Israel's Religion and State Rift is a Minefield for American Jews

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Thought leaders recommend an ‘all in the family’ perspective when it comes to challenges between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.

Prof. Yedidia Stern (left) Mr. Alan Hoffmann

MOST JEWS – four out of five in the world, live in either Israel or the United States. The Atlantic Ocean has forever geographically separated these two societies. Yet, despite the physical distance, American and Israeli Jewish communities have long celebrated shared values.

Today, however, the bonds between the two communities seem to be fraying. Part of the problem has to do with perceptions of present-day Israel.

“The State of Israel was historically a source of pride and hope for many Jews in the Diaspora,” said Professor Yedidia Stern, Vice President of the Israel Democracy Institute, one of the country’s largest independent centers of research and action.

“However, this is changing…the perception of Israel today is not as bright as it used to be.”

Stern identified three areas of conflict between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.

The first, he said, is that Israelis are more conservative while most Diaspora Jews are liberal. Second, while Israelis have voted for more hawkish governments for the last two or more decades, American Jews tend to vote Democratic.

Stern believes these two gaps can be overcome. He said differences in perspective provide a richness to Jewish life and dialogue, so long as the two sides are tolerant and respect one another.

The third divide, however, threatens to unhinge an already precarious relationship, and that is the divide on issues of religion and state.

We can debate many things, but we need to act together for tikkun olam Yedidia Stern

In Israel, decisions about Shabbat, kashrut at state institutions and in the Israel Defense Forces, military conscription, conversion to Judaism, marriage, divorce and other questions of personal status are all governed by a mechanism that maintains existing arrangements that date back to the pre-state period, known as the “status quo.” Most of the government coalition agreements signed in recent decades contain a stipulation that the status quo in matters of religion be maintained, in order to win ultra-Orthodox support and ensure ultra-Orthodox participation in the coalition.

Stern said the government has long pandered to the needs of the ultra-Orthodox minority in Israel at the expense of more moderate Israelis and of Diaspora Jews, who connect to Israel largely based on religion.

He said, for example, continual delays on a government decision to upgrade the egalitarian space at the Western Wall was “a slap in the face of the Jewish Diaspora.”

“We do not want a society where one’s dream is another’s nightmare,” Stern said.

Faithful complex

To understand the complexity of the situation, one must appreciate the differences between the way Jews on both sides of the ocean relate to their faith. In Israel, the public space is Jewish by nature – from the language, to the calendar, to the state holidays, and even street names.

Secular Israeli Jews report taking part in Jewish rituals that have become deeply embedded in Israeli culture. For instance, nearly 87% of Israelis say they attend or hold a Passover Seder, according to a January 2017 report by the Pew Research Center. About a third of Israeli secular Jews say they keep kosher at home, and a similar share (30%) fast all day on Yom Kippur.

In the United States, Judaism is expressed on an individual, familial or communal level, Stern explained. American Jews represent only about 2% of the US adult population, and only about one-third of American Jews say “all” or “most” of their close friends are Jewish, according to that same Pew report.

Alan Hoffmann, CEO and Director General of The Jewish Agency, said that while Diaspora Jews are diverse on a micro level, they all have one macro thing in common: Jews in the Diaspora live their Jewish lives without exercising sovereignty.

As such, they are not involved or necessarily interested in the “hurly burly of political life in Israel that forces political compromises that come out of having sovereignty,” Hoffmann told The Report. Instead, “the expectations of world Jewry from Israel are expectations about religious life, which is not of much interest to many Israelis.”

To help bridge this gap, Hoffmann recommends a change in perspective.

“We need to think of the Jewish people as a family,” said Hoffmann. “In every family there are lots of people who are not the same as each other, who disagree with each other – even fundamentally. But there is an overarching sense of loyalty to the entire family.”

Hoffmann said the global Jewish community is quickly losing this notion of “one family,” in part because of the deterioration of what was once a “mutual taking advantage of each of these populations” by the other. On the one hand, American Jews for many years would send money to Israel, creating a Jewish haven from which they might one day benefit, and burnishing Israelis’ sense of justification for serving on the front lines of a Jewish cause. On the other hand, as American Jews were assimilating and thriving in the US, they did not necessarily want to have Israel interfering in their lives, so keeping Israel at a distance worked for them.

Today, Israel is thriving and has less need for American dollars. In fact, after a hurricane recently ravaged the Jewish community of Houston, Texas, the State of Israel signed an agreement with the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston to transfer $1 million in aid. It is the first time Israel has sent such support to American Jews hit by a natural disaster.

Further, technology advancements are bringing people together like never before, making the world smaller and more accessible, and the Diaspora Jews and Israel more easily connected. Moreover, easier travel and programs like Taglit-Birthright Israel and Masa Israel Journey have brought a collective 750,000 young Jews to Israel.

The 2017 Pew Research Center report found that four out of every ten Americans Jews have been to Israel at least once and many have been there more than once.

Hoffmann explained that sometimes when these young Jews decide to stay, they are quickly disillusioned by their inability to practice Judaism in their homeland the way they did back home.

“You have to learn the skills of how to deal with the different people in your family,” said Hoffmann.

He recommended the establishment of “some kind of structure” to allow the Jewish people to come together and resolve some of these issues.

“We’ve lost the notion of a place in which some of the critical issues that create tension in the family can be explored and better understood,” said Hoffmann. “Not everything has to be resolved, but if we get to the point where people understand each other better and are more aware of how different members of the family feel and why they feel the way they feel, I think there will be much more understanding.”

Hoffmann said the Jewish Agency could serve as a convener for this type of meeting ground.

Tied together

But Stern said that while American Jews’ opinions must be heard and taken into account by policymakers, they should not be equally crucial to Israel’s decisionmaking processes in all areas.

“For example, Israel should refrain from conducting its security policies according to what Americans feel Israel should do,” said Stern. “If you want to take part in all decision-making processes in Israel, you have to pay taxes and send your kids to the army.”

Nonetheless, Stern and Hoffmann both feel that Israel should alter its approach to issues of religion and state to be more inclusive—and think Diaspora Jews could be important allies in this regard.

For example, the Knesset is in the final stages of debate on what is known as the Nation-State bill, which includes ideas about the Israeli national anthem and state symbol, having Saturdays and Jewish holidays as national days of rest, the Law of Return, and commitment to Diaspora Jewry, among other items.

IDI has expressed concern that the bill in its current iteration upsets the delicate balance between Israel’s democratic and Jewish identities, subordinating the democratic dimension to the Jewish.

Institute leadership proposed a positive alternative to the bill, clarifying that Israel will not be governed by religious law and that any Nation State bill must also protect the rights of minority citizens.

“World Jewry is watching this bill,” said Hoffmann. “I think to the degree that this bill tries to frame the relationship between Israel and world Jewry, it is a minefield.”

He said if the government wants young Jews to be excited about, or eventually even to move to Israel, the country will need to offer a Judaism “that is attractive to those young Jews.”

Both men agreed there is scope for action on other fronts as well. As Professor Stern put it, “given the ignorance and apathy among broad swathes of the Israeli public on the concerns that motivate Diaspora Jews and the price Israel is paying for inaction on matters of religion and state, there is room to launch an educational campaign designed to sway public opinion on these issues. Israelis need to be better informed about these issues so that they may apply pressure on their representatives to change reality.”

All in all, despite the challenges, Stern emphasized that we live in what he called “the golden age of Jewish civilization”, with the State of Israel giving the Jewish people sovereignty, self-determination and a renaissance of Hebrew culture, while the United States affords Jews more freedom and security than ever before. So now is not the time to deepen divisions but to come together and effect change, building on the strengths of the two communities.

As Stern concluded, “We can debate many things, but we need to act together for “tikkun olam”.

The article was first published in the Jerusalem Report