American Jews marching in New York with Israeli flags. How can we bridge the divide between Israel and the Diaspora?.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It’s been a rocky year for Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry, and particularly with its No. 1 supporter, US Jewry. Israel’s relationship with the latter hit major bumps in the road in 2017 over issues of religious pluralism – or lack thereof – in the Jewish state. What further rubbed salt in the fresh wounds of US liberal Jews, were tactless comments uttered by Israeli officials.
Here are five events this year that contributed to the crisis between Israel and US Jewry.
1. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the June cancellation of the Western Wall agreement
that had been years in the works. Spearheaded by long-time Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, efforts to reach a compromise between the Orthodox and liberal Jewish streams over egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall were finally fruitful when the cabinet passed a resolution in January 2016. Liberal Jewish leaders in both Israel and the US hailed the decision to formally designate a prayer area for non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel as “historic.”
But a year and a half later, the government backtracked on that decision, indefinitely freezing the agreement and subsequently causing ruptures in the faith placed by significant portions of US Jewry in Israel. In the half-year that has passed since, leaders of progressive Jewry have been demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu uphold his promised of “One Wall for one people.”
2. The same day that Diaspora leaders were blindsided by the Kotel announcement, additional controversial legislation was advanced that threatened the freedom of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel. A bill advanced by the Haredi parties to grant the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over Jewish conversion in Israel was approved for passage to the Knesset by the government. This means that all conversions performed in Israel outside the State Conversion Authority, which is under the Chief Rabbinate, would not be recognized by the state for the purposes of citizenship and registration as Jewish by the Interior Ministry.
A temporary solution was reached, according to which the state, together with the Reform and Masorti movements, requested that the High Court of Justice delay by at least six months a ruling on a petition to grant non-Orthodox converts recognition by the state. In return, the Haredi parties agreed to suspend their legislation and Netanyahu appointed a task force to review the issue and present alternative arrangements within six months, while requesting that legislation on the issue not be advanced until the committee reports back.
Almost six months have passed, but former justice minister Moshe Nissim, the task force coordinator, said this month that a compromise will not be reached before the end of this year. It remains to be seen whether leaders of the Reform and Masorti movements will request another deferral from the High Court.
3. A couple of weeks after Princeton University’s Hillel House canceled a planned address by Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely because of her past comments on Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, Hotovely sparked an uproar when she told i24 News that US Jews are “people that never send their children to fight for their country
,” and that “most of them are having quite convenient lives.” Netanyahu publicly rebuked his deputy over the comments and his office said he had even considered firing her, after numerous Israeli politicians and US Jewish leaders called for her dismissal.
Hotovely subsequently apologized saying: “American Jewry is very important to me. The connection, the dialogue like that between siblings in a family, is the most important thing. It is permissible to criticize, permissible to express pain, but it is important to remember that there is only one state for the Jewish people and that is Israel, and it has a commitment to all the Jews of the world.”
Netanyahu himself, however, reportedly said recently that non-Orthodox Diaspora Jewry will disappear within two generations, and that Israel needs to prepare accordingly. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog told the Knesset in October that “several people swear” they heard the prime minister say that only Jews in Israel would survive, while Jews in the Diaspora will be “lost.” Netanyahu did not directly address these allegations.
4. In July, it was revealed that the Chief Rabbinate had compiled a blacklist of some 160 rabbis from around the world whose authority to approve Jewish and marital status it rejects. These included ultra-Orthodox rabbis as well as Conservative and Reform rabbis.
The emergence of this list exacerbated existing issues posed by the Chief Rabbinate’s rejection of some rabbis from the Diaspora, which causes problems for immigrants, especially those from the US, when they register for marriage in Israel. Immigrants must provide evidence of their Jewish status, including a letter from a communal rabbi who knows them, affirming they are Jewish.
Following its publication, a spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate denied that the names were a blacklist, saying, instead, that it was a list affirming Jewish-status letters that had recently been rejected by the Marriage and Conversion Department of the Chief Rabbinate. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau denounced the blacklist, stating that he had no prior knowledge of it, and that it was the work of the clerk in charge of the Marriage and Conversion Department, who created it without proper authorization.
5. New coalition chairman David Amsalem will be one to watch next year with regard to Diaspora issues. A sharp critic of the Kotel agreement, Amsalem said last year during a hearing on the subject: “With all due respect to the Americans and American Jews, they cannot be influencing what goes on here. Let them get insulted if they want. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
On the other hand, Amsalem was a key player in pushing the government to continue the aliya of Ethiopian Jews, so it will be interesting to see how he uses his new position of influence to affect Diaspora Jewry.
Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.