Tough love is getting tougher

The question is not whether Israel should bow to the demands of liberal/progressive Jews, but how to work together.

Security guards restrain Reform rabbis from entering the Western Wall complex on November 16th. (photo credit: ISRAEL MOVEMENT FOR REFORM AND PROGRESSIVE JUDAISM)
Security guards restrain Reform rabbis from entering the Western Wall complex on November 16th.
The arm-twisting of Israel by liberal and progressive American Jews is threatening the delicate and vital bonds that link the two major Jewish communities. Oblivious to the consequences of creating dissension and unwilling to accept Israel’s separate and sovereign status, some Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders seem to be engaging in a form of blackmail: do what we want, or we will turn against you.
As Jewish Federations of North America CEO Jerry Silverman said at a Knesset meeting in October as part of a Jewish Agency delegation, “We love Israel; Israel doesn’t love us.”
This false characterization reflects a struggle that is tearing apart Israeli-Diaspora relations – and appears to be getting worse. Misrepresenting what the conflict is about and shifting the blame to Israeli “intransigence” serves a liberal/progressive agenda by focusing on fashion rather than substance, on form rather than the content of their demands.
Unable to achieve their objectives through dialogue, negotiations and good will, without an appreciation of Israel’s distinctiveness and differences, liberal/progressive leaders are turning their communities against Israel.
Attempting to force Israel to accept their demands, some major American contributors to and investors in Israel have expressed their anger and frustration with Israeli policies regarding issues such as acceptance of non-Orthodox conversions and creating an egalitarian section at the Western Wall. “Pluralism” seems to be the hot button for liberal/progressive Jewish leaders, and a signal to attack.
Although the Israeli government and generous individuals have funded programs and projects – such as highly successful Birthright and MASA – and established Diaspora-focused ministries and institutions to open dialogue and provide solutions, the efforts have not satisfied liberal/progressive Jewish leaders. The Jewish Agency, led by Natan Sharansky, has tried to mediate. A section of the Western Wall in an adjacent archeological area was built for non-Orthodox Jews who wish to pray in their own way and without gender barriers; it is barely used.
This power struggle is undermining support for Israel among some North American Jews at a time when Israel is being attacked by antisemitism and boycott campaigns, and faces military threats from terrorists Islamists and Iran. In addition, Israeli society is confronted by challenges from ultra-Orthodox as well as Arab Israelis. Who cares about praying in genderless services, same-sex marriages and photo-ops with a Torah scroll? Israeli-Diaspora connections are important; we depend on each other in many ways – most of all as part of the Jewish people. That can no longer be taken for granted, however, as many liberal/progressive Jews feel alienated from Israel, a feeling that has trickled down to its younger generation. Coupled with this, non-Orthodox American Jewish society itself is breaking down. There is more assimilation and less identification with Judaism and affiliation with Jewish communal life.
Blaming Israel is a convenient way to mask the failures of the Jewish establishment. Most non-Orthodox North American Jews have never been to Israel and don’t really care about having a separate space at the Western Wall. They reject the Orthodox definition of Jewish identity. Although some oppose Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria (“settlements”), they have no idea what or where they are. There are more important concerns and other priorities at home.
What matters to them is what happens in their own backyards, not what happens in Israel. So why all the fuss about symbols, status and where Jews in Israel live? There is a profound ideological struggle that has not been addressed. Liberal/progressive Jewish leaders have focused on symbols (like praying at the Western Wall) to advance their “pluralistic” agenda and many Jews turn away from Israel. The result is a psychological boycott effect – linked to the “peace movement” and support for a Palestinian state.
From one side Israel is hammered by the liberal Jewish establishment, from the other side by the “anti-occupation” folks – Israeli and American academics and literati, former IDF generals, and media brainwashing.
Their goal is to redefine Zionism, detach North American Jews from identifying with Israel, and promote their agenda which, in the name of protecting Israel, undermines Israeli nationalism, Zionism and its ethos.
Attempts to explain Israel’s position and provide antidotes often fail, therefore, because they do not confront the source of the problem: distortion, misinformation and confusion about the meaning and relevance of a Jewish state. Liberals and progressives would like Israel to look more like North American communities, its suburbs, sports teams and shopping malls. Israelis seek to create a unique version of the Third Jewish Commonwealth; Hebrew-speaking, closely identified with traditional sources and especially connected to Jewish history and the land, Eretz Yisrael.
Diminishing the centrality of Israel in Jewish life and the future of the Jewish people in the pursuit of some liberal/progressive agendas – such as supporting president Barack Obama’s deal with Iran and opposing the right of Jews to live in Judea and Samaria – endangers other Jews and jeopardizes Israel’s survival.
Eroding support for Israel brings us closer to the possibility that in future conflicts with its neighbors, the international community and even some Jews may not stand with Israel.
Time and again Israeli officials have stated, “We are family. We love and accept our brothers and sisters, but we don’t have to accept everything that they do and demand. There are limits.” The question, therefore, is not whether Israel should bow to the demands of liberal/progressive Jews, but how to work together to strengthen Judaism, the Jewish people and Zionism.
That is our holy task as Jews and should be our message to those who will join us.
The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.