An open letter to the Jewish Agency Board of Governors

Ironically, while the Israeli government expresses identification with victims of antisemitism, regardless of their religious stream, it continues to deny equality for non-Orthodox Jews in Israel.

The Jewish Agency for Israel offices in Jersualem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The Jewish Agency for Israel offices in Jersualem
The Jewish Agency has taken an important step as it explores ways to address the growing rift between Israel and Diaspora Jewry as a key building block of a new strategy. Its initiative, “AmiUnity,” designed to reach out to Israelis with a message of solidarity with Diaspora Jewry, is significant.
Undertaking this effort is admirable. However, we question whether the policy, tactics and specific programs of the initiative are truly addressing the roots and reasons for this impending rupture of the Israel-Diaspora relationship.
The “AmiUnity” initiative speaks of bridging the cultural and demographic differences between Israel and the Diaspora. It acknowledges specific controversies, like those over the Kotel agreement and the conversion bill. The comprehensive educational framework is impressive and opens avenues for discussion and dialogue. As it does this, however, it seems to avoid the elephant in the room” – the far-reaching oppressive and discriminatory religious policies carried out by Israeli governments, from the Right, Center and Left, which cannot be ignored if the relationship is to be repaired and viable.
We would be fooling ourselves to think that American Jews, for instance, will be able to forge stronger bonds with Israel, knowing that its legal and governmental policies exclude them and their religious choices from being respected partners in the Jewish enterprise. Only 10% of American Jewry is Orthodox, and even among them many are shunned by Israel’s fundamentalist religious establishment, which rejects their conversions and modern, more egalitarian trends.
How can one seriously work toward genuine Jewish unity as the majority of the children growing up in the Diaspora Jewish community realize that if they accept the invitation to join with Israelis as a unified whole they would be rendered second-class citizens (i.e., ineligible to legally marry in Israel at all or in keeping with their religious or secular choices), and their Jewish denominations would be discriminated against?
This is not only a serious blow to the self-identification of the next generation of Jews but also a betrayal of the core principles of freedom of religion and pluralism in general and the universally recognized principle of freedom of marriage in particular. These values are trampled on by Israeli governments, while accepted and desired by the overwhelming majority of world Jewry and Israelis alike.
The refusal to recognize the diversity of the Jewish people and to openly and strongly advocate for these principles can only ensure that the current initiative is bound to fail.
The discriminatory policy is seen not just in the abstract but in the stark reality of Israeli life. Today, approximately 400,000 citizens, most of whom came – with the agency’s active support – from the former Soviet Union (or whose mothers did so), are not recognized as Jews by the State of Israel. They are registered instead as “other,” since they do not belong to any other religious denomination. None of these 400,000 can legally marry in Israel. The alternatives are marrying outside the country in a civil ceremony or cohabiting without marriage.
Ironically, while the Israeli government expresses identification with victims of antisemitism, regardless of their religious stream, it continues to deny equality for non-Orthodox Jews in Israel.
This attitude was exemplified by Naftali Bennett, who, in his past role as Diaspora affairs minister, traveled to Pittsburgh to identify with the Conservative Tree of Life synagogue after the tragic murders. In Israel, he is at the forefront of denying these same Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews equality.
It was Israeli columnists and public figures that publicly criticized him for this, decrying the hypocrisy of identifying with these Jews “only after they are dead, but not while they are still alive.” The agency and Diaspora Jewish leadership preferred not to speak up, nor to challenge Bennett.
To this day, the agency has not taken up this critical issue. In fact, after the Jewish Federation of North America launched the IREP Initiative to fund advocacy advancing marriage freedom in Israel, the agency’s Unity of the Jewish People Committee shelved a proposed resolution in support of marriage freedom.
This reluctance to enter into this important battle is behind a recent media campaign launched by the agency. It recently announced with justified pride that it had brought 250,000 olim to Israel over the past 10 years. It did not announce nor even hint that a significant percentage of them are not Jewish but, rather, non-Jewish members of Jewish families, equally [and rightly] eligible to receive Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.
A review of the actual figures shows that from the four countries that provided 68% of the aliyah to Israel in 2019 (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldava), 66% of those who came are not Jewish. Overall, during the past eight years, 75,000 olim came who are currently not Jewish.
SO WHY has the agency refrained from acknowledging this real challenge, faced by hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens from overseas? Why has it not highlighted the fact that converts to Judaism from Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or Renewal who make aliyah are denied the right to marry? Because this would require acknowledging the remedies necessary: (a) open the doors for conversion and equally and fully recognize conversions of all religious streams in Israel; (b) allow free choice in marriage and divorce to enable those who cannot, or do not wish to, undergo religious conversion, but are fully immersed in Israeli Jewish society, the legal right to family. Unfortunately, the agency is ready neither to acknowledge nor to advocate for either.
And so, because they cannot or will not convert to Judaism according to the dictates of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, neither they nor their children may enjoy the fundamental human right to family.
The frustration with this discriminatory and coercive system is shared by the overwhelming majority of Israelis, and there is no need for “AmiUnity” efforts to establish that we are (at least, most of us) on the same page. It is for this reason that Hiddush’s repeated polls show that a consistent majority of Israelis (64%-68%) support active engagement in Israel by the Diaspora in advocating for the advancement of marriage freedom and freedom of religion and equality.
The agency, which represents world Jewry, cannot ignore the reality of the discriminatory, exclusive and undemocratic policies that are hindering, indeed clashing with, the efforts to make Israel a more open society, which recognizes that the diversity of the Jewish people will strengthen the Jewish state as it furthers the promise of religious freedom and equality so clearly promised in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
If truly committed to Jewish unity and diversity, the agency must become their champion, open its eyes, ears and heart to this long unaddressed challenge, and it must provide leadership on a truly transformative new strategy, celebrating religious freedom and equality, rather than hiding its head in the sand.