Decreasing support for Israel among US Jews is a “national security threat” for the Jewish state, the American Jewish Committee’s Dov Zakheim told a meeting Wednesday on religious pluralism at the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee.
Zakheim, the chairman of the AJC’s Jewish Religious Equality Coalition, is a former senior US defense official. Noting that he still advises the Pentagon, he said, “my concern is driven by my background in national security.”
Zakheim attended the meeting as part of a visit to Israel to advocate for religious pluralism. Since its founding in 2014, the broad-based coalition of American and Israeli Jews has warned repeatedly that the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over personal status issues, such as conversion and marriage, poses threats to Israel’s democratic nature and ultimately to its national security.
It maintains that any weakening of the US Jewish attachment to Israel could adversely impact the US-Israel special relationship.
Anti-Israel protest outside Israeli embassy in Washington in 2014
“Eighty-five percent of our community is not Orthodox, and because they’re not Orthodox, neither they nor their rabbis or leaders are recognized officially by the rabbinate of this country,” Zakheim said, pointing to issues of marriage, divorce, conversion and burial.
The AJC 2016 Survey of American Jewish Opinion found that 74% favor extending legal recognition to non-Orthodox weddings, divorces and conversions. The survey also found that 41% consider securing legal recognition of equality for all streams of Judaism the most important change necessary in Israeli Judaism.
“This is a major problem for us in the US for those of us who love Israel and want to see as close as possible ties between the Diaspora and Israel,” Zakheim warned. He added that the problem extends further than the US – to Canada, Britain and other countries with Jewish communities.
“If you want to look for a long-term and close connection between the Diaspora at large and Israel, you have to solve this issue,” he told the meeting.
He pointed to Jewish support of the BDS movement, the backing of the deal over Iran’s nuclear program, as well as a lack of loud opposition to the recent UN Security Council vote against Israel. Zakheim said that the number of Jews supportive of Israel is rapidly decreasing. “To me, it’s a national security threat to Israel,” he reiterated.
Zakheim was joined by Steve Bayme, director of AJC’s Contemporary Jewish Life program, who said that the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora must be understood in the context of Israel’s “incredibly successful narrative of the modern Jewish experience.
“But as Israel has become the center of world Jewry, responsibility goes with it,” Bayme said, noting that statements made by Israeli officials reverberate greatly throughout the Jewish world.
Pointing to Birthright, which brings thousands of young Jews to Israel every year, Bayme said some participants visit the country only to find that they wouldn’t be eligible to marry here.
“We’re trying to attract a critical mass of Jews to Jewish peoplehood, but the message they hear is that, due to the monopoly of the rabbinate, Israel is not central to their lives or relevant to their personal identity as Jews,” he said.
Bayme further noted that the value of equality is central to the education that US Jews are raised on. “When they find a lack of that equality, they are dismayed,” which in turn, according to Bayme, harms their degree of attachment to Israel.
AJC Board of Governors chairwoman Harriet Schleifer added that, as the state of Israel has developed, the perception of it from the US has changed, too. “Israel is now a strong country, so we are no longer worried about its stability,” she remarked, likening Israel’s transition to a “David-turned-Goliath.”
“The connection left is that we are Jewish, but if 90% of US Jews lose that identity because they’re told they’re not Jewish enough, who is going to fund in 20 or 30 years time, $38 billion over 10 years?” she asked, in reference to the US military aid deal signed last year with Israel.
“Israeli society must understand that, because we love our brothers here, we are afraid that at the end of the day Israel will be alone – Israel cannot be alone in the world; it needs all the friends it can get,” she asserted.
Noting that the Jewish populations of Israel and the US are of similar size, she stressed that they cannot afford to lose one another.
“Please don’t make young US Jews feel less connected or even apathetic,” she implored.
MK Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid) reiterated a recommendation he has advocated in the past to US Jewish leaders, based on criticism that their approach toward the Israeli government is not tough enough.
“I have no doubt that Israel is an anchor for the Diaspora communities, but so are they to Israel,” he said, opining that they “are making a joke” of themselves when they say they will discuss these issues with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government he accused of evading dealing with them.
He recommended that they don’t invite members of the Israeli government to conferences in the US, unless they support and recognize their conversions and the Western Wall prayer site agreement. “I agree it’s an honor to meet with the prime minister, but I think you should say ‘no thanks.’ You need to try new tools.”
Neither Bayme nor Zakheim, however, is receptive to this suggestion. “I think it’s much more complex than that,” Zakheim told The Jerusalem Post after the meeting. He backed a response by Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee chairman Avraham Neguise, who said that meeting with the prime minister was vital in order to reach a solution.
“It’s always more important to talk,” Zakheim reflected, adding that dialogue with members of the Israeli coalition is important to convey the “depth of their concern.”
For his part, Bayme told the Post that the subject should be put into the larger context of the work US Jews have done to build bridges and support for Israel. “If we engage in politics of confrontation, it can have unintended consequences.
We have been trying to enhance the image of Israel in the American public mind,” he explained.
“I prefer politics of diplomacy and dialogue,” he said, describing Israelis as members of the same family. “Family talks to one another.”
He was keen to note, however, that he understood Stern’s comments and views him as a “major ally.” AJC’s relationship with Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, conversely, appears to be far weaker.
When questioned about this, Bayme said he had met with Bennett several years ago and observed radical differences of opinions on the issue of settlements and a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I can’t say we have the most productive relationship with him... and I would certainly welcome a relationship with him,” he said.
“Those differences shouldn’t be fatal to a relationship.”