Israel-Diaspora relations at a crossroads

American and other Diaspora organizations that wish to influence the system should direct their efforts toward the major political parties and key members of Israel’s government.

Israel US flags (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Israel US flags
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
The issue of Israel-Diaspora relations has recently figured at the forefront of public discussion, especially with regard to the relationship between Israel and US Jewish communities.
The legal and political dimensions of religious pluralism in Israel and its implications for the American Jewish community recently figured in a charged discussion between a group of Israeli experts and an inter-denominational group of American Jewish leaders from the American Jewish Committee’s Jewish Religious Equality Coalition (JREC).
During this discussion, Dov Zakheim, chairman of JREC and former senior US government official, referred to the fact that a significant percentage of US Jews is more than concerned and frustrated by the attitude of the Israeli religious establishment in not accepting or recognizing marriages and conversions performed by US rabbis.
He, as well as other prominent US rabbis and academics, sense that Israel’s acceptance of Orthodox Judaism as the only legitimate form of Jewish religious expression, and the absolute monopoly over marriage and conversions held by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, in effect prejudices the relationship between Israel and US Jewry, and threatens to alienate American Jews and endanger continued financial and political support for Israel.
Whether this should be seen as a real threat, or an indication of considerable distress, remains to be seen. Logically, the Diaspora Jewish regard for Israel, with all that it implies regarding love for Israel as well as financial and political support, is not, and should not necessarily be linked to issues of marriage equality and religious pluralism. Thus it is highly unlikely that the threat of such linkage, with possible prejudicial effects, would be realistic.
But, any genuine attempt to address this very basic and vital question, and to find the way to progress toward religious equality and pluralism in Israel, must take into consideration a number of central factors.
These include the unique and special nature of Israel as an independent Jewish state, which, unlike Jewish communities in the Diaspora, does not exist within, and is not answerable or subservient to a gentile majority or government.
Similarly the religious status quo that has existed in Israel from the early days of statehood and is anchored within Israel’s legal and parliamentary system is a static factor that influences the internal political and parliamentary situation in Israel, including any attempt to reach religious equality and pluralism.
By the same token, and unlike Diaspora Jewish communities, the polarized character of the Israeli public into predominantly Orthodox- religious and secular-non-religious groups, with hardly anything in-between, means that the Israeli public views religion in a different light from the viewpoint of Diaspora communities.
The nature of Israel as a Jewish state Having been established as “a Jewish state in Eretz Israel, to be known as the State of Israel” (Israel’s Declaration of Independence, 11th paragraph), the Jewish character and identity of Israel have historically molded the character of life of the country and of its population in virtually all spheres of life.
Jewish festivals, celebrated by all according to the Jewish calendar, are the official holy days, whether observed in a religious or non-religious and secular manner.
The education system – divided into secular and religious divisions – provides thorough education to all levels of the Jewish population, in Jewish history, literature, custom, philosophy and traditions, in addition to the standard syllabus.
The legal system is divided into religious and secular sub-systems, with religious courts administering religious law for each of the religions in Israel, and governing issues of family law.
As such, the Jewish character of Israel constitutes the overriding factor in determining the general nature of the population.
While the majority of the Israeli public is predominantly non-religious, secular and generally non-observant, the religious Israelis are almost exclusively polarized into one religious stream – Orthodox (with varying levels of orthodoxy, from haredi or ultra-Orthodox through more moderate levels).
The character of religion within the Israeli public Because the Israeli Jewish community exists in its own unique Jewish state, it is not, and has never been dependent upon or subservient to any overriding gentile governance or public administration.
Nor has there been any need for it to be answerable to any gentile population or neighborhood, at least not since the end of the British mandate.
Thus, since the establishment of Jewish statehood, there has been no need to adapt Jewish religious or traditional practice to the exigencies of living in a gentile, Diaspora neighborhood.
This factor carries various implications for the Jewish character of the Israeli public.
Unlike in the Diaspora communities, the concept of the synagogue, or Jewish cultural center, as the focal point of entire communities, providing education, social and religious needs, burial arrangements, maintenance of cemeteries and collective communal representation and action vis-à-vis the gentile governmental or municipal authorities, does not exist. These services exist as part of the state.
Synagogues and yeshivot exist for those – both religious and non-religious – who wish to worship and to study in them, or to celebrate bar-mitzvas and the like. They do not serve the same communal and religious polarizing function as they serve in Diaspora Jewish communities.
Most secular Israelis in fact celebrate bar-mitzvas in synagogues, and conduct Orthodox marriages in accordance with the religious status quo, but without them necessarily identifying themselves as religious. By the same token, non-Orthodox Israeli families celebrate the Passover seder, and even visit the synagogue to observe Yom Kippur, but without necessarily identifying themselves as religious Jews.
While a growing sense of discontent exists at the Orthodox rabbinical monopoly and strictures regarding personal life (including, in some cases, refusal to be married in religious ceremonies, and even travel abroad in order to marry in secular frameworks), this has yet to develop into a major movement for substantive change in the Israeli political and parliamentary system.
Because of the above-mentioned clear polarization within Israeli society between religious and non-religious, most of those Israelis who identify as religious maintain an Orthodox mode of life, with varying degrees of orthodoxy. However, being predominantly Orthodox, there has not arisen the need to develop alternative non-Orthodox streams of Jewish observance, whether conservative, reform or liberal, to address questions regarding the relevance of traditional religious practice in today’s modern society.
They simply manage to adapt their religious observance to their needs without exceeding the limits of Jewish law and custom.
Apart from some small conservative and reform synagogues, mostly organized by Jews hailing from North American or European Diaspora communities, and some limited communal and cultural activity centering on such synagogues, there hardly exists the type of “middle-of-the-road” streams of active Jewish observance that exist outside Israel.
To a large extent, because of all the above, Israelis are generally unaware, or ignorant of the nature, character and philosophy behind the alternative streams of Judaism developed both to modernize Judaism as well as serving as a means of enabling Jewish communities to exist in gentile societies, principally in the US, but also in Europe.
The religious status quo in Israel The circumstances surrounding the determination of the religious status quo in 1947, prior to the establishment of the state, were linked to the then need to present to the UN a framework guaranteeing that the secular state to be established would nevertheless maintain certain basic religious stipulations regarding Shabbat, Kashrut, education and family laws (including no civil marriage). These stipulations were subsequently anchored in various legislative and policy instruments, thereby binding the courts and general public policy and still a stable component of Israeli governance.
Major developments and changes in the nature of Israel’s population and its religious tendencies, including extensive immigration from the former USSR territories, Europe and North America, as well as an increase in more liberal and democratic outlooks on Judaism, have not bought about any corresponding change in the religious system in Israel.
This is chiefly because of the complex political realities of Israel from then and up to the present, that have blocked any possibility of bridging the ever-increasing social and political gap between the strict Orthodox stipulations and the need to adapt this framework to reflect the developing democratic nature of the state and to achieve religious equality and pluralism.
In the international sphere, Israel’s accession to several key UN international Human Rights conventions between 1965 and 1990 reflected the status quo through reservations regarding issues of personal and religious law (similar to reservations by Muslim states).
Possible progress The dichotomy within Judaism is based on theoretical, philosophical and historic argumentation, strict halachic interpretation and learning, as well as deep, emotional sentiments.
However, logically, in the same way that the Israeli Orthodox and haredi sects cannot and should not be arbitrarily dismissed as irrelevant and anachronistic, so basic values of pluralism and equality in a democratic society, and the nature of the large majority of the Diaspora Jews, cannot and should not be arbitrarily dismissed by the Israeli Orthodox establishment.
Any change in, or pragmatic adaptation of the religious status quo can only come about through reciprocal acknowledgment of the need for genuine dialogue and not confrontation, which would further polarize the two camps.
Thus, any change – whether formal, legal or pragmatic – can only be achieved through and within the internal Israeli political system, with full realization that this system virtually guarantees incorporation of the haredi and Orthodox parties in any governing coalition.
Israeli political leaders and key functionaries within the Knesset political parties, who command wide public following and exercise key functions within the Israeli system, would have to be persuaded, through dialogue with Jewish communities in the Diaspora, to appreciate the extent of concern existing among the Diaspora communities regarding the issue.
In order to achieve progress in this endeavor, the Israeli political parties would need to address within their political platforms issues such as marriage equality and conversion, as well as a definitive aim to work to achieve pragmatic change the status quo.
American and other Diaspora organizations that genuinely wish to influence the system should direct their efforts toward the major political parties and individual key members of Israel’s government and Knesset, and toward educating the Israeli public as to the importance that Diaspora communities attach to the issue.
This will not be achieved through threats of withholding political support and funding, or from linking love for and support of Israel with the need to solve these issues.
The author is a former legal counsel of Israel’s Foreign Ministry and former ambassador of Israel to Canada.