September 18, 2019

Israeli and American Jewry need therapy

The acrimony that has built up between the leadership of American and Israeli Jewry reminds me of two squabbling parents threatening a divorce. As the grown-ups act out their insecurities, the kids are being dragged into the fight. Because the parents are at each other’s throats, it has become a messy, all-around food fight. Just wait until the divorce lawyers get involved.

My suggestion is that, before that happens, we should get a good family therapist.

The first thing we’d need from this therapist is to tone down the hysterics. Yes, the issues are serious, but they shouldn’t shock us. So many of the conflict areas between Israel and American Jewry are perfectly normal given the unique circumstances of both communities.

American Jews are not part of a sovereign Jewish experiment. We are grateful members of the most welcoming foreign power in Jewish history, where we have thrived in a free and secular environment. There is no controlling religious Jewish authority in America. Different Jewish streams have different rules and customs, and no one can tell anyone what being “Jewish” means.

Israel is not America—it’s a Jewish state. Jews represent nearly 80 percent of the population in Israel, compared to around two percent in America. That fact alone suggests we should expect obvious differences between the communities.

Israel is the return of Jewish sovereignty after nearly 2,000 years. It has a core, fundamental interest in maintaining its Jewishness. This has led to an uncomfortable dance between synagogue and state, one that has been full of stumbles and mistakes. The religious stringency of the Chief Rabbinate is one of the key factors in the rift with Diaspora Jewry.

Another factor is security. Israelis experience terror directly. They go to the army. They are acutely aware of the risks of making peace deals with Jew-hating enemies. American Jews have the luxury of seeing Israel as an idea and an ideal. They can hold Israel accountable to uphold the best of Jewish values. This is an important role.

The point is this: We have two radically different contexts for Judaism in the 21st century. This is changing not just Judaism but Jews themselves. American Judaism and American Jews, and Israeli Judaism and Israeli Jews, are going in very different directions. What should we do about this?

All too often, we either fight or deny. Deniers go kumbaya and talk about the importance of Jewish unity and Jewish peoplehood; fighters get outraged and try to change the other side in their image. Continuing with this bipolar direction will only exacerbate the rift.

It’s true that recent decisions by the Israeli government — such as reneging on an agreement for egalitarian prayers at the Western Wall and giving total monopoly on conversions to the Chief Rabbinate — have created a real sense of urgency. But while these latest quarrels are vexing and demand resolution, they’re only symptoms of deeper issues.

Instead of allowing each new quarrel to further damage the relationship, we ought to bring urgency to the process of building greater understanding between the two camps. By understanding each other, we will be better equipped to handle the problems that will inevitably come our way.

That’s why we need a good therapist, one who won’t take sides.

From my experience, groups like the Shalom Hartman Institute and the Reut Institute seem ideally suited to serve as expert go-betweens. They love and value both communities, they understand the commonalities and the differences and they’re in tune with the threats as well as the opportunities. I’d love to see them get together and figure out innovative ways of bringing both communities together, from the leadership level down to the grassroots.

The mission would be to create a long-term plan that would infuse both communities with knowledge, empathy and mutual understanding. The starting question ought to be: What is our vision of a healthy Diaspora–Israel relationship in the year 2100? We can even call it Project 2100.

Yes, it may take that long to save the marriage, but can we really afford a divorce?