Analysis from Israel

The growing divide between Israeli and American Jews was a major topic of conversation at this week’s annual meeting of the Jewish Federations of North America. It was also the topic of a lengthy feature in Haaretz, which largely blamed the Israeli government. Inter alia, it quoted former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro as saying, in reference to that majority of American Jews who identify as non-Orthodox and politically liberal, “There is an idea that has some currency in certain circles around the Israeli government that says, ‘You know what, we can write off that segment of American Jewry because in a couple of generations their children or grandchildren will assimilate.’”

I agree that the idea of writing off this segment of American Jewry has some currency in Israel. But in most cases, it’s due less to fantasies about liberal Jews disappearing than to a belief that Israel will have to do without them whether it wants to or not, because liberal Jews can no longer be depended on for even the most minimal level of support. And by that, I don’t mean support for any specific Israeli policy, but for something far more basic: Israel’s right to be heard, by both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.

Nothing better illustrates this than recent decisions by two campus Hillels to bar mainstream Israeli speakers from addressing Jewish students. At Princeton, it was Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, and at Stanford, it was a group of Israeli Arab veterans of the Israel Defense Forces. I can understand Hillel refusing to host speakers from the radical fringes. But how are Jewish students supposed to learn anything about Israel if campus Hillels won’t even let them hear from representatives of two of the country’s most mainstream institutions – its elected government and its army?

Both Hillels later termed their decisions a “mistake” – most likely under pressure from Hillel International, whose CEO, Eric Fingerhut, was the lead author on Princeton Hillel’s apology. But that doesn’t change the fact that at two leading universities on opposite sides of the country, the Hillel directors, both non-Orthodox rabbis, initially thought canceling the speeches in response to progressive students’ objections was a reasonable decision. Princeton’s Julie Roth thought it completely reasonable to deny her students the chance to hear an official Israeli government representative try to explain the government’s policies. And Stanford’s Jessica Kirschner – backed, incredibly, by the university’s “pro-Israel” association – thought it completely reasonable to deny her students the chance to hear from non-Jewish Israelis who don’t agree that Israel is an apartheid state.

American Jewish rabbis and lay leaders obviously have the right to disagree with Israeli policies. But how is any relationship possible if one side won’t even allow the other to be heard? Gagging and boycotts Israel can get from its enemies; it doesn’t need American Jews for that. So if Israel can’t even rely on them to enable interested students to be exposed to mainstream Israeli views, what exactly are they contributing to the Israel-Diaspora relationship? And why, under these circumstances, should Israel have any interest in accommodating their concerns about, say, prayer arrangements at the Western Wall?

Moreover, consider who did step in to allow the Princeton and Stanford speeches to take place as planned – the Orthodox Chabad movement, which, on both campuses, volunteered to host the speakers on very short notice. If Orthodox groups are the only ones in America these days even willing to provide a venue for Israelis who deviate from progressive orthodoxy, why wouldn’t Israel give greater weight to Orthodox views than non-Orthodox ones?

Nor is this problem limited to college campuses. The most salient example – one worth revisiting precisely because both sides consider it a turning point in the relationship – was the dispute over the Iranian nuclear deal.

Given the almost wall-to-wall Israeli consensus that the deal was dangerous (despite deep disagreements over how best to oppose it), many Israelis felt no less betrayed by American Jewish support for the deal than many American Jews felt when Israel reneged on the Western Wall compromise two years later. As former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren told Haaretz, “We went to American Jews and told them that the Iran deal endangers 6 million Jews in Israel, and that it’s not an American political issue, but rather, a matter of Jewish existence, and I don’t need to tell you what happened.” Indeed, absent that sense of betrayal, I suspect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might have been more willing to rebuff ultra-Orthodox pressure over the Western Wall.

But policy disagreements I can accept, even on issues of existential importance. What I found far more troubling was liberal American Jews’ reaction to Netanyahu’s efforts to lobby against the deal, which Haaretz reporter Judy Maltz accurately described as follows: “Considering that 70 percent of American Jews had voted for Barack Obama, Netanyahu’s efforts to lead a revolt against him were seen by many in the Jewish community as unconscionable.” Indeed, many prominent American Jews vociferously objected to Netanyahu’s speech to Congress against the deal, using terms like “humiliated” and “angered” to describe their feelings. Yet somehow, I haven’t heard a word from them against European leaders’ efforts today to lobby Congress to defy President Trump and preserve the deal.

In short, many liberal American Jews didn’t just oppose the Israeli government’s policy, they even objected to the government’s efforts to publicly advocate for its chosen policy. Effectively, they declared that Israel had no right to make its views heard in America if doing so discomfited them.

Many liberal Jews remain staunch supporters of Israel. Yet the ranks of the Roths and Kirschners seem to be growing every year. And though Israel and Diaspora Jewry can survive disagreements about policy, if liberal American Jews aren’t even willing to hear what Israeli Jews think, and provide a platform for others to hear it, the relationship will be over. I continue to think that would be tragedy. But you cannot have a relationship with people who don’t even acknowledge your right to speak – even if those people are your family.

Originally published in Commentary on November 15, 2017

One Response to U.S. Jews and Israel’s Right to Be Heard

  • J.J. Surbeck says:

    This is a masterful piece. And it describes only the tip of the iceberg. Hillel is fundamentally an ultra-liberal group that fancies itself as the only legitimate Jewish group on campus, more concernedd with cozzying up to its respective administrations (it boasts a presence on 500+ campuses) than on training and supporting Jewish students to better defend Israel.

    Worse yet, it works at refraining students activities when they become too determined. Oh no! That would make Hillel look bad in the eyes of the administration if they can keep the Jewish students under control!

    Scores of Hillel chapters also see no problem in making alliances with dedicated enemies of Israel such as J Street U. I’ve seen it up close: they’re best buddies. Never mind that J Street, in rejecting the will of the Israeli electorate to choose the government they want and trying to impose instead (via Obama) policies that the same Israeli public obviously did not want, have proven to be the most undemocratic organization there is. So here you have liberal Jews funding illiberal organizations! It’s hard to find more hypocriticial people. The best thing American Jews can do to restore balance on our campuses is to cease funding Hillel, J Street and Jewish Voice for Palestine (er… “Peace”). Those who do are funding Israel’s enemies, not its friends, Jewish or not.

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In today’s world, Orthodox and Conservative Jews should be natural allies

Jewish tradition holds that the Second Temple was destroyed by baseless hatred. Since we’re currently in the annual three-week mourning period for the destruction of both Temples, which culminates in the holiday of Tisha B’Av, it’s a good time to consider a particularly counterproductive bit of baseless hatred: that between the Orthodox and Conservative movements.

Orthodox Jews tend to view Conservative and Reform Jewry as indistinguishable, lumping them both together as “non-Orthodox.” But in reality, there’s a yawning gap between them. The Conservative movement officially maintains that Jews must follow halachah (traditional Jewish law), including by observing Shabbat, kashrut, the Jewish holidays and so forth. The Reform movement rejects the very idea of binding halachah. Thus on the fundamental issue that has preserved the Jewish people for millennia—the binding nature of halachah—the Conservatives are formally on the Orthodox side of the divide.

Admittedly, most Conservative Jews don’t practice what their movement preaches, so one could legitimately ask what value this formal commitment to halachah has if most of its members ignore it. Moreover, this failure to produce and sustain observant communities has led many Jews raised in committed Conservative homes to switch to Orthodoxy (I’m one of them), and if the most observant continue leaving, I wonder how long even a formal commitment to halachah will survive.

But right now, the Conservative movement still contains a traditionalist faction that’s committed to observing halachah as the movement defines it. And because of this commitment, traditionalist Conservatives have far more in common with Orthodoxy than Reform.

Granted, Conservative interpretations of halachah diverge from Orthodox ones in nontrivial ways. But that strikes me as a less serious problem, because radically divergent interpretations of halachah have been common throughout Jewish history.

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