We're on the edge of a precipice here

Israel will be abandoned by the majority of American Jews in less than a generation. In less… unless.

Pro-Israel demonstrators chant slogans in New York City in 2015. One segment of American Jewry that has drawn closer to Israel these past 50 years is the 10% who are Orthodox (photo credit: REUTERS)
Pro-Israel demonstrators chant slogans in New York City in 2015. One segment of American Jewry that has drawn closer to Israel these past 50 years is the 10% who are Orthodox
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I’m not making value judgments. I’m not suggesting who’s right and who’s wrong. But I am predicting the future. Israel will be abandoned by the majority of American Jews in less than a generation. In less… unless.
The images crowding my crystal ball say it all. The first to appear was Ronald Lauder. Back in March, the president of the World Jewish Congress – one of Israel’s most venerable and ardent advocates, a self-proclaimed conservative who has “supported the Likud party since the 1980s” – penned an op-ed in The New York Times revealing his concern over Israeli policies that have brought him to “fear for the future of the nation I love.” Elaborating, he blamed “extensive Jewish settlement-building” in the West Bank and “Israel’s capitulation to religious extremists” as being responsible for the “severe erosion of the global Jewish community’s affinity for the Jewish homeland” – particularly among Jewish millennials.
Significantly, he didn’t point a finger at those who are distancing themselves, but rather at the government of Israel whose actions “contradict their values.” Seemingly his as well. Certainly those of my nephew, one of those 30-something American Jewish youngsters he’s concerned about who floated in just behind Mr. Lauder.
“You know, Uncle David, in America the entire Left is against Israel,” he told me just after the Times article appeared. I took that as a diplomatic way of saying “me too.” As he’d spent his college years abetting the persecuted of Darfur, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence on expelling south Tel Aviv’s Sudanese and Eritrean refugees, which served as the backdrop to our conversation, didn’t endear him to the Jewish state. Seems that the 10-day inoculation against susceptibility to criticism of Israel that he’d received as a participant on a Birthright program hadn’t fully taken.
Not surprisingly, actually, as over my nephew’s shoulder I spotted the co-founder of Birthright shouldering up to Lauder. Though hardly of the same political persuasion, Charles Bronfman is to be reckoned with as one of the organized Jewish community’s preeminent leaders and among Israel’s most prominent supporters. So when he warns of the “growing rift” between Israel and the Diaspora, we’d better weigh his words with the utmost seriousness. “Can a prime minister really claim to be a guardian of the entire Jewish people when he reneges on a carefully crafted agreement?” he asked in his commencement address at the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College in May, referencing the prime minister’s retraction of the government decision to create an equal-access area for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. “You must have been as perplexed and angry as I am at the official rejection of your religious tradition,” he continued, adding that “It shocks me to the marrow of my bones that Conservative, Reform, Liberal and Reconstructionist Judaism are legally unrecognized by the State of Israel.”
He’s far from giving up on the one Jewish state we have, but he did advise that “We need to reflect deeply upon our relationship and we need to ask questions, questions that are urgent and crying out for answers,” and counseled that “The time has come to demonstrate both the negatives as well as the positives that proposed Israeli legislation will have on North American Jewry.”
Among those pieces of legislation is one just approved by the Knesset defining Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Enter Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), and another of Diaspora Jewry’s most distinguished leaders. While not challenging the basic premise of the law, he expressed deep disappointment over aspects of it, arguing in a strongly worded op-ed in this newspaper that the law “is a step back for Israeli Arabs and Israel’s advances in religious pluralism. It includes patronizing language regarding Jews in the Diaspora.”
Reflecting on his visit to Israel during which he struggled to bring about changes in the bill, he continued by asking “How could Israeli leaders backtrack on establishing an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, hold back support for marriage freedom and surrogacy rights to same-sex couples, and detain a Conservative rabbi for performing a Jewish marriage?” His conclusion? “We need to talk,” which, long before these recent developments, had already been chosen as the theme of JFNA’s General Assembly, taking place this October in Tel Aviv.
He’s right. I know because my niece made that clear to me last week when I was in the States. She made it into my crystal ball by confronting me in my sister’s kitchen over the same issues Silverman raised. Beyond her concern regarding the substance of these matters, she also complained that, in retrospect, she believes that when on her Birthright trip several years ago, she was fed, and misled by a projection of Israel that sidestepped the concerns which she now finds so troubling. Which brought us to the subject of IfNotNow , the self-styled movement of young American Jews who, “grounded in the values of the Jewish tradition,” have come together “to end American Jewish support for the occupation” in a struggle “for freedom and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians.”
Over the last several weeks, its members have staged a number of “walk-offs” from the Birthright trips that they were participating in, protesting what they claim to be a one-sided narrative of Israel’s presence in the West Bank. I know there are those leading these groups who are doing their damnedest to present a far more nuanced and reflective picture than that. And I am not going to join the debate here over the motives, loyalties, strategies or intentions of IfNotNow. I am only going to aver that their message, rightly or wrongly, is one that is resonant among those whose loyalties we so very much need, and which, by all accounts, we are in the process of losing. Indeed, we need to talk. But we also need to listen. Given my position within The Jewish Agency, which has been at the forefront of promoting religious pluralism in Israel and dialogue with our brethren abroad, my niece thought it a wonderful idea for me to initiate a Birthright program in conjunction with IfNotNow that would deal head-on with the issues of concern to the organization, even if that is already happening independently.
It would be far simpler to dismiss those whose criticism of Israel many find unfounded, but it would also be unwise. The stark reality is that they are swarming into my crystal ball in droves, presaging that demise of American Jewish support I am so worried about. Not surprisingly. Turns out you don’t have to be young or naïve to be disheartened over perceptions of where Israel is heading. In response to a recent article of mine painting a silver lining inside the dark clouds identified by Lauder, Bronfman and Silverman, I received a dire warning from yet another venerable leader of American Jewry. “I’m not normally a naysayer but I gotta tell you,” he wrote, “the trend lines are not good. It’s getting worse and worse.... as one who has always had Israel at the center of my Jewish identity, I have begun to contemplate what it could be like to reorient.” Sent privately, I won’t reveal this colleague’s name, but I will testify that he has had an illustrious, decades-long career ardently supporting the Jewish state.
So where do we go from here? Back to Ronald Lauder. Just this week, he did it again, publishing another op-ed in The New York Times bemoaning a “summer of disharmony” that, in his estimation, is creating an Israel that “is not who we wish to be... not the face we want to show our children, grandchildren and the family of nations,” and urging us to “work together to change course and ensure that Israel will continue to be the Jewish democratic state it is meant to be.” What motivated him to publicly voice such disquieting observations? He provides his own answer: “Sometimes loyalty requires a friend to speak out and express an inconvenient truth.”
When president Barack Obama said the same thing, when J Street argues that that is precisely what it is doing, when members of IfNotNow claim that to be their intent, they might be dismissed by Israel’s stalwart defenders as misguided and misinformed (if not outright malicious) bleeding-heart liberals. Impossible to put Ronald Lauder in that category. Nor Charles Bronfman. Nor Jerry Silverman.
Which brings me back to the “unless” I began with. The “unless” that has the power to shatter my crystal ball. The “unless” that offers the opportunity for those on both sides of the ocean to embrace a common destiny and generate a shared future. The “unless” spoken by those disturbed by what they perceive is transpiring: addressing the inconvenient truths, reflecting profoundly on our relationship, asking the tough questions, talking – really talking. We’re no longer on a slippery slope. We’re already at the edge of a precipice. It’s time to take a step back. On both sides of the ocean. To recommit to dialogue ensuring that the bond between us remains unbreakable, with the Zionist dream as our common beacon. We should begin by listening.
The writer is deputy chairman of The Jewish Agency executive and represents the worldwide Masorti/Conservative Movement within Israel’s National Institutions. The views expressed herein are his own. davidbr@jafi.org