When Israel’s current government was formed this spring after the March Knesset elections, there were a number of clear winners and losers in terms of the country’s political rivals. But one of the big losers from the reshuffling of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s cabinet was the overwhelming majority of American Jews who do not identify with Orthodox Jewry. Since then, a number of incidents have occurred in which government officials have made statements that have further alienated the many Diaspora Jews who bitterly resent the way their denominations are treated as non-Jewish religions rather than equal partners in the Jewish future. To date, Netanyahu, like his predecessors in both Likud and Labor, have tried to mollify American Jews with conciliatory statements. But after the latest such insult, it is clearly time for him to do more. Israelis on the left and the right, secular as well as religious need to come to grips with the fact that attacks on pluralism are more than an annoying public relations problem. They constitute a strategic problem for the Jewish state that needs to be addressed.
Though the Israeli political establishment, both on the right and the left, were primarily focused on the other implications of the new coalition, its formation ended a brief two-year period when the ultra-Orthodox political parties were left out of the government and attempts were made to ease the path to conversion as well as other efforts to begin to ease the country into acceptance of Jewish religious pluralism. This was a great opportunity for a country whose decisions on a variety of issues have often been held hostage by the views of the “black hat” minority. Though the collapse of the previous government had little if anything to do with the issue, the return of the two religious parties ended these experiments, returning Israel to a situation where the non-Orthodox rightly feel slighted.
As I wrote back in May, when I attempted to explain the situation in terms of Israeli political realities, the core problem is really not one in which there is a disagreement about “who is a Jew,” but rather who is a rabbi. That’s because the lack of a separation between synagogue and state means that in Israel the government pays rabbinic salaries making the right to be accorded official status is a political and economic issue rather than a purely religious one. Thus the right of the non-Orthodox streams to be recognized hinges on an ability to mobilize political support. Since they command the allegiance of few Israelis and the ultra-Orthodox constitute a powerful voting bloc in the Knesset due to the country’s proportional representation, the non-Orthodox inevitably are the losers in this tug of war.
Though a majority of Israelis are secular and most dislike the treatment they get from the rabbinate, the question of pluralism has always been secondary to a desire for civil marriage and disestablishment.
This is difficult for Americans who are unused to the lack of separation between religion and state in Israel to understand. To the extent that Israeli leaders understand how the Diaspora feels about this, they have still given it short shrift since the issue is always going to be overshadowed by the great debates over war and peace issues as well as those about economics.
While I agree with Reform and Conservative leaders who protest the lack of pluralism, I’ve also tried to counsel Jews living here to try to look at Israeli society in its own context rather than judging it by the standards of Jewish life in the United States. Until the non-Orthodox movements are able to convince more Israelis to back their appeal for equal treatment, an unsatisfactory status quo is likely to stay in place.
But in the wake of the collapse of the new effort to ease the path to conversion, as well as by the recent appalling statement of the country’s new Religious Affairs Minister that he does not consider Reform Jews to be Jewish, as well as another incident involving President Reuven Rivlin’s snub of Conservative rabbis, it’s time for a more pro-active response to the problem.
Orthodox Jews may take a dim view of their Reform or Conservative cousins because of doctrinal differences. They may also point, with justice, to the potential demographic collapse of Reform and especially Conservative Jewry in the United States that the Pew Survey highlighted in 2013. But what they and Israelis of all stripes must remember is that for all of the problems of the non-Orthodox, they still constitute approximately 90 percent of American Jewry. The Orthodox share of the American Jewish population may go up in the coming decades, but their triumphalism notwithstanding, they are going to be a minority here for a very long time to come. For the foreseeable future, the vast majority of people who call themselves Jewish in the United States are not going to be Orthodox.
In its questions about support for Israel, the Pew Survey illustrated that the decline of Jewish peoplehood and the rise of a new large unaffiliated group within the community in the United States is having a serious impact on identification with Zionism or the need to speak out in defense of Israel even at times when the media and the political left are attacking it. There is no magic bullet that will solve that problem, and there is little doubt that support for Israel is declining among the liberal Democratic constituencies that non-Orthodox Jewry support. But attacks on Reform and Conservative Judaism don’t help ameliorate the problem. To the contrary, the willingness of some Israeli leaders to speak of the bulk of American Jewry as alien outsiders deepen the already growing gulf between the two communities that need each other so badly.
American Jews need Israel because it is the spiritual center of Judaism and the place where the core principles of Jewish identity flourish. But Israel needs American Jews too, not least because of the vital political support they can furnish for a Jewish state that remains under siege. To those who say Reform and Conservative Jews must be written off because most support President Obama, I would answer that they still are the core of Jewish life here and political support for Israel. Moreover, growing numbers of secular and even religious Israelis are starting to recognize that their appeals for pluralism are justified.
Thus, the dustups between Haredi leaders and American sensibilities aren’t just meaningless spats but part of a genuine strategic threat to Israel’s security.
What can be done? American Jews can’t compel Israeli politicians to treat their needs as priorities when the electoral math points in the other direction. Yet Netanyahu must do more than merely publicly disagree when insults are hurled at the non-Orthodox. The prime minister and others in power must make it clear to the ultra-Orthodox parties that what they are doing is endangering the nation’s ability to mobilize support that props up the country’s vital alliance with the United States. That means Netanyahu must take some key issues, like the future of renovations to the Western Wall plaza in order to follow through on Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky’s plan to create a non-Orthodox section, out of the hands of the Haredim.
Genuine pluralism may not be in the cards in the immediate future. But unless Israel’s political establishment starts acting as if it cares about maintaining support from most American Jews, they will be worsening a problem that is undermining communal unity and making it harder to maintain a united front behind the defense of the Jewish state.