Liberal Jews and their anti-democratic, anti-liberal critique of Israel

We must acknowledge that we cannot both insist that Israel make concessions for peace now and respect the intellectual independence of Mizrahi Jews.

‘WHAT SEPARATES American Jews and Israel is, well, everything... [yet] we ought to celebrate those differences, not bemoan them.’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘WHAT SEPARATES American Jews and Israel is, well, everything... [yet] we ought to celebrate those differences, not bemoan them.’
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Could the relationship between American Jews and Israel be healed, at least partially, if we stopped expecting the other to act as we would and instead learned to appreciate how different are our instincts, values and priorities?
My recent book, We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel, argues that the answer is “yes.” Israelis need to learn a great deal more about American Jewish life and its admirable successes, while American Jews ought to stop expecting Israel to behave as a Hebrew-speaking, falafel-eating miniature version of the United States. Both communities are too rich and accomplished for the other to expect them to mimic something that is, essentially, entirely different.
In writing the book, I did not believe I was saying anything particularly controversial. But it turns out that I was wrong. Reviewers on the Left have assailed the book, in large measure because they believe I failed to focus sufficiently on the occupation. They’re right. Since I think that even if the occupation ended tomorrow, matters would not improve much, I focused on what seem to me the more bedrock reasons for our divide – the ways in which we are radically different.
The most recent rejection of my argument came in the form of a review in Haaretz by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, formerly the head of the Reform movement in North America. In fine American style, Yoffie opens his take-down of my book with some nice comments. He is kind enough to call me a “serious and thoughtful scholar,” and says We Stand Divided is “an important, valuable book” and “should be studied by anyone who cares about Israel’s well-being.”
Since I wouldn’t want my credentials as an upstanding American impugned, I will therefore begin in similar fashion. Yoffie’s call for greater tradition in the Reform movement was and remains vitally important, as was his urging the Reform movement to embrace joy-filled worship in its synagogues. Whether or not one agrees with him on all matters political or religious, for a lifetime of devoted service to American Jewish life, he deserves our collective admiration and gratitude.
It does not take long for Yoffie to take off the gloves, however, as he calls parts of the book’s argument “wrong” (perfectly legitimate), “absurd” (a bit less kind), “bizarre” and “disconcerting.” (“Patronizing” and “ungrounded,” which appear in the headline and which, I assume, Yoffie did not write, were apparently added by zealous Haaretz editors, evidently swept away by their enthusiasm for Yoffie’s worldview.)
I will therefore permit myself a bit of bluntness, as well, because Yoffie’s review is so scattershot, responding is a challenge. To see what I mean, do that old exercise we all did when we were in college: Write in the margin the thesis statement of each paragraph, and then see how the argument progresses. What emerges, frustratingly, is not an argument, but something much more reminiscent of the contrails of Space Shuttle Challenger, twisting and turning in all directions, but headed mostly nowhere.
What is clear, however, is that one of Yoffie’s chief frustrations with my book is that I do not share his level of frustration about Israel’s Orthodox establishment. Yoffie argues that though I don’t dwell on it enough, Israel “must take into account the urgent pleas of half of that people, living in the Diaspora, to recognize the Jewish streams they’re identified with, and to offer support to Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel.”
IT SOUNDS reasonable, and Yoffie is right; in an ideal world, Israelis (like Americans) would be more open-minded and more embracing of ideas that are not consonant with their own. (For the record, I’m a Conservative rabbi, and regularly perform weddings in Israel in blatant violation of Israeli law.) But what does Yoffie mean when he says that Israel “must” do this? He knows, of course, that Israel’s haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties can, and will, bring down any government that moves in his proposed direction.
What, then, should Israeli prime ministers do? Lose their governments over this issue, when what would follow would simply be another government equally beholden to the haredim? What does Yoffie actually expect Israeli leaders to do? Change Israel’s entire system of government? Violate its democratic principles? He offers us no hint.
In his anger about Israel’s failure to embrace Reform Judaism, Yoffie also reveals how little he knows about religious trends in Israeli society. “It shouldn’t matter whether there are many or few liberal Jews in Israel is large or small,” [sic] he writes “or whether you think non-Orthodox Judaism has a real future in Israel or not (Gordis, in my view incorrectly, thinks not).”
Aside from the fact that that is simply not an English sentence, Yoffie gets three things completely wrong. First, I never said (because I do not believe) that non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel does not have a real future, because I believe that it (thankfully) does. Second, Yoffie assumes that for those seeking something other than Orthodoxy, the alternative is Reform or Conservative. That may be (decreasingly) true in the United States, but it is certainly not the case in Israel. Israel is exploding with religious options and creativity – they just have nothing at all to do with Reform or Conservative Judaism, which are profoundly American phenomena, shaped to meet the needs of an American Jewish population.
But it is Yoffie’s third and final mistake on this front of which American Jews should most take note. As many liberal Jews are keenly aware, Israel’s treatment of Mizrahi Jews (descendants of Jews from Middle Eastern and North African communities) in the early years of the state was reprehensible.
Upon their arrival from multiple places in the Levant, David Ben-Gurion (the liberal, socialist prime minister American Jews still hold up as their ideal of Israel’s values), had this to say about their way of life: “The dispersions that are being terminated... and which are gathering in Israel still do not constitute a people, but a motley crowd, human dust lacking language, education, roots, tradition or national dreams.... Turning this human dust into a civilized, independent nation with a vision... is no easy task.”
While Mizrahim in Israel have not yet achieved economic parity with Ashkenazim, they have made tremendous progress. The entry of Mizrahim into the nuclei of Israeli society – politically, economically, culturally and religiously – is one of Israel’s great accomplishments. Despite all the work that remains, the story of the Mizrahim is a civil rights success that should be the envy of any democracy, and American Jews, living as they do in a country mired in racial hatred with no apparent way out, ought to note what Israel has achieved.
Yet here is the rub. Civil rights progress means not only giving people their economic due, but also taking their ideas and their culture seriously. And Mizrahi Jews, who now constitute a majority of Israel’s Jews, are in no hurry to make peace with the Palestinians or to embrace liberal forms of Judaism. On the Palestinian front, what Mizrahi Jews essentially have to say is this: “We are actually the children and grandchildren of Jews who were forced out of their countries by that culture. Forgive us if we don’t share your instinctive benevolence, but we are the ones who actually know that culture, and we believe that their hatred for us is far more powerful than any instinct for peace might be. We are the protective buffer between Israel’s security and your liberal naiveté.”
EACH OF us can agree or disagree with that worldview. But what we have to acknowledge is that we cannot both insist that Israel make concessions for peace now and respect the intellectual independence of Mizrahi Jews. American Jews who want to impose their views on Israelis must at least acknowledge that they would do so at the expense of Israel’s democracy and even more tellingly, at the expense of taking seriously those Jews who are finally, after decades of struggle, beginning to be heard. Is that really what Yoffie wants?
Mizrahi Jews are also making a profound contribution to Israeli religious life. They have brought to Israel a deep and abiding reverence for Jewish tradition, even if they are not punctiliously observant. What they are teaching Israeli society is that the relentlessly theological project called modern Western Judaism is far from the only way to embrace Jewish life. Thousands of young Ashkenazi Israelis are engaging tradition without adopting Orthodoxy, precisely because Mizrahi Jews have modeled for them how that is possible.
That, American Jews are likely to celebrate. But, and here’s the rub again, Mizrahi Jews are in no hurry to change gender roles in Judaism. Women in Mizrahi communities are making huge progress, but ritual egalitarianism is for the most part nowhere on their agenda. Is it for us to tell them that our way of Jewish life is more enlightened? When they look at the reverence that pervades their own communities and the utter lack of reverence that is the standard in American liberal Jewish life, Mizrahim are not inclined in the least to emulate the little that they know about what is happening across the ocean. But where do they, their views, their rights to opinions get reflected in Yoffie’s assertion that “Israel” (whatever that is) “must” recognize Reform and Conservative Judaism? What if “Israel” – meaning large numbers of Israeli citizens – just doesn’t want to? Where is this massive Mizrahi influence reflected in Yoffie’s prescription for Israel? Nowhere, actually. Which, ironically, is precisely where David Ben-Gurion wanted them.
All of this ultimately proves the central thesis of my book. What separates American Jews and Israel is, well, everything. The majority of Israeli Jews and the majority of American Jews are demographically different, have different instincts when it comes to concessions for peace, and differ when it comes to visions for Jewish life. It was inevitable that Jews who constitute 2% of the population of the country in which they live and those who constitute some 80% would see the world differently and create radically different visions of what Jewish life can and should be.
Israel was not created in order to enable American Jews to feel virtuous – it was created to be a sanctuary of Jewish survival. Israelis have fashioned different instincts than American Jews on the ideal balance between risk and the quest for peace and have made their own unique determinations about what Jewish cultural survival looks like.
We ought to celebrate those differences, not bemoan them, for it is our disagreements that give us what to learn from each other. The first step toward that mutual learning, however, is not preaching, but listening, seeing each other through the most generous lens we possibly can. Sadly, condescending and paternalistic attitudes to each other (in Rabbi Yoffie’s concluding words, “It may be that Israelis themselves don’t see as clearly what US Jews see from there”) take us in precisely the wrong direction.
The writer is senior vice president and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book is We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel (Ecco/ Harp