February 24, 2020

The Arts

As Israel nears its 50th birthday, events have shifted attentionaway from the stalled peace talks. What dominates the headlines nowis the warlike rhetoric among Jewish factions — both within Israeland in the Diaspora — as they clash over the issue of religiouspluralism.

Gideon Patt is well-versed in the arguments that frame thecontroversy. Before taking his current position as president ofIsrael Bonds last January, the New York University-educated economistheld Cabinet posts in the administrations of Menachem Begin, YitzhakShamir and Shimon Peres, serving at various times as minister ofconstruction and housing, trade and industry, science anddevelopment, and tourism.

Patt, who was in Los Angeles last week to discuss preparations forthe bond campaign conducted annually at synagogues during the HighHolidays, oversees an organization that has sold $18 billion in bondssince 1952. Nearly $1 billion in securities was sold last year alone.Today, 60 percent of Israel bonds are bought by insurance companies,pension funds, labor unions and other institutions. It’s the other 40percent , the individual buyers, whose decision to purchase IsraelBonds carries with it a stronger ideological and emotional componentthat concern him. Whether the current mood among non-OrthodoxAmerican Jews may translate into less support this year for the bondcampaign ( as well as for other campaigns, like United JewishAPpeal), remains to be seen. After the end of this year, when $10billion in US-backed loan guarantees are set to expire, Israel Bondswill undoubtedly be asked to do even more.

The frank and even heated debate that marked Patt’s sessions withlocal rabbis and community leaders was not unexpected. Increasingly,his energy is devoted to emphasizing that Israel Bonds is essentiallya non-political organization and therefore an inappropriate revengetarget for the disgruntled. (“We are,” as he puts it, “in theinfrastructure business.”) More generally, he’s urging Diaspora Jewsto adopt a wait-and-see attitude with regards to events in Israel. Ina wide-ranging interview with The Journal, Patt discussed everythingfrom Israel’s absorption of Ethiopian Jews to its burgeoninghigh-tech industry. But foremost on his mind was the escalatingfractiousness among Jews. Below are some excerpts from thatconversation:

The Conversion Bill

“In the meeting I had here with the rabbis, the major issues underdiscussion were the suggested laws on the question of conversion andthe question of women’s participation on religious councils. My ownposition is a very simple one. Seven times I voted against similiarlaws proposed in the Knesset that, thank G-d, didn’t pass . . .Changing the status quo by passing a law that conversions can be doneonly through an Orthodox rabbi is not exactly a question of who is aJew. It’s more of a question of who is a rabbi. Many rabbis — andrightfully so — feel that their very position within the Jewishreligion is being questioned . . . It casts a shadow. Still, they’renot really pointing a collective finger at Israel Bonds, because wedon’t take the money and divide it up among different groups inIsrael. That money goes towards building the economic infrastructure.We don’t build one road for the Conservative Jews and another roadfor the Orthodox.”

A New Generation of Support

“We had a generation in America — 50 years ago when the Bondsstarted — people who gave to Israel and bought bonds out of Jewishsentiments. Today, we have a new generation, and the giving is amixture of sentiments and brain. When they sum it all up, they say,’Okay, we have sentiments for Israel, so it’s enough for us to gothere and stay in a hotel and spend $5,000. We can enjoy it at thesame time, so why not?’ But when they come to the conclusion thatIsrael is a successful venture, they say, ‘Instead of buying, let’ssay, tax-free municipal bonds and get more or less the same return,why shouldn’t I do it for the State of Israel? It strengthens Israel,and when Israel is stronger, my own position is better.’. . Theirfathers and grandfathers went to sleep at night with a good feelingthat they had supported Israel, and at that time they didn’t evenknow whether Israel would exist in 20 years or if they would get backtheir money. Today, our existence isn’t the question. People buy themfrom a different point of view, a more sophisticated point of viewperhaps, but the results are the same.”

Israel’s Secular-Religious Rift

“Right now, I’m much more concerned with social stability insideIsrael than I am with the peace process. The peace process may goahead and it might not, and either way, we can handle it. But thisfrightens me more than Judea, Samaria, Arafat or terrorism. Our rightto exist will depend upon whether we can master the right answers forour people — social answers –to have a State of Israel. For if weare not unique socially, and if we are not unique as far as thejudiciary system is concerned, so who needs us? . . . Look, I’mjealous of people who have all the answers. But what I want the Stateof Israel to be is such a place that Jews around the world, who haveit very good, would want to come and live there because it’s a uniqueJewish state with unique values. . . not a theocracy, or they won’tcome. And they won’t come if Israel is economically poor. That’s whyI’m mostly concerned with the social fiber of Israel. We are at ajuncture and it’s a dangerous one.”

The Diaspora-Israel Relationship

“The question of religious matters, which can cause a wide gapbetween the Jews of the Diaspora and Israel, is something that keepsme awake many, many nights. It’s not because of the money. If halfthe Jews in America decided tomorrow not to buy bonds, so I wouldsell them to other pension funds. The bonds are not my concern. Myconcern is that the misunderstandings and the gap created by thisquestion of religious pluralism will widen into other aspects oflife, and the unity of the Jewish people will be hurt to the pointwhere the State of Israel will not be able to lean on the Jewishpeople the way they have in the past. On good days it has been less,but on bad days, much more. But even on good days, for Israel to knowthat if bad days come — and they will come — that the Jews arealways behind us.”