Israel’s election campaign is currently a rather unedifying spectacle of accusations about illicit submarines, hacked cell phones, extremists at either end of the political spectrum and criminal indictments.
For all of the huge challenges that face the Jewish state on national, societal, security and diplomatic levels, the real issues are getting short shrift from the politicians who apparently prefer mudslinging than expressing any particular vision for governance.
One of the most critical points of concern which arose during the course of the last, 34th, government of Israel was the Jewish state’s relationship with its brethren in the Diaspora, particularly in the US.
The right-wing religious coalition had already been straining these bonds when in June 2017 it did real damage; the coalition voted to indefinitely freeze the Western Wall agreement while on the same day approving legislation for passage to the Knesset that would abolish all legal standing achieved by the progressive Jewish movements for their conversions in Israel.
Although the conversion legislation was subsequently frozen, the impact and harm those events did to the ties between Israel and US Jewry is still felt today.
Additionally, the hawkish position taken by the government towards the Palestinians, as well as legislation such as the settlements arrangements law, has led to further dissatisfaction amongst liberal US Jews, who are in the majority of the US Jewish community, with Israel.
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch – who heads the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York – is keenly aware of these problems and highly concerned about their consequences for Israel’s relationship with US Jews.
He says that these issues have led the relationship to be “shattered to a degree that is unprecedented,” and strongly rebuked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition for having done much to harm these ties.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Hirsch – an ardent Zionist who served for three years in the IDF Armored Corp as a tank commander – is, however, quick to add that the Reform movement must take significant blame for having not done enough to prevent Jewish assimilation in the US and what he calls the “dilution of Jewish identity” in the country.
He says that this is one of the central causes behind the distancing of US Jews from Israel, and that “a great Zionist enterprise” is needed amongst progressive Jews to repair this damage.
Nevertheless, there are two areas of Israeli policy which he says have done tremendous harm to the relationship between US Jewry and Israel, and that Israelis should be well aware of this damage before casting their votes on April 9.
He ventures that Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Palestinians – and its perception in the West and the US as a moral problem of Israel’s making – has greatly turned off liberal US Jews from Israel, and that the haredi control over religious life in the Jewish state has further alienated such Jews from the country.
Such alienation, Hirsch argues, could in the future have an impact not just on the relationship itself but on Israel’s very security, which he argues is deeply rooted in the might of the organized Jewish community to lobby for Israel in the corridors of power in the US.
“The Israeli-Palestinian dispute is conceived as a moral issue in the US and the West, where Israel is seen to be the stronger party and to ameliorate the dispute, and therefore as the years go by it is increasingly harder to sustain Israel’s position when it comes to the Palestinians – and that’s affecting the liberal part of American society, Jewish and non-Jewish society alike,” says the rabbi.
Hirsch says he personally puts more blame on the Palestinians for the absence of peace, saying that “they – the Palestinians – have rejected peace proposals that have been forthcoming from the initial  UN partition resolution until our very day.”
He argues that unlike those who perceive the conflict as a moral concern, it is in fact a security problem for the state of Israel, something which he says does not get enough emphasis or sympathy in the West.
Nevertheless, Hirsch says the issue is still toxic for liberal US Jews and that it is having a severe effect on their attachment to Israel.
A related moral concern – albeit one which has arisen specifically in the context of the election campaign – was Netanyahu’s strenuous efforts to have Bayit Yehudi join with the extremist Otzma Yehudit, to ensure that both parties cross the electoral threshold and make it into the Knesset, so as to bolster his chances of forming the next government.
“This blackens and undermines Israel’s moral standing,” said the rabbi.
“The rank and file of the Jewish community and the Jewish leadership were discomfited, disgusted and appalled,” said the rabbi of Netanyahu’s actions, adding that it was not just antithetical to the values of US Jews but “to Jewish values period.”
Haredi and Orthodox control over Jewish life in Israel is the other major factor that is doing damage to the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora says the rabbi.
He says that there is “discrimination on every level,” in Israel towards the progressive Jewish movements, whether it be the lack of recognition for non-Orthodox marriage and conversion, as well as the allocation of government resources for religious services.
And he says that “If you wanted to imagine how to do the most damage,” to Israel’s relationship with US Jews “then you would probably imagine something like how the Kotel [Western Wall] agreement unfolded” and how it was subsequently nixed following intense haredi political pressure.
Hirsch says that the way in which the haredim “cast such a big shadow” over communications and relations between Israel and US Jewry “is preposterous.”
But he places the responsibility for the crisis squarely on Netanyahu.
“There are things that he has done personally and that he has allowed to happen that have influenced significantly the deterioration of this relationship,” said Hirsch.
“He himself admitted the damage he was causing, but said he didn’t have a choice,” he continues, and questioned Netanyahu’s claim that his hands were tied politically by a threat by the haredi parties to quit the coalition.
Hirsch nevertheless concedes that the issue of prayer rights at the Western Wall is a symbolic matter, albeit one he supports, and says that the success of the Reform movement in Israel “will not rest hardly at all on how the issue of the Western Wall will be resolved,” but rather by its ability to create institutions with “broad appeal,” in the realms of education, with Israeli youth and with institutions of religious and Jewish thought.
Why has that not happened so far?
“I fear it is because we talk louder than we act,” answers Hirsch. “It is easier to issue press releases from New York than to raise money for Israeli institutions. The reason that it is easier is because I fear the movement is also beginning to drift away from Israel and needs a new invigorated Zionist spirit.”
The rabbi himself says that he is pessimistic that either the conflict with the Palestinians or the lack of standing of the progressive Jewish denominations in Israel can be resolved any time soon.
So what then are the solutions to the problems Hirsch highlights?
He says that at the very least, the rhetoric of the government towards the Palestinians needs to change, but that efforts to advance dialogue and bring the two sides closer would also help mollify liberal Jews and prevent their further disillusionment with Israel.
“An Israeli government that has the most conservative, right wing elements, as well as elements deemed racist is likely to do much more damage,” he says, whereas “a government that speaks the words of reconciliation and moves to a policy for reconciliation and is open to initiatives that might be helpful to bring the parties closer together,” would help reduce tensions between Israel and American Jewry.
And a greater appreciation of “the gravity” the discrimination against progressive Jews in Israel does to the relationship with US Jewry would help prevent the kind of damage done by the last government.
It seems unlikely that the next government will not include the haredi parties regardless of whoever leads it, meaning that progress on equality for the progressive denominations is unlikely to advance.
But even should the haredi parties be part of the next coalition, efforts can be made to prevent the harm done during the last government.
“If the world view of Israeli policy makers includes preserving the incredibly precious relationship between US Jews and Israel, they will know how to engage the haredi parties in the least damaging way,” he says.
“Even if Israelis don’t care, I would remind them one thing, that the relationship between Israel and US Jews influences Israel’s security standing, it influences American foreign policy to be more predisposed and sympathetic to Israel’s needs, and that impacts on the political situation and American foreign aid,” Hirsch observes.
“It is important that Israelis know these things in the context of the election campaign,” he concludes.
“This is not to suggest that American Jews have a vote, they don’t, only Israeli citizens decide who their representatives are, but I do think it is important for the Israeli electorate to know about these issues and hear what is at stake when they go to the polling booths.”
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