Alienated from Israeli Policies: The Diaspora as the new Jewish Center?

April 4, 2018

For decades, modern Jews were taught that the two most formative events that define the contemporary Jewish experience were the Holocaust and the founding of Israel. That trauma and that glory remain formative but they can no longer be central if we’re serious about fostering a thriving Jewish life in the Diaspora. Indeed, we must focus on the here and now. Since many of us took our first breaths, we’ve been taught that our priority should be supporting Israel since that is the playing field for Jewish life; those of us outside of Israel are merely on the sidelines. It is as if those who live inside Israel are the book and everyone outside the borders are the footnotes. From my perspective, however, the opposite is true. Israel may become—by reality and necessity—less significant and central to the success of global Jewish life.

Israel is vitally important for what it has achieved for the Jewish people and for what has contributed to the broader world. The potential is even greater with the hopes that the nation might fully become an ohr l’goyim (a unique light to the nations) representing our cherished eternal values. With all of this work to build the Jewish state over the decades, however, have we neglected the diaspora?

Don’t mistake my intentions: I am a passionate Religious Zionist who will visit, donate, support, love, struggle with, and challenge policies of Israel all of my life. I, or my kids, may even move there one day. But I think we need to realize that the propaganda was wrong: diaspora Jewry’s primary role is not to support Israel through blind advocacy and fundraising. Rather, the primary role of our diaspora communities is to build vibrant Jewish life here. Now. The souls here and now matter. Their values and visions matter. Israelis seeking a pluralistic vibrant Jewish life that is authentically rooted while also being universalistic, inclusive, feminist, social justice oriented, and innovative will flock more towards American Jewish life. Here, we engage with great respect with other cultures, bring Jewish values into the public marketplace in healthy ways, and have a full spectrum of pluralistic ways to engage with Jewish life. There is no doubt we have enormous challenges here in American Jewish life: rising anti-Semitism, low affiliation rates, and political challenges (among many others). But, for many, those challenges are far less alienating than state-mandated religious coercion, violent conflict, and sectorial in-fighting (among many others).

Am Yisrael Chai?

American Jews have been taught to make Israel so primary that, sadly, nationalism is slowly replacing religion. Heated arguments are no longer about God, halakhah, denominations, innovation, or Jewish values as much as they are about Israel policies. One’s Israel politics is what decides if they are in or out of social circles. A rabbi told me that worse than declaring from the bimah that he was an atheist would be to not attend AIPAC or to attend but not stand and clap at each moment that his congregation’s delegation does so. On the other hand, other Jews who identify as Zionists at times find themselves marginalized in Jewish progressive circles precisely because of their commitment to Israel.

Obviously, we should invest in Israel in lots of strategic ways. But if we’re wise, we’ll also prioritize building our local community here first. And the identity of this community will prioritize our own Jewish learning and incorporate Zionism secondarily. There are those, including Natan Sharansky—the chairman of the Jewish Agency—who make clear that Israel is no longer the home for non-Orthodox religious Jews in the diaspora. Given the rapid growth of the ultra-Orthodox population, the abandonment of a peace process, the plans to expel the African asylum seekers, the rejection of egalitarian prayer spaces, the Israeli government’s policies are at odds with American Jewish liberals (i.e. the vast majority of American Jews), and it is lamentably easy to see a critical sector of the community becoming disengaged with Jewish life itself. If Israel was once the greatest tool for American Jewish engagement, it may now be one of the least effective (with some exceptions) and often the greatest force for alienating young American Jews.

Why is this so alienating? Firstly, the ultra-Orthodox population is expected to boom over the coming decades and their grip on Israeli politics is sure to secure religious fundamentalism as the dominant religious force. Even while they reject work, social integration, service, and women’s leadership and education, they are empowered due to their growing role within political coalitions. Secondly, with over half a million settlers living beyond the green line (and rapidly growing), a peace deal becomes virtually impossible with a very dangerous and unsettling status quo. Thirdly, the lack of interest in cultivating a pluralistic ethos and the rejecting and discrediting of various approaches to Jewish life, which are dominant in the diaspora.

For Jews the world over, there is the wish that we had not be exiled for two millennia. But we were. Consequently, Jews evolved to be a people of the diaspora who flourish today with full rights not through sovereignty, but by developing alongside other cultures with desired mutual respect and solidarity (even if it wasn’t returned). The Jewish destiny is to influence and be influenced. More than being a people of the past looking to return to past models, we are a people of the future seeking to solve global moral problems of the coming centuries. Many will be driven by the dream to return to the homeland after two millennia and can’t understand why anyone would remain in “the anti-Semitic galut” when they could help shape the longed for Jewish state. Others disdain “the new shtetl” of Israel which often places nationalism as primary and they seek to cultivate a cosmopolitanism in this new rare era where anti-Semitism is alive but far outshined by the forces of universalism, tolerance, and pluralism.

When we pray for kibbutz galiyut—the gathering of the exiles—I believe we are referring to those in danger, not those thriving. Israel can be, and should be, a refuge for those Jews who live in anti-Semitic cultures, but living in Israel is not the answer for all of global Jewry. There is a crucial role not only for Jews in the diaspora to play a role of advocacy and fundraising, but also to learn and teach, to bring light and receive light. It should not be predictable when we exercise our power in our democracy what we are coming to advocate for. We must diversify our ethical interests to represent the fullness of Jewish values.

Am Yisrael Chai.

As a Modern Orthodox rabbi who embraces the truth of the Torah and as a religious Zionist who believes God compassionately returned us to our land, I, nonetheless, believe there are crucial moral and theological limits that need to be placed upon religious Zionist ideology. Torah must have more weight than religious Zionism in forming our ideologies. The Hasidic masterwork the Tanya teaches that there is a special virtue in the worship of God outside of Israel that does not exist in the service of God in the Land of Israel since the resting of the Divine spirit that is to be placed in the light that follows from the darkness is greater than the light that comes from within the light. Indeed, it is not just that the majority of Jewish wealth sustaining the Jewish community is in the Diaspora, but that spiritual light can be experienced uniquely here too. Rebbe Nachman taught that wherever we bring our spiritual energy, we are “in Israel.” For millennia, Israel has not just been material but also conceptual and spiritual. God resides in all places and the spiritually refined can find God in all places.

One serious question that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, faced just before the creation of Israel was whether ultra-Orthodox Jews would recognize a secular state of Israel. In order to win their support, he offered to recognize the Sabbath, observe kashrut in state institutions, allow autonomy for religious schools, and apply religious law to marriage and personal status. Ben-Gurion may have underestimated what effect this would have over the succeeding decades. Over time, the majority Jewish secular population has undergone a profound shift, due to immigration and the territory seized in the Six-Day War.

Wikimedia Commons: “Photograph of President Truman in the Oval Office, evidently receiving a Menorah as a gift from the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion (center)”

Echoing Ben Gurion’s sentiments, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, in his July 2015 speech at the 15th Annual Herzliya Conference, announced that a “new Israeli order” of “four principal tribes” had emerged, comprising significant numbers of ultra-Orthodox [Haredi], national-religious [modern Orthodox], secular Jewish, and Arab populations. Rivlin stated that “there is no longer a clear majority, nor clear minority groups,” and that each are “essentially different from each other.” He pointed out that each tribe has its own schools and media that create “huge gaps” in society. He hoped that providing a sense of “security,” “shared responsibility,” “equity and equality,” and “the creation of a shared Israeli character” would provide a solution to Israelis living together in society.

One consequence of giving religious control to the ultra-Orthodox is that civil marriages within Israel are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate; many Israelis either do not qualify or do not believe in marrying according to ultra-Orthodox rules, and so they are forced to go outside Israel (e.g., Cyprus) to have a legal marriage. Even immigrants who wish to marry, who provide proof of Jewish identity by obtaining a letter from a rabbi, are often rejected. In 2016, the Chief Rabbinate rejected letters from 160 rabbis in 24 countries, thus denying these people the right to marry in Israel. To share a more recent problematic example, the Chief Rabbi brought shame to the community when he called black people monkeys. To the majority of Jews today, the Chief Rabbinate, which represents Israel’s broader religious culture to them, has lost its moral authority.

Am Yisrael Chai?

The demographic shift has also resulted in a political atmosphere in which solutions to problems are rarely offered, and in which extreme views are increasingly invoked. Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister, has had to ally with ultra-Orthodox parties to keep a hold on rapidly-dwindling executive power. His willingness to maintain his position at all costs has put him increasingly at odds with the majority of American Jews. For example, in 2012, Netanyahu all but officially endorsed Republican Mitt Romney for President, while nearly 70 percent of American Jews voted for President Barack Obama. In a Facebook video on election day in 2015, Netanyahu said: “The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses.” Pollsters noted that Netanyahu’s Likud party picked up voting support after sending the message.

This behavior mirrors the latent bigotry of President Donald J. Trump, the first major candidate in modern memory to have been endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. In November 2017, as President Trump strongly endorsed Judge Roy Moore for the Senate in Alabama, ex-Klan leader David Duke made an anti-Semitic attack on the Washington Post reporter who had broken the story of Moore’s pedophile past, and there was a crudely anti-Semitic (and bogus) robocall, supposedly from a Post reporter named “Bernie Bernstein” who was willing to pay thousands to any woman of appropriate age who would make unsubstantiated claims against Moore. (Moore lost the race.)

President Trump at the Israel Museum. Jerusalem May 23, 2017

Prime Minister Netanyahu has established a peculiar alliance with President Donald Trump, whose most enthusiastic supporters are white evangelical Christians. But the most egregious moment, perhaps, occurred in August 2017 with a gathering of racist extremists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, ostensibly for a rally to keep a Confederate statue from being removed from a local park. President Trump’s disgraceful refusal to specifically denounce the Klan, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists was yet another affront to Americans who value human rights. Congregation Beth Israel President Alan Zimmerman wrote, his congregation faced a mob reminiscent of the 1930s:

“Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There’s the synagogue!” followed by chants of ‘Sieg Heil’ and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols….When services ended, my heart broke as I advised congregants that it would be safer to leave the temple through the back entrance rather than through the front, and to please go in groups…. This is 2017 in the United States of America.”

Intolerance, of a different kind, has also been curdling in Israel. The Israeli government’s policy regarding egalitarian prayer at the Kotel—the Western Wall—in Jerusalem illustrates an increasing divide with American Jewish groups. The Chief Rabbinate, which controls religious policy at the Kotel, has consistently opposed the active participation of women (and those who aren’t Orthodox) at the Kotel. Since 1988, a group of Jewish women from various denominations and nations (Women of the Wall) have attempted to conduct prayer services at the Kotel, and have been physically and verbally abused by ultra-Orthodox adults and children, and often arrested for their efforts. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed the necessity of a swift and just resolution of the conflict as early as December 2012; the women were continually harassed.

One egregious example of this harassment occurred in July 2013 when more than 350 women were forced to pray near a public bathroom while ultra-Orthodox opponents were allowed to throw eggs at them and blow whistles to disrupt the prayers.

After years of resistance, Israel’s Attorney General supported Women of the Wall’s contentions that they were victims of discrimination and unjust exclusion, and it appeared that the government would finally act. There appeared to be an agreement in January 2016, when the Israeli cabinet passed a resolution agreeing to set up an egalitarian space at the Kotel. However, Prime Minister Netanyahu failed to follow up, and after intense lobbying from ultra-Orthodox forces (including Kotel Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz), reneged on the agreement in June 2017, saying that “several difficulties arose,” while disingenuously indicating he still wanted a settlement. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), replied that Netanyahu’s reversal “would be a slap in the face to the vast majority of world Jewry.”

Members of the Reform movement and the Hebrew union college confront policy and security guards while trying to enter to a mixed men and women prayer at the public square in front of the Western Wall, in Jerusalem’s Old City, on November 16, 2017. Photo by Noam Rivkin Fenton

In November 2017, to celebrate the ordination of four URJ rabbis, a group of leading URJ leaders (including Rabbi Jacobs, Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson, Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in New York City and member of the Board of Governors of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion [HUC-JIR], Rabbi Naamah Kelman-Ezrahi, Dean of HUC-IR, Gilad Kariv, Executive Director of the Reform Movement in Israel, and Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall and executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center) bearing eight Torah scrolls first by security personnel at the security checkpoint to the Western Wall complex (where Rabbi Jacobs was threatened with mace by a security guard) for a quarter of an hour, and then in the Plaza by ultra-Orthodox men who tackled several of those bearing Torah scrolls.

Rabbi Rabinowitz, as administrator of the Western Wall, has long opposed egalitarian worship, calling Women of the Wall attempts to pray a “plague” and an incitement to “civil war,” and refused to comment on the assault of URJ rabbis. A Supreme Court ruling questioning why security personnel did not protect the non-Orthodox has not been answered and demands have not been obeyed. Rabbi Davidson denounced the ultra-Orthodox abuse of power: “The impunity with which the ultra-Orthodox in Israel too often assault the religious liberties of the non-Orthodox should be intolerable in a democratic state. But empowered by the stranglehold of Israel’s religious parties on its coalition government, the Chief Rabbinate rules as if without a care.” Hoffman feared that the violence will increase: “We are sitting ducks.”

Am Yisrael Chai?

Netanyahu’s unfortunate strong alliance with President Trump is strongly linked to the recent American recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, knowing well everything else Trump stands for (including the fact that anti-Semitism is flourishing on his watch). Trump’s move, however, seems to be linked more to his white evangelical Christian base (which, staggeringly, supported Trump 81 percent in the election) than to any consideration for American or Israeli Jews. According to a popular evangelical belief, the “end times” prophecy depends on all Jews moving to the “Holy Land,” after which Jesus will return and triumph in a decisive battle of good versus evil. After this, Jews will either convert to Christianity or be killed and sent to Hell. For its part, the URJ termed the move “ill-timed,” as it did not include a “comprehensive plan for a peace process.

In the diaspora, each community’s first priority should be to make their own local community robust and engaging; unity of a Jewish spirit is essential. The dream of Zionism—a protective state for a persecuted people—shouldn’t be transformed into an excuse for reactionary myopia. Should disproportionate amounts of resources be channeled toward Jewish nationalism rather than toward fulfilling our Jewish mandate to reduce suffering in the world and toward actualizing the global missions of the Jewish people? We must be clear that in prioritizing the diaspora, we are not, God forbid, abandoning Israel but rather that we see greater potential in our era to actualize the mission of the Torah in the diaspora where there is a more open, pluralistic, and progressive ethos for Jewish values to develop within us and thrive in society.

What we are witnessing today is the greatest ideological divide between the Israeli government and the diaspora Jewish masses. Indeed, this divide puts Israel’s security at risk and puts American Jewish identity at risk. There is enormous power, wealth, and creativity in the United States that isn’t yet being actualized. It is being sidetracked to invest in Israel as the center. We would benefit from embracing this potential to actualize our diaspora potential rather than merely exporting our Judaism to the true “playing field” of Jewish life while we rest on the “sidelines.” Israelis are becoming more interested in the lucrative technology field and less in Jewish intellectualism. Israelis engaged in Jewish Studies graduate students who are looking to work in academia are moving to America to find jobs. Such brain drain indicates that America is becoming a more alluring home for those seeking a spiritual and intellectual playing field. Assimilation is only one part of the story. The other part is that innovative Jewish social entrepreneurs in America are creatively and robustly re-imagining Jewish life.

The diaspora, of course, includes far more than just American Jewry, but that is undeniably the largest community. The six million (or more) Jews in America want to be here. No aliyah campaign, or minor, albeit serious, antisemitism campaigns, will persuade them to make a mass exodus. They are here to stay and their identity and future should be invested in as central. The most recent estimates of Jewish denominations among American Jews is about 35 percent Reform, 30 percent no denomination, 18 percent Conservative, 10 percent Orthodox (modern and ultra-Orthodox), and 6 percent among smaller denomination. This is a liberal Jewish community that increasingly does not find a home in Israel. Should America be the new center for global Jewish life displacing he perception of Israel as the center? I don’t know. But, the American Jewish leadership and philanthropists would certainly be wise to take liberal American Jewry, and its bright future, very seriously just as Israel takes its future very seriously. When American Jews prioritize making the world a better place and consistently feel shame about the Israeli government’s policies, are we really going to tell them they’re bad Jews who don’t get it?

We must, of course, engage in American-Israeli dialogue as we have so much to learn from one another, but we should also be respectfully guhonest about the growing divide and our major differences in values and Jewish ideologies.

Now is the time for Jews everywhere to take heed of the words of David Ben-Gurion, who expressed in a 1950 letter that: “…the Jews of the United States…owe no political allegiance to Israel….We, the people of Israel, have no desire and no intention to interfere in any way with the internal affairs of Jewish communities abroad. The government and the people of Israel fully respect the right and integrity of the Jewish communities in other countries to develop their indigenous social, economic, and cultural institutions in accord with their own needs and aspirations.”

Jews, no matter where they are, have something special to contribute to the world, regardless of where they are physically. For those who continue to find Zionism to be the most meaningful dimension of their Jewish identity, we need not discourage them on their journey. Rather, we can hope that they will continue to shape Israel morally and spiritually. And for those who find Zionism and their relationship to Israel to be more draining and alienating than uplifting, we can urge them not to bail on that engagement (fostering a big tent), but also urge them to build a positive Jewish identity in the ways that are most poignant and meaningful for them, beyond an Israel relationship. In demanding American Jewish millennials to make a firm singular choice between a fervently loyal Zionist identity and their progressive Jewish values, they will most likely choose the later and thus we dare not make such demands. We are blessed to have a Jewish state but we are also blessed to have learned how to survive—even thrive—outside during our thousands of years in exile. These two complex interwoven truths co-exist. This is yet another layer to the pluralistic ethos we must embrace.

Am Yisrael Chai.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Founder and President of YATOM, and the author of thirteen books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.

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