September 16, 2019

The Tribe That Binds?

I’m sitting at Café Noir in Tel Aviv, a European-style café famous for schnitzel, while Vice President Mike Pence is in Jerusalem speaking to the Knesset.

It couldn’t feel farther away.

Israelis often refer to the “Tel Aviv bubble” because Tel Aviv really does stand apart from most the rest of the country. So little of this dynamic, cosmopolitan city reflects the attitudes, values and politics that dominate in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Those who live in Tel Aviv are proud of their countercultural status: Pass through Habima Square or Kikar Rabin most nights and you’re likely to see young people in protest on their way to the bars.

In recent weeks, thousands have gathered under the banner of an “anti-corruption” movement, not to protest specific policies but to inveigh against the abuse of power in Israeli politics. Some think Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on his way out, but this is wishful thinking. The ascendance of President Donald Trump, and with it an American endorsement of Israel’s right-wing policies, has actually tightened his grip on power.

The ideological split between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is nothing new. But it is looking more and more like a harbinger for the broader Jewish world, particularly within the American Jewish community, where hyperpartisanship has ripped at the fabric of Klal Yisrael, the community of Israel. These days, if you mention Trump in a liberal crowd or former President Barack Obama in a conservative crowd, you better bring boxing gloves.

The central existential threat to Jews — everywhere — is the toxic nature of internecine Jewish partisanship.

Shalom Hartman Institute scholar Yehuda Kurtzer recently wrote in the Forward that “the central existential threat to Jews in America today is the toxic nature of partisanship in American political culture.”

That premise may be true, but it doesn’t go far enough. The central existential threat to Jews — everywhere — is the toxic nature of internecine Jewish partisanship, whether in Israel or the Diaspora, and increasingly, between them.

I see this wedge everywhere.

Last week, an Israeli friend accompanied me on a visit to Safed, where I was eager to trace the footfalls of Judaism’s great scholars and mystics. But my friend was reluctant. As someone accustomed to the diverse streets of Tel Aviv, Europe and the U.S., he was uncomfortable in a city dominated by Orthodox Jews. He never goes to Jerusalem. And he couldn’t understand why I wanted to visit the graves of ancient rabbis — to him, it seemed comical.

But to me, it was tragic: Here is an Israeli whose lack of Jewish choice outside Orthodoxy has alienated him from Judaism. And it isn’t only personal choice that is responsible for this rift; it is the result of political policies that have driven an ideological wedge between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israel, between biblical Judaism and liberal Judaism, between particularism and universalism. For God’s sake, how many statements does Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs have to issue decrying this or that Israeli policy toward liberal Jews?

This is symptomatic of a growing alienation between progressive, liberal Jews — and a generation of young Jews — from Israel itself.

While in Israel, I received a frantic call from a rabbi in Los Angeles who said he was “very exercised” about Israel’s decision to imprison or deport tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers. A few brave El Al pilots issued public refusals to abet the deportation — something Jews the world over can be proud of.

But instead of offering those in need a pathway to a better future, Israel’s prime minister further delegitimized vulnerable migrants by denying their status as “refugees.” He employed the same kind of gaslighting tactic he loathes from the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

As Hanukkah and Tisha b’Av remind us each year, this isn’t the first time in Jewish history there has been disagreement or infighting within our tribe. But once again, a politics of panic and pessimism threatens to upend the bond between the tribes of Israel. Don’t you think it’s a little pathetic to repeat a pattern the Bible warns about?

This time, it isn’t a temple at stake but an entire country.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.