At a recent board meeting of the Jewish Agency in Tel Aviv, one of the prominent American liberal Jewish leaders wanted to change the agenda to talk about the new Israeli government and the “angst it is giving many of us.” One of the Orthodox members responded, “I had angst about the last government but we didn’t need to put it on the agenda.”
Yes, the new Israeli government is causing some American Jews serious angst. Ominous headlines cry, “The relationship with Diaspora Jewry is at risk!” The mainstream media, including, predictably, The New York Times, describes the incoming government as far Right. There’s a lot of use of the word “ultra” because strangely enough if you’re a member of Meretz, you’re progressive and if you believe in the classic norms of Jewish tradition or don an ominous black hat, then you have fallen off the deep end and entered the world of “ultra.”
The tensions over the issues of Jewish values and Western liberalism have been a central debate since the establishment of Israel, as seen in the government-appointed Frumkin Commission in the early 1950’s, which highlighted the gross violations of religious freedom. Then, the Jewish Agency and the government created a policy of forced secularization of immigrant children from Iran and Yemen, placing them in non-religious schools, preventing them from observing Shabbat and denying them kosher food. To quote the report, officials “cut off their peyot” and “wanted them to be supporters of Mapai.”
There are issues today that are a bit different than 70 years ago. Still, they need to be discussed in a rational way. For example, in the last wave of immigrants from Russia and Ukraine, according to a Knesset report, over 65% were not Jewish (another report puts it at 72%).
If Israel wants to help non-Jews fleeing persecution, the government should make it official Israeli policy. But right now it’s a question of abuse of the grandfather clause in the Law of Return as a ticket to a thriving Western society.
Another issue is the conflict between religious rights and gay marriage. This is a mirror image of such a case that is making its way to the US Supreme Court. There is no question that if a gay customer wants to buy a cake, you must sell it to that person. However, what about if a person wants to order a wedding cake for a marriage that conflicts with the baker’s religious beliefs, as has occurred in Colorado?
Israel's Supreme Court
A THIRD issue is that of Israel’s Supreme Court: For decades the courts admirably provided balanced rulings despite its system of self-selection of judges. In recent decades, the policy of “one friend brings another” has created a left-wing activist court and the court has taken a self-appointed role of arbitrating anything where it decides it can impose its view.
All of these issues are important and there is a diversity of viewpoints. But let’s be real. If the US Supreme Court rules, and it probably will, that the Colorado cake baker does not have to bake a cake on the constitutional principle of religious freedom, is democracy coming to an end?
If the Law of Return is amended to reflect the reality of the times that it’s being used for reasons it was not intended, is that a tragedy? Could it be that maybe, just maybe, the Aharon Barak scheme of judicial primacy has gone a bit too far?
It’s time to have a rational conversation and lower the rhetoric. We, as Jews, in Israel and in the Diaspora have many opinions and we should argue strongly for our viewpoints. However, a democratic society can only exist if there is compromise and cooperation.
Finally, liberal Jewish leaders need to stop claiming that relations with Diaspora Jewry are at risk. Let’s be truthful. According to the most recent Pew Study, just 25% of US Jews are members of the liberal Jewish movements and the number is shrinking. In the last 20 years, the Conservative Movement has closed 38% of its congregations and the Reform, 18%, and the trend is continuing. There is an equal number of US Jews who are Orthodox or involved with Chabad and the balance of US Jews are not formally engaged.
Liberal Jewish leaders should stop trying to intimidate Israeli politicians with claims that Diaspora Jewry is in crisis. Yes, they represent an important segment of US Jewry but it’s no more than 25%. Their numbers in other countries are minuscule, where the vast majority of Jews are affiliated with Orthodox congregations and are strongly connected with Israel.
Let’s drop the threats and absurd headlines of rabbis calling for boycotts of Israeli political leaders. That itself was comical, just about 10% of liberal rabbis in the US signed a letter of boycott; did that tiny percentage deserve a headline? It fit the worldview of some editors and writers, so suddenly it was big news. When thousands of Orthodox rabbis protested their statement we barely heard a word.
It’s time to tone down the rhetoric, the future of Israel is too important to all of us, no matter which side of the aisle we are on.
The writer, a rabbi, is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County, California. His email is [email protected]