Israel is separating itself from the majority of American Jews, and for no good reason.
A foundational issue of faith, how a diverse global people self-identify, has been hijacked by Israeli domestic politics and an outdated and crude understanding of international relations. New York Jewish Life disagrees with recent political and religious decisions that arbitrarily narrow the definition of who, in Israel’s eyes, is considered Jewish for purposes of legitimate attachment to that country. Apparently, anything less observant than Orthodox, anywhere in the world, is now suspect.
This paper disagrees, but we understand—without condoning or supporting—the motivation behind those recent divisive moves. It now requires more effort, more thinking and more conversation to form the attachments to Israel that used to be more automatic among American Jews. Younger American Jews, and believe me I struggle with how to define “younger” these days as much as you do, simply do not have the innate connection that defined the ethnic identity of previous generations.
So, like a local politician who prefers that as few people as possible participate in elections in order to maximize the weight of his base vote, Israel’s governing coalition is undercutting the voices of those who require some more time and information to come around. This isn’t even a matter of silencing “no”; it’s become a matter of silencing “maybe, but explain to me.…”
The Israeli prime minister canceled an earlier agreement to establish a prayer space adjacent to the Western Wall of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem—a holy site—where genders can mix and pray together. He also endorsed legislation that designated a monopoly on conversions to Judaism in Israel “by pulling government recognition for private conversions”—those done by non-Orthodox rabbis. These are demarcations that need not be made. These moves hang an “unwelcome” sign over a country that, for Jews worldwide, should be more accessible.
News coverage of these policy moves has characterized them as capitulations to the Orthodox voting bloc in Israel. This paper refuses to join that labeling, as nothing productive will come of it. Instead, we see this—whatever the vote being courted—as domestic politics’ being far out of step with practical and necessary global relations, and we hope it can be walked back. Nor should those who lobbied for these provisions be faulted or vilified; it is their job to push. It was the government’s job to say no.
At stake is nothing less than defining—to the world and to world Jewry—whether Israel is a democratic global Jewish homeland or exclusively a Middle Eastern nation embroiled in that region’s affairs, to the detriment of all other concerns. It doesn’t need to be either/or, but has unfortunately been designed as binary. This is supremely odd and unnecessary, as Jews of all levels of observance, particularly in America, have long supported Israel—indeed from before its founding. If that support now requires more and deeper dialogue, so be it.
For Jews, Israel is different from other nations. It should be different. Discussions, domestic and global, should be different, and they already are! Tel Aviv’s vibrant LGBTQ community already lives alongside Hasidim. Women proudly serve in the military. The country has had a female leader while the United States has yet to have one! Employees at cutting-edge technology companies take their lunch in cafés outside ancient buildings. Jews from throughout the world visit Israel and return to their homes stronger in their support for their spiritual homeland.
Some of us have connections with organizations and institutions that themselves are deeply connected to Israel. Some of us have personal connections with Israeli public officials. All of us should speak out on revising these recent irresponsible, shortsighted policies.
Israel is better than its recent decisions on defining who is a Jew. New York Jewish Life hopes it comes to its senses regarding this hurtful direction. Every day is another opportunity to turn things around, and there are a lot of days in a year.