Bad blood

Government decisions on conversions and egalitarian prayer are deepening a divide – but there are opportunities if we can learn to smarten up.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man holds a Bible as he protests against a monthly prayer session of the Women of the Wall group at the Western Wall, 2013 (photo credit: REUTERS)
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man holds a Bible as he protests against a monthly prayer session of the Women of the Wall group at the Western Wall, 2013
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 It’s easy to take umbrage at the everlasting tug-of-war between Israel’s religious zealots and the Diaspora practitioners of a Judaism whose hues and shades have been influenced by centuries of secular enlightenment.
But it might be worthwhile to heed the words of capo Peter Clemenza to a young Michael Corleone partway into The Godfather. He’s explaining to Michael the finer points of how to assassinate the drug lord Sollozzo and his police-captain bodyguard McCluskey, and about the war that’s expected to follow: “Probably all the other families will line up against us. That’s all right. These things gotta happen every five years or so, 10 years. Helps to get rid of the bad blood.”
While the Western Wall and conversion wars involve little if any bloodshed (so far), there is enough bad blood to mobilize the troops and fund-raisers on both sides. Every five or 10 years, and often less, the antagonists have a good go at each other, exciting the masses, replenishing their ranks and filling their coffers. It’s as inevitable as the reply to an offer you can’t refuse.
It doesn't  take much to excite the religious zealots: businesses and places of entertainment opening on Shabbat, army efforts to draft their sons, and, lately, young haredi men who have answered the call of the IDF returning home in uniform. Snap, crackle, pop, and their learned rabbis get them out in droves to bellow biblical curses, throw a few rocks and overturn dumpsters.
The non-Orthodox Jews of the Diaspora get into a righteous huff of their own every time they’re told that they’re children of a lesser God, their converts are suspect and their “neo-Judaism” is a pollutant to bloodlines.
The zealots have a not-so-secret weapon: If they can’t have their way, they threaten to leave the government – which is where they go for millions in handouts. If they leave, they eventually come back for more, usually at the entreaties of a coalition that needs their Knesset votes – coalitions like that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But something new is going on, and we’re hearing more and more about it.
An angry Diaspora is talking of cutting off funds for Israel and ending missions to the country, at the same time urging its young ones to stay away from those tempting free trips offered by Birthright.
It’s a two-way street, they say: Respect us or don’t expect us.
These kinds of threats have been heard in the past. But today, many among the non-Orthodox living in the Diaspora have some startling weapons of their own.
For openers, they’re no longer afraid to say they’re sick of hearing Israel claim it’s a vibrant democracy. How can this be, when it holds millions of Palestinians under its thumb? How can this be, when the political Right gaily chips away at the freedoms cherished by citizens of enlightened countries? They’re Jews, but that doesn’t mean they like what they see.
And they’re no longer so impressed with the Start-Up Nation, its futuristic computer chips, automobile sensors and instant messaging. (And let’s not forget the cherry tomato.) Being asked to become missionaries to bring everyone else the good word makes them feel a tad hypocritical.
Of course, Diaspora Jews need a secure Israel, and most are acutely aware of this under a president who boasts about Jewish grandchildren but can’t be pried away from his golf game long enough to challenge the clear upswing in antisemitism that his oddball campaign spawned and in certain ways encouraged. They’re unhappy with us, but they know in their heart of hearts that we might be their last hope.
And we in Israel need them, even though many among us point to their assimilation and intermarriage rates, as well as their generally liberal politics, which can have them finding common cause with groups that despise us.
Look at the recent statistics offered by Brand Israel Group, a voluntary consortium of professional image-makers from the US that advises Israel on ways to promote its brand there: Among American Jewish college students in 2016, 82% viewed Israel in a positive light. But this was a follow-up study, so compare this to the 95% who felt this way in 2010. That’s a drop of 13 percentage points.
Some of these trends we won’t be able to counter. But if we were to do less to drive Diaspora Jews away and more to attract them – not with Birthright trips but with values and policies they can relate to – even if they never come here to live, they could be our advocates abroad.
If you can’t leaven the bad with the good, make the bad less bad.
Yes, many here glibly write off much of Diaspora Jewry, especially in the US, seeing a lost cause. They see them as dying out and affiliating with all sorts of nefarious groups, so they prefer to count instead on the far smaller numbers of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox young people who can be depended on to multiply and be co-opted.
But plenty of Israelis are fed up with those populations, especially with the ultra-Orthodox, who carry little of the national burden while demanding that the rest of us, when we’re finished doing our share as well as theirs, line up and salute them as they tell us how to live our lives.
Your average Israeli is getting sick and tired of this, and the decent – if sometimes misguided – young people of the non-Orthodox Jewish Diaspora, with their solid education and willingness to work hard, are beginning to look attractive enough to actively cultivate as supporters, if not neighbors. Let’s not push them away with ugly and divisive policies. We need them.