Can Israel teach American Jews about Jewish identity?

If Israel wants to send people to America to strengthen the ties between Israel and American Jewry that is fine, but it should be done by those who truly represent Israel and Zionism.

August 18, 2016 22:11
4 minute read.
Jerusalem Day

Young people wave Israeli flags during the Jerusalem Day march on June 5. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The Diaspora Affairs Ministry under Minister Naftali Bennett is about to spend – perhaps waste is the better word – NIS 250 million ($65.6m.) to “improve the Jewish identity and connection to Israel” of college students in America.

One-third of this amount will come from the government, i.e. the taxes of Israeli citizens, the other amount from unspecified sources.

These programs will be run by three organizations, Chabad, Olami and Hillel. The first two are Orthodox groups.

I must admit that this entire project is both baffling and disturbing to me.

Besides questioning the effectiveness of the program, I have several questions.

First of all, I have difficulty understanding why the government of Israel is trying to teach Jewish identity to American Jews. Jewish identity is a complex matter, a subject of discussion and dispute among various segments of world Jewry. In Israel, the question of “Who is a Jew?” as well as “What is Judaism?” has been problematic from the start. Unfortunately, Israel has usually taken the position that Jews and Judaism are whatever the Orthodox, or haredi (ultra-Orthodox) authorities say it is.

Only decisions of the Supreme Court here made possible the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions conducted in Israel.

What then has Israel to teach American Jewry on the subject? Israel is the only country in the free world where non-Orthodox groups are denied recognition, where only the officially appointed rabbinate has control of marriage and divorce. The recent law denying access to government- sponsored mikvaot to non-Orthodox groups makes the lack of freedom of religion quite clear, as does the controversy concerning creating a section of the Kotel for streams other than Orthodox. Israel is not the Vatican of the Jewish People. Its rabbinate is not the authority for world Jewry, even though it would like to be so. Since Israel has given Judaism over to the Chief Rabbinate, it is hardly a model for American Jewry. The opposite is more likely to be the case.

Secondly, since the vast majority of American Jews are not Orthodox, why is it that two-thirds of the money is going to Orthodox groups and none whatsoever to the Conservative or Reform groups that represent the majority of organized religious Jewry? What exactly are the criteria for choosing which groups will receive the money? Are there any? If so, what are they? One-third of the amount is going to Chabad. I wonder if the minister is aware that the usual practice of Chabad rabbis and congregations is not to say a prayer for the State of Israel or the IDF, not to sing “Hatikva,” not to use the term State of Israel, and not to celebrate Independence Day. I know that is the case in Israel, and I believe it is generally true elsewhere as well. The rebbe never set foot in Israel, and when Chabad sends children from Russia and elsewhere for a pilgrimage before their bar mitzva, they send them not to Jerusalem but to Brooklyn. That should make them perfect for the job of improving the connection to Israel.

Many years ago I was sent to Russia as an emissary of Israel to work with a new Chabad school in Moscow, to try to get them to partner with the Ministry of Education here and use our materials for teaching in their school. After prolonged discussion, nothing came of it because all they were willing to do was to take any money Israel would give them and use it to pay their own people and teach whatever they wanted – which did not include anything about Zionism or Israel. Well, it looks as if that is exactly what is happening now thanks to this new program.

In addition, regarding Jewish identity, do we really want to put that in the hands of a movement that proclaims that its dead rebbe is the Messiah, in total defiance of Jewish belief and teaching, and urges people even now to ask for his advice and his blessing? Nor should it be forgotten than the infamous Rabbi Ginsburg who was the guiding spirit behind the book Torat Hamelech is a Chabad rabbi.

And finally, does American Jewry really need the money from Israeli taxes for this purpose? After all, it is the richest Jewish community in the history of the world, and is perfectly able to support any Jewish identity programs it feels necessary.

Certainly to give money to Chabad, which is probably the most successful fund-raising operation in the Jewish world, is the height of absurdity.

If Israel wants to send people to America to strengthen the ties between Israel and American Jewry that is fine, but it should be done by those who truly represent Israel and Zionism. Above all, Israel has no business trying to teach American Jewry about Jewish identity. I think American Jewry should call the Diaspora Affairs Ministry and say ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’

The writer, a Jerusalem author and lecturer, is a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly. His most recent book is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (JPS). The opinions presented here are his own and do not represent any organization.

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