Diaspora Jews cannot expect veto power over Israel

June 29, 2017
The Western Wall in Israel

American Jews seem surprised that Israelis aren’t all that moved by Diaspora grumblings they might withdraw support if the Kotel controversy is not resolved in a way that fully respects their forms of Judaism.

The American Jewish argument is, roughly: “Israel is the home for all Jews, and when I come to Israel I want to feel at home. Most specifically, I want to be able to feel comfortable when I pray at Judaism’s holiest site.”

The problem with that argument is political rather than religious. I know it’s painful to hear, but a role for Diaspora Jews in internal Israeli decision-making would be inappropriate (until they make aliyah, God-willing soon).

An analogy could be instructive. Many – but far from all – American congregations recite the Prayer for the State of Israel. It is a lovely practice that highlights the Jewish State at the apex of worship, usually connected with the Torah reading, reminding the community of the importance of Israel and praying to God for its security and success.

But not every synagogue says it. Some congregations don’t for ideological reasons, including yeshiva-style congregations that support the Land and People of Israel but not the State; and some more liberal congregations who reject right-wing Israeli policies. Other congregations omit it to keep the length of the service short.

Some communities in Israel also shun the prayer, but the State of Israel itself benefits from its widest possible adoption. Imagine if Israel stipulated as a condition of continued good Israel-Diaspora relations that every synagogue recite the prayer, so that Israelis who visited America would feel comfortable in any congregation.

It may sound silly, but the parallels are stark:

  • When in Israel, American Jews want to pray in a way that reflects their values. Well, the prayer for the State of Israel reflects the values of Israeli Zionists.
  • Jews in the Diaspora say every Jew should feel welcome at the Kotel. Well, shouldn’t every Jew feel welcome in every synagogue? There’s a reason it’s called a beit knesset (a house of gathering) whose prayers take place in a “sanctuary.”
  • American Jews consider the Kotel to be a special, unique site. Well, for Israelis in most cities, local synagogues are islands of Jewish life they gravitate to even if they’re not strictly religious.
  • American Jews don’t see how an extra section for egalitarian prayer really hurts the Orthodox. Israeli Jews could similarly ask who it hurts to add just one prayer to the liturgy of every American synagogue — after all, nobody will be forced to say it.

So what would be wrong with such a demand?

It’s simple: Israelis don’t get input into American synagogue policy. Worship is determined by rabbis and cantors, boards and congregants. In fact, engineering appropriate liturgy can sometimes create conflict among congregational factions. Outside demands would not be welcome.

It’s the same in Israel. Here’s a sketch of the political landscape regarding the Kotel status quo: Israel has one significant group (Charedim) who defend it very strongly; one (religious Zionists) who defend it more calmly; one (secular Israelis) who lean toward liberalization but don’t really care; and one (Arabs) who do not care at all. Very few Israelis enthusiastically favor change.

Any functioning democracy would maintain the status quo. The question becomes, then, whether Diaspora Jews should have a vote — or in this case, a veto. They should not.

I want the Israel-Diaspora relationship to continue to flourish. But there have to be red lines, and one of those is that neither side gets to threaten the entire arrangement over a matter whose purview truly belongs to one side. In this case, American Jews insinuate dampened financial and political support unless the Kotel they rarely pray at is run like the synagogues at home they really pray at. If American Jewish support for Israel is so tenuous that a kerfuffle over Kotel architecture can turn them away, they were never really in our corner anyway.

Israelis are known for being both sweet and prickly at the same time, and that’s how I’ll conclude: Diaspora Jews, we would love to welcome you as permanent parts of our society. The moment you get off an aliyah flight at Ben Gurion International Airport you will have both a figurative and a literal vote in all our controversies, Kotel and otherwise. If you’re not ready for that commitment, let’s work together to help both our Jewish communities thrive.

But if you mean it, and you’re not willing to help Israel unless we set aside the results of our democratic system to boost your self-esteem and enhance your davening during sporadic visits, then the Startup Nation in the Promised Land can do without you.

David Benkof is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Journal. He lives in Jerusalem. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) and Muckrack.com/DavidBenkof, or email him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

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