American Jewry Is Israel’s New Opposition Party
Recently, two seemingly unrelated events transpired in the relations between Israeli and American Jewry: Last month, the Jewish Agency’s board of governors voted for Isaac Herzog (former chairman of the Labor Party), to become chairman of the organization, in a direct rebuttal of the prime minister’s choice of candidate. Next, two senior ministers avoided taking responsibility for expanding the mixed-sex prayer area at the Western Wall designated for Conservative and Reform use (heaven forbid!).
What connects these two events? They are the culmination of a process that is driving the Jewish people in Israel and the diaspora away from being a single people, and toward a dynamic of coalition and opposition. The two groups are becoming hawkish parties whose every encounter develops into a political confrontation over a series of issues on which there will never be agreement. The longer this process goes on, the more difficult it becomes, and the worry is that at some point it will be irreversible. Both sides must manage this complex relationship responsibly and with civility, for the sake of the state of Israel and of the Jewish people.
The fault lines between contemporary Israeli and American Jewry are sharply expressed in three arenas: in terms of values, Israel is becoming less liberal and more nationalist, while most American Jews identify with liberal and progressive values; in terms of political and foreign policy, they are divided over the continued Israeli presence in the West Bank; and in the religious domain, Israelis are becoming more traditionalist and less tolerant of the religious pluralism that exists in the United States. These differences are not new. The relations between the two largest Jewish communities in the world have been marked by conflicting views for many years. However, for a long time, the two sides also managed to tamp down their disagreements, or at least wrap them up in sincere expressions of mutual concern, as well as in action to advance the interests of the Jewish people as a whole.
This is no longer the case. Over the last few years, and even more markedly in recent times, the gloves have come off. Israel’s current government is making less of an effort to present a united front with American Jewry. Its prime minister and its ministers — including, in the last week, Miri Regev and Ayelet Shaked — are willing to enter into conflict with the non-Orthodox movements which constitute the majority of American Jewry, and to repeatedly act in a way that harms the values they consider important. On the issues of conversion, the Western Wall, the recognition of non-Israeli rabbis and more, Israeli politicians are giving preference to their voters, and of course to the ultra-Orthodox parties, over the integrity of the Jewish people as a whole. They are unwilling to pay even a symbolic price for the sake of Jewish unity.
On the other side of the Atlantic, a similar and worrying trend is evident. Prominent Jewish leaders, who care about Israel and have a record of action in support of it, openly say that they do not identify with or support the Israeli government. In fact, they have turned themselves into an opposition to the government and its actions, and their harsh criticism of it is no longer wrapped up in ribbons of expressions of unity with, and support for, Israel. The election of Herzog (who is certainly worthy of the role) as chairman of the Jewish Agency, in direct contradiction to the prime minister’s wishes, is a prime example of this behavior.
It’s almost redundant to note how dangerous this situation is for the integrity of the Jewish people, for the relationship between its largest component communities and for American Jewry’s political support for Israel in the corridors of power in Washington. The behavior of both the coalition and the opposition in this context erodes these relations and drives us further apart. And unlike the political opposition in Israel, which has no choice but to fight, American Jews do have a choice: to simply disengage completely from Israel.
Both sides must act in order to restore these relations to a civil path, one that acknowledges the unifying interests shared by all parties, and one that works for the common good of both communities — based on a recognition of differences and changes on both sides of the ocean, but also on a desire to rise above the politics of coalition versus opposition.