A response to Ambassador Michael Oren

Progress is rarely free of risks. Whatever the political price may be, the choice here is whether Israel is the Jewish state for all Jews, or it is not.

Former Israeli ambassador to US Michael Oren. (photo credit: Hyungwon Kang / Reuters)
Former Israeli ambassador to US Michael Oren.
(photo credit: Hyungwon Kang / Reuters)
Michael Oren is one of my heroes. I’ve studied and taught from his books. They are the best in their field. I’ve seen him with Jewish and mixed audiences in the United States, and admired how expertly he represents Israel. It is from this perspective of unabashed admiration that I write this critical response to his recent op-ed, in which he criticizes American Jews for their attitude toward Israel.
To be sure, Oren’s critique is far more nuanced than what is usually heard on this subject.
His historian’s analysis of changes in the Israeli and American Jewish communities is illuminating. His peroration emphasizing the importance of our two communities learning to talk to one another about challenging issues is “just what the doctor ordered.”
Moreover, many of his complaints about American Jews are well founded, such as his impatience with rabbinical students who protest having to take a required first year of study in Jerusalem, and with synagogues that refuse to display posters warning of an Iranian bomb.
However, as with most Israeli opinion on tensions between Israel and American Jews, he places virtually all blame on the Americans, and suggests that adjustments must come from them. There’s a great deal of validity in this. Some American Jews may have been alienated by the magnitude of Operation Cast Lead, or even Operation Pillar of Defense. But they’re not the ones living under the threat of Hamas rocketry.
On the other hand, Israelis need to ask themselves whether there isn’t some validity in the American critique, or at least come to appreciate that American dissent does not necessarily reflect an erosion of Jewish commitment (a strange accusation to hurl at rabbinical students!).
Values are shaped by life’s experiences. Ambassador Oren observes that in many ways Israelis and their American cousins live in different worlds.
But he doesn’t apply that insight with sufficient rigor in urging an honest, two-way dialogue.
To even hint that the only authentic Jews are those who support Israeli government policy leads us into some very dangerous terrain.
While a constructive dialogue between Israelis and American Jews will take time to develop, there several things Israel can do right now to ease the tension.
1. Stop expanding settlements. There is a third alternative to dismantling settlements, which should be done only as a result of negotiations, and expanding them. Placing an indefinite hold on initiating new settlements and enlarging existing ones won’t undermine national security.
Would it motivate the Palestinians to abandon rejectionism and come to the table with an open mind? Who can say? The 10-month suspension in 2009-2010 achieved nothing.
Perhaps Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas will now see negotiations as a way to build on the momentum he gained at the United Nations. Perhaps not. But at least it would alleviate at least some of the doubt among American Jews over the sincerity of Israel’s commitment to a two-state solution, which a large majority of us support.
2. Publish a map that could indicating what Israel envisions for the West Bank. Admittedly, showing one’s hand is poor negotiating strategy, and Israel will be accused of being ungenerous no matter where it draws the new border. But many American Jews who support Israel are troubled by the Likud government’s tactic of asserting two different and conflicting visions of how it sees the future.
One is based on security: thickening the 1967 borders with a line of close-in settlements.
The other is rooted in ideology and theology: building a “Greater Israel” according to dimensions prescribed in Torah. This unhelpful confusion is inevitable when the prime minister emphasizes that most of the settlers live close to the Green Line, while creating the Levy Commission with its panel of outspoken advocates of settlement expansion.
3. End government approved discrimination against the non-Orthodox religious streams. I never cease to be amazed by how many Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionists remain fiercely loyal to an Israel that rejects the legitimacy of the Judaism they practice.
I’m not suggesting an assault on Orthodoxy. The Orthodox can continue to have a Chief Rabbinate rule their own community, if that’s what they want. And so long as Israeli taxpayers are willing to fund a welfare system for haredim, and Israeli parents whose children serve in the IDF are willing to give a lifetime pass to yeshiva students – so be it! That’s an internal Israeli matter.
Nor am I suggesting that Israel’s guaranteed freedom of speech be abrogated to bar Orthodox rabbis from making venomous proclamations against liberal Jews (and others) – although it would be comforting if some of the worst offenders were removed from the public payroll.
My suggestion is that the Knesset enact laws ordering the Interior Ministry to enter into the official registry marriages and conversions conducted in Israel under non-Orthodox auspices; enact measures to establish per capita funding parity between the Orthodox and liberal streams; and put an end to abominations such as denying women the right to pray and wear tallitot at the Kotel.
To be sure, there will be political repercussions. But progress is rarely free of risks. Whatever the political price may be, the choice here is whether Israel is the Jewish state for all Jews, as Oren says it should be, or it is not.
That decision cannot be made in America. It must be made in Israel.
The writer is the founding executive director of ARZA – Association of Reform Zionists of America, the Zionist affiliate of the Union for Reform Judaism.