Jews and Jews

 Deputy minister Hotovely has been the target of heaps of abuse in the past couple of days, but she in fact can be accused of only one serious mistake (in addition maybe of being naïve): she does not understand how Israeli politics work. She did not learn one of the basic premises for success in a Netanyahu government: you do not tell the truth and in particular not about things you hear in-house.

The opinions she shared with the world about American Jewry is not something she invented. They are, and have been prevalent almost since the years “Uncle Sam” was a phenomenon among Israeli children (and not only children), bringing goodies from the Goldene Medina. The outbursts from government circles and in particular Prime Minister Netanyahu, were not because of what she said, only because she said them in public. And the Likud is not even circumspect about the feelings in political Israel about American Jewry. A campaign was started to keep Hotovely in her job because “90% of the Likud agrees with her”.

Over the years, American Jewry has been looked upon by official Israel and Israelis alike, as a source of money and a source of support with the American government.  

Israel has (sometimes brutally) exploited the loyalty and the solidarity of American Jews with Israel, for political and financial purposes, while at the same time totally ignoring the deep feelings American Jewry has for this country.

The majority of American Jews are not Orthodox, i.e. they have different attitudes towards such diverse issues as the role of women, and even the interpretation of the Torah. They live in a country where Religion is strictly separated from the State, but where they are allowed to practice their religion as they see fit with as only restriction that they cannot force their beliefs and practices upon others.

In Israel, the situation is very different. Here if you are not Jewish, you don’t count AND you can be only one kind of Jew, the Orthodox kind. It may be that Reform and Conservative Jews are tolerated in Israel but the hostility towards them from Orthodox circles has sometimes been vitriolic, and in official Israel, Reform and Conservative practices such as marriage are not recognized.

A painful example of how Reform and Conservative Judaism are shunned in Israel, is the sad story of praying at the Western Wall. Even though the Western Wall is obviously a historic site, orthodox Jewry completely controls it and everything that is going on there.  However, American Jewry, interested in practicing their religion the way they see fit, have been attempting to pray at the Western Wall without gender separation. An agreement was finally reached whereby a section of the site would be designated for mixed prayer and worship.
But the Israeli government reneged on the agreement reached with the “Women of the Wall”, and even the most loyal American Jews realized that, being Reform or Conservative, they would never be recognized in Israel.

The Orthodox leadership in Israel claims that theirs is the only “real” Judaism and that all they are interested in is to preserve the “purity” of the religion, and to protect Israelis from outside interference in their religious experience. The government (throughout the history of the State of Israel, but in particular the Netanyahu government), has gone along with the demands of the orthodox religious leaders, ostensibly because the “unity” of the Jewish people is important to them, but in reality for much more mundane reasons which may be summarized as “politics”.  And so, even if big words like “Purity of Religion”, “Unity of the Jewish people” and “Real Judaism” are freely used, it all can be summed up much easier: “Political Blackmail”.  The Jewish Religion has become a tool in the hands of cynical politicians, both orthodox religious and secular, to reach political goals which for both (religious and secular politicians), is only one thing: Power.  And this power includes political control but no less religious control. The orthodox establishment knows it can hold on to their power only as long as they can convince the people that they are the real thing and allowing Conservative and Reform Judaism will mean that they will need to relinquish at least part of that power and (G-d) forbid, people may in the end prefer Reform or Conservative Judaism (like the majority of Jews in the U.S.). And of course the power and the monopoly of the Orthodox establishment comes with financial benefits. The money that is involved in practices such as kashrut, Brit Mila, weddings and burials runs in the billions and provides comfortable income for many, who also know they are protected as long as Orthodox Judaism is the only game in town.

Thus American Jews finds themselves in an Israel, in the home of the Jewish people that is not their home. But, even while living in a country where they are able to freely express their religion, they look at Israel as their spiritual home and the hostility experienced in Israel time and again, is difficult to swallow. Over the years, crisis has followed crisis but it has never come to a breaking point exactly because the American Jew does not want to lose this spiritual home. This duality is exploited more and more by the Israeli political and religious establishment, who are counting on the strength of this feeling of a spiritual home and that nothing they will do, will make the American Jews turn away.

But in particular in recent times, voices in the American Jewish community have been raised that, while unity is important and should be preserved with every effort, relations between Israel and American Jewry is heading for a breaking point, where Americans will turn their backs on Israel, at least until things will change.

In addition to this religious tension, American Jewry and in particular the younger generation, is more and more concerned about Israel from a political, social and humanitarian point of view. Fifty-plus years of occupation, repression of another people, racism and xenophobia are making American Jews think again about their commitment to Israel and their willingness to speak up for and about the Jewish State. Their identification with the Jewish State is waning, simply because they do not recognize themselves in Israel anymore, they do not feel proud to be connected to it nor do they identify with it. The behavior of Israel has moved too far away from basic values that they grew up with.

So when an Israeli minister (albeit one with little influence or responsibility) speaks out about her feelings on American Jewry, and makes disparaging remarks, some of them even insulting, American Jews are strengthened in their feeling that Israel may be the “Home of the Jewish People”, but it is not their home and Israel is clearly showing them that, both in word and deed.