Several years ago, I (Einat) had the honor of speaking at a Conservative Synagogue in NYC. I was asked why, as a proud Israeli feminist, I am not mobilized for the cause of the Women of the Wall.
I admitted that while I am a feminist I am also a devout Atheist, and the importance of praying to a god who does not exist next to the ruins of an outer support wall was entirely alien to me.
The members of the congregation were visibly shocked by my response.
And I was shocked that they were shocked.
But our mutual astonishment actually clarified something for me: Liberal American Jews seemed to have no idea that the people in Israel who share their commitment to pluralism and liberal values are by and large secular. This means that when American Jews push for religious pluralism in Israel by focusing on religion — rather than on pluralism — they are actually shooting themselves in the foot. For in so doing, they are seeking a coalition with the very people — religious Israelis — who will never accept them.
Judaism’s America/Israel Divide
Ever since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scuttled a deal that would have allowed Conservative and Reform Jews to pray at the Western Wall, Diaspora Jews have been loudly condemning Israel for its lack of religious pluralism.
In fact, these accusations are nothing new; for years, American Jews have argued that the “State of the Jews” is not truly a home to all Jews, lacking the religious pluralism they find in the Diaspora.
And yet, most Israeli Jews have no idea what they’re talking about.
As far as Israelis are concerned, they have an incredibly pluralistic society reflecting multiple religious practices, sects, sub-sects and ethnicities. Israeli Jews are remarkably tolerant of a host of different modes of practical ritualistic expression. One can be a devout atheist-shrimp-eating-Shabbat-driving Jew or a fanatical, carry-out-all-the-Mitzvas one, and all are citizens of the Jewish state.
As a society, Israelis really could care less how citizens express their religious identity, Jewish or otherwise.
Of course, this is not what liberal American Jews want when they ask for more “pluralism.” What they mean is having equal standing in the public and political sphere for Conservative and Reform Judaism, which are all but foreign concepts to Israelis.
This distinction is based on a rather fundamental difference in the historical development of Judaism in the US and Israel. It was a colleague at the Jewish People Policy Institute, Prof. Shlomo Fisher, who elucidated this phenomenon for us in his superb essay “American Jews are Protestants, Israeli Jews are Catholics.”
There Fisher explains that the liberal Jewish American conception of religion developed in a uniquely American context, where religion is viewed as a personal choice and a form of individual self-expression, officially separate from the political sphere. For American Jews as for Americans more generally, religion is compatible with “pluralism, civil rights and democracy.”
Meanwhile, Israelis, following the European model, came to view democracy, civil liberties or pluralism as requiring the overthrow of religion. As opposed to American Jews, for Israelis “religious identity is not really a matter of individual choice or conviction, rather, it goes along with one’s national, ethnic or political identity,” writes Fisher. In Israel, Jewishness is not an individual choice but part and parcel of the public, political sphere.
It wasn’t always so. In the early years of the state of Israel, the cultural elite was secular, even militantly atheist. Under the mistaken assumption that Zionism had completed the reform of Judaism, the question of religion in the public sphere was viewed as the purview of small marginal groups, which would quickly be swept by the forward march of history into secularism.
Unfortunately, Ben Gurion was wrong to think that religion would evaporate. These days, the secular Zionist labor party has ceded power to a coalition of religious nationalists, ultra-religious Haredim, and religious traditionalists. As a result, Judaism itself moved from the margin to the center, becoming a key factor, perhaps the key factor, in Israeli politics.
This was a key insight employed by Netanyahu in the 1996 elections — that attitudes towards Jewish religious practice were the single greatest determinant of one’s political leaning. He has ridden that insight to the polls again and again, allowing Jewish religion to become the means through which retrograde ideas, illiberal values and increasingly supremacist ideologies promote and cement inequality between Jews and non-Jews, and between men and women.
The universal idea that religious “sensitivities” are somehow sacrosanct has lead them to be used to impose increasingly stringent forms of segregation against women. The Jewish religious male is posited as the superior being for whom all allowances must be made. Under the guise that religious men somehow are deeply offended by the presence of women in the public sphere, women have been pushed to the back of some buses that go through religious neighborhoods, prevented from serving in several roles in the military, and increasingly forced to follow “modesty codes” so as not to “offend” religious male soldiers. Religious arguments also underpin opposition to full LGBTQ equality, and in general oppose any kind of family form that is not Jewish male, Jewish female, Jewish children.
Liberal American Jews, accustomed to the American tradition of religion in the service of liberal values and progress, have observed these developments with dismay and incomprehension and perhaps even denial. They believe that the Jewish religion could play a different role in Israel.
They are wrong.
An American philanthropist recently shared with Ram his frustration at the fact that whenever and wherever he sees something wrong in Israel — in the treatment of women, of non-Jews, and expressions of racism and hatred — he also sees a Rabbi. This is not a coincidence. This is not an aberration. This is the role of Jewish religion in Israel.
If American Jews are ever to find a home for their brand of Judaism in Israel, their goal cannot be support for a “kinder, gentler” type of Jewish religion in the public and political sphere, commensurate with their liberal values.
Their goal should be no religion at all.
What American Jews Get Wrong About Israeli Liberalism
Liberal American Jews will only be effective in securing a home in Israel for their brand of Jewish practice if their goal is to secure the Zionist project of a national secular Jewish existence.
Unlike in America, in Israel, liberal values can only be promoted in the context of secularism. As a broad rule (there are individual exceptions of course), the more secular Israelis will uphold liberal values, and vice versa.
Therefore, as secularism becomes politically stronger in Israel, so will liberal values.
A more secular Israel is a more liberal Israel. A more religious Israel is a more illiberal one. It is as simple as that. This is the choice.
Having badly defined the goal towards a “kinder, gentler” Jewish religion in the public sphere in Israel, American Jews have also chosen the least effective strategy possible. They have sought recognition for their brand of Judaism whether in matters of conversion, marriage, or prayer at the Kotel, from the very same authorities that have been given monopoly power over these matters by the State, principally, the Chief Rabbinate.
The Rabbinate will never, ever cede its power. No monopoly in the history of monopolies has ever given up or shared power voluntarily. Just ask AT&T. American Jews have been behaving like the frustrated customers of a corrupt monopoly.
You do not ask a monopoly to treat you nicely. You break up a monopoly, with force.
Above all, if American Jews are to effect change in Israel to make room for their brand of pluralism, they need numbers. No political change is ever possible without numbers. And there are no numbers in Israel for the kind of Judaism that Americans have in America.
To get the big numbers, liberal American Jews have to decide who their actual potential allies are. If they seek Israeli Jews who will have a positive attitude towards religion, then they are likely to be non-liberal Orthodox Jews who reject their form of practice completely. If they seek Israeli Jews who will share their values of pluralism, equality, tolerance, feminism and liberalism, they are, by and large, likely to be the shrimp-eating-Shabbat-driving Jews, whose attitudes to religion range from revulsion to apathy.
If Conservative, Reform and generally liberal American Jews seek partners in Israel who share both their liberal values and positive attitude towards religion, they will limit themselves to a pool of citizens that is barely likely to get one seat in the Knesset.
Liberal American Jews have wasted hundreds of millions of dollars trying to shore up Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel, to no avail. They celebrate the increase in numbers from next to nothing to a little more than nothing. But fundamentally Israel is not the soil for that kind of Judaism, which appeals almost exclusively to Olim from the West, who over time, revert to the dominant Zionist ethos.
As a result, American Jews have been financing micro-operations that will never be able to make a real impact on Israeli society. It is understandable that donors appreciate promoting the values they care for in the specific form they are accustomed to. But it has zero impact on Israeli society.
Worse, having long ago understood that they have no chance to convert religious Orthodox Israeli Jews to their kind of pluralistic Judaism, American Jews have instead pivoted to trying to convert Israeli secular Jews to their brand of religion. The tragedy is that in doing so, they have unwittingly contributed to strengthening their religious Orthodox illiberal enemies.
Consider a parallel in the Second Amendment in America. Imagine an international organization seeking to convince NRA members to limit the exercise of the Second Amendment to pistols. Now imagine that once it becomes clear that America’s gun-owning community would never warm up to limiting their love of guns to pistols, the organization instead redirects its energy towards convincing the Americans who loathe and fear guns to warm up to the idea of carrying pistols.
American Jews might recoil at the parallel between Jewish religion and guns. But in the Israeli context, that is the proper parallel.
In Israel, the Jewish religion has been weaponized in the service of illiberalism and supremacism. Any support for religion of any kind only provides fuel for such values.
This is what American Jews have been unwittingly supporting in the past several decades.
Illiberal Religion vs. Liberal Secularism
A prime example of this dangerous process has been the American Jewish support for the introduction of “additional” Jewish studies into secular schools.
The Israeli school system is divided into several systems, determined by the level of religiosity of their communities. The religious schools promote strict, Orthodox practices and place a strong emphasis on Jewish religious studies. American Jews have no chance of penetrating this system to promote liberal values.
But the secular system is naturally open and liberal. So it has been the long-standing desire of the right wing religious coalition in Israel to eliminate this open and liberal character — since they consider it a threat to their illiberal and supremacist politics. Their most effective weapon, to that end, is to reduce as much as possible the study of general and universal humanities, in favor of an increased amount of Jewish studies.
In one of the greatest acts of self-defeating philanthropy, American Jews have underwritten numerous programs, both in schools and in informal education systems, intended to introduce “nice religious Judaism” into the curricula.
But there is no such thing in the Israeli context. Introducing religious studies to secular schools — even of the “nice” kind — contributes to a more religious Israel, and in Israel, Jewish religion cannot be dismantled from the Orthodox and illiberal manner in which it is practiced. This is the choice.
If liberal American Jews want to be effective they need to understand the simple fact that in the Israeli Zionist context, the choice is between illiberal religion and liberal secularism. None other.
Instead of these self-defeating measures, liberal American Jews should support all of the various battles actual Israelis, living in Israel, wage on behalf of greater secularization and less religion in public sphere. This means resisting all efforts to introduce religion, of any kind, into Israel’s public secular schools. This means fighting for the teaching of evolution. It means supporting the numerous grassroots efforts of Israeli parents to keep religion out of their children’s schoolbooks, and to keep religious “volunteers” out of provision of extracurricular activities in school.
It also means supporting public transportation on Shabbat for those municipalities that seek it (imagine if in addition to having the names of donors on ambulances, they would be on buses providing services on Shabbat). It means supporting the promotion of full equality for LGBTQ citizens, especially on matters of family life.
It means supporting the current legal battle against the prohibition on individuals bringing flour products into hospitals during Passover. It means especially standing firmly behind those who fight for the equality of women and men in the military and against any notion that “consideration for feelings” of religious soldiers should somehow come to mean discrimination against female soldiers.
American Jews need to also stop trying to get crumbs of recognition from the Chief Rabbinate. They should seek to sideline it completely.
The goal should not be to get the state to allow Reform and Conservative Rabbis to perform marriages in Israel. The goal should not be an additional prayer area next to the Kotel. The goal should be breaking up the Rabbinate’s monopoly altogether, on matters of conversion, marriage, Kashrut, and yes — the Kotel.
Secular Israelis are never going to politically mobilize, in great numbers, for the specific goal of the state of Israel funding Conservative and Reformed rabbis, or Conservative and Reformed Mikvehs. Secular Israelis want the state to not fund rabbis and Mikvehs at all.
In a secular Israel, liberal American Jews will have no problem finding a home for their brand of Jewish practice. In an Israel of civil unions, their rabbis, just like anyone else, will be able to perform ceremonies for those who want them. In a national, secular Kotel, American Jews will be able to pray how they want and see fit, because there will be no Rabbi to regulate them. In an Israel that doesn’t fund rabbis and Mikvehs, any community that wants to fund their kind of religious services and practice would be able to do so.
This is the only kind of Israel that would be a home to all Jews, from all around the world.
It is high time that American liberal Jews join forces with secular Israelis for a secular Zionist Israel.
The future of the relationship between liberal American Jews and Israeli Jews depends on American Jews understanding the toxic role of religion in Israel, and redefining the goal — ruthlessly — towards a secular Israel.
Dr. Einat Wilf is a former member of the Israeli Knesset and author of “Telling Our Story”. Dr. Ram Vromen is the Chair of the Israeli Secular Forum.