas will now
see negotiations as a way to build on the momentum he gained at the United
Nations. Perhaps not. But at least it would alleviate at least some of the doubt
among American Jews over the sincerity of Israel’s commitment to a two-state
solution, which a large majority of us support.
2. Publish a map that
could indicating what Israel envisions for the West Bank. Admittedly, showing
one’s hand is poor negotiating strategy, and Israel will be accused of being
ungenerous no matter where it draws the new border. But many American Jews who
support Israel are troubled by the Likud government’s tactic of asserting two
different and conflicting visions of how it sees the future.
One is based
on security: thickening the 1967 borders with a line of close-in
The other is rooted in ideology and theology: building a
“Greater Israel” according to dimensions prescribed in Torah. This unhelpful
confusion is inevitable when the prime minister emphasizes that most of the
settlers live close to the Green Line, while creating the Levy Commission with
its panel of outspoken advocates of settlement expansion.
government approved discrimination against the non-Orthodox religious streams. I
never cease to be amazed by how many Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionists
remain fiercely loyal to an Israel that rejects the legitimacy of the Judaism
I’m not suggesting an assault on Orthodoxy. The Orthodox
can continue to have a Chief Rabbinate rule their own community, if that’s what
they want. And so long as Israeli taxpayers are willing to fund a welfare system
for haredim, and Israeli parents whose children serve in the IDF are willing to
give a lifetime pass to yeshiva students – so be it! That’s an internal Israeli
Nor am I suggesting that Israel’s guaranteed freedom of speech be
abrogated to bar Orthodox rabbis from making venomous proclamations against
liberal Jews (and others) – although it would be comforting if some of the worst
offenders were removed from the public payroll.
My suggestion is that the
Knesset enact laws ordering the Interior Ministry to enter into the official
registry marriages and conversions conducted in Israel under non-Orthodox
auspices; enact measures to establish per capita funding parity between the
Orthodox and liberal streams; and put an end to abominations such as denying
women the right to pray and wear tallitot at the Kotel.
To be sure, there
will be political repercussions. But progress is rarely free of risks. Whatever
the political price may be, the choice here is whether Israel is the Jewish
state for all Jews, as Oren says it should be, or it is not.
decision cannot be made in America. It must be made in Israel.
is the founding executive director of ARZA – Association of Reform Zionists of
America, the Zionist affiliate of the Union for Reform Judaism.