We are family

In the best of Jewish tradition, the present crisis should be seen as an opportunity for honest dialogue and mutual understanding, not an excuse to deepen the rift.

June 27, 2017 20:45
3 minute read.
Youth hold their prayer shawls as they stand in front of the Western Wall, May 17, 2017.

Youth hold their prayer shawls as they stand in front of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayers site in Jerusalem's Old City May 17, 2017.. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

Integral to Jewish thought is the belief that everything that happens in this world ultimately leads to good. If this can be said about the historical tragedies of the Jews it can be said about the present crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations surrounding the Western Wall.

No one in Israel wanted a clash with American Jewry. But now that it is here, let’s take advantage of it.

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Maybe the brouhaha over the cabinet’s decision to freeze the Kotel compromise, which provided liberal streams of Judaism with a respectable prayer space adjacent to the holiest site in the world for Jews, will energize American Jewry – many of whom are uninformed and indifferent to the happenings of the Jewish state – to become more involved in shaping Israel’s future.

Perhaps the anger will mobilize the Diaspora’s largest Jewish population – especially the younger, more liberal-minded generation – to re-engage with Israel.

Maybe it will be a moment of reflection on the deep differences that have always existed between the two. US Jews live in a country that grants its citizens unprecedented freedoms, offers a public domain devoid of religious symbols and consciously avoids identification with any particular ethnicity or religion Jews in Israel have opted for a state that defines itself as not only democratic but also Jewish, it’s located in the historical land of the Jewish people, surrounded by enemies, actively encourages Jewish immigration and discourages non-Jewish immigration, lives according to the rhythm of the Jewish calendar and never concerned itself with the sorts of accommodations offered by Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism, because these accommodations were the product of Diaspora living.

On the surface, the situation looks bad – relatively speaking, of course. On one side of the yawning chasm stands a popular right-wing Israeli government, with lawmakers not just from Shas and United Torah Judaism but Bayit Yehudi and the Likud, who are either adamantly opposed to the compromise or are very aware that their constituents care little about liberal Jews or Women of the Wall.

On the other side stands North American Jewry, which, if affiliated at all, belongs primarily to liberal streams of Judaism, which champion Judaism’s core values of openness, universalism and pluralism.

These are radically different communities. The time has come to fully acknowledge this. With or without this crisis, American Jewry and Israelis are drifting apart. And it is not because of the “occupation” or other purported injustices Israel is committing. Nor is it because a solution has yet to be found for permitting egalitarian prayer at the Kotel.

It is because the large bulk of American Jewry adheres to a progressive political agenda that is difficult to square with traditional values and supports a Democratic Party that has become increasingly critical of Israeli policies, while Israelis adhere to a Jewish nationalism that unabashedly prioritizes Israeli Jews’ interests. US President Donald Trump’s popularity in Israel and his lack thereof among American Jews is symptomatic of deeper differences.

The characteristics of the communities and the unique challenges that each faces will only become more accentuated over time. While Israel will continue to defend itself against existential threats to its physical existence and cope with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, American Jewry will grapple with the spiritual threat of intermarriage and assimilation in a progressive intellectual atmosphere that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to prioritize fidelity to people and religion above the individual circumstances of falling in love.

We must be honest about our differences and even celebrate them but never allow them to alienate us. Israeli Jews can learn from American Jews about Diaspora living. Paradoxically, they might internalize the importance of Reform and Conservative Judaism to maintaining Jewish identity in an atmosphere of freedom. They might better appreciate why it is so important for Diaspora Jews to worship in a more egalitarian framework.

American Jews can learn from Israeli Jews about what it means to live in a country where the dominant culture is Jewish and where there are rich and vibrant variants of Jewish expression, but where the default position is ultimately what is called “Orthodox” in the Diaspora.

In the best of Jewish tradition, the present crisis should be seen as an opportunity for honest dialogue and mutual understanding, not an excuse to deepen the rift. With all our differences, we are family.

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