Now that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has temporarily mollified the America Jewish community by kicking the can down the road on the controversial conversion legislation, leaving the Western Wall issue unresolved, this is a good time to think about the relationship between American Jews and Israel.
1. Is American Jewish support of Israel essential for the survival of the Jewish state?
2. Does the Israeli government understand how much America’s support of Israel might be weakened by the alienation of ardently Zionist but not so religious Jews who make up much of the core of groups like AIPAC, AJC and StandWithUs, and pour their lives into defending the Jewish state?
3. Do secular and religiously liberal American Jews now calling for boycotts of Israel because of disagreements on religious pluralism realize how much damage this might create for both US and Israeli national security interests?
During the years of contention when the Obama and Netanyahu administrations overlapped, I repeatedly tried to tell members of the Israeli coalition governments that there was a dangerous and growing divide between large segments of American and Israeli Jewry.
Addressing this problem should be considered an Israeli national defense priority, as Israel needs American Jewish support to defend itself in the court of world opinion, in Congress, fighting boycotts worldwide and to resist journalistic and organizational attacks that aim to delegitimize its very existence.
There is nothing inevitable about American support for Israel. Suppose a large part of the American Jewish community becomes estranged from the Jewish state, vocally denouncing it either because of bickering among Jews about issues of religion, or Diaspora Jews back-seat driving Israel’s painful search for workable ways of dealing with neighbors whose determination to kill them or drive them out of their homes seems implacable.
Might their vocal demands that Israel be punished succeed in undermining Israel’s national defense, which is a keystone uniquely positioned to defend their American national security interests? Too many in the Israeli government remain tone deaf to the gravity of a loss of cohesion between the Diaspora and Israeli Jewish communities, and how it can directly affect their core security concerns.
At the same time, American Jews must in the name of diversity and pluralism make the effort to respect and understand the complex realities of Israel’s multi-party democracy, where the majority of today’s citizenry are Sephardi or Mizrahi, not European Ashkenazi, who view religious issues differently.
American and Israeli Jews need to learn to respect each other’s understanding of how they define their Jewish identity, which is overlapping but different. As Jonathan Tobin wrote in Haaretz, “ Secular Israelis think of religion as only one aspect of Jewish identity that many see as optional... but to be a Jew in the Diaspora is inextricably tied with religion,” even if you are not ritually observant and Tikkun Olam (“repairing the world”) is your primary attachment to your Jewish identity.
So is the relationship between the two largest Jewish communities in the world vital for their survival? Jewish-Americans do not have to put their children in harm’s way, and far too many have a distorted historical understanding of the disputed territories, with a naively sanguine view of Palestinian leadership.
To most Israeli voters, issues relating to the Western Wall and religious pluralism, which might be vehemently discussed in the US, are issues secondary to economics and security.
Israeli leaders need to understand how important these issues are in the minds of many American Jews, who may think more about who gets to pray at the Western Wall and conversions and less about rockets from Gaza, Israeli army service, Iranian nuclear weapons, and shekels.
The issues are complex, but American Jews, who passionately care about Israel’s welfare, feel disrespected as Jews by the ultra-Orthodox. They are perplexed as they see the ultra-Orthodox (not to be confused with religious Zionists) as non-Zionists who do not serve in the army, don’t seem grateful for American financial support of Israeli institutions and extort money for religious schools that don’t teach secular skills for self-sufficiency in the modern world.
Likud-led governments are not the only ones that have capitulated to ultra-Orthodox demands in forming coalition governments. American liberal religious groups would be blind to ignore the very real possibility that Zionist Union (Labor) would accept the ultra-Orthodox into their coalition if that were needed to attain power. Perhaps only Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid might resist that temptation.
Israel would also be incredibly shortsighted if it sees its pivot toward relationships with India, China and other nations supplanting the American-Israeli relationship in the short term.
For the foreseeable future America is indispensable for Israel’s national security interests, and Israel is indispensable for American defense interests.
An important side benefit of a compromise on conversion would be for Israeli-Russian citizens. Non-coercive and easier conversions that would satisfy the more tolerant Orthodox streams within Israeli Jewry, especially those led by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Benny Ish-Shalom, would show great compassion to the hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews who fight for their country, consider themselves Jews but technically need a conversion for their patrilineal descent.
The Reform movement’s acceptance of patrilineal descent yields at this time an unbridgeable divide within halachic movements, although Judaism has always come up with legal fictions through the ages to preserve the Jewish People, and more compassionate conversions would be a good first step.
Haredim need to be respected but would do well to remember the words and actions of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who loved all Jews and considered the performance of any mitzvot by a non-observant Jew as worthwhile.
American Jews need to be more sensitive to Israeli political realities and not overreact with calls to boycotts, giving succor to the BDS movement.
And Israeli politicians should remember not to take American Jewry’s support for granted, that disparaging American Jewry is not just a religious or moral issue, but is an Israeli national security interest too.
The author is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. He regularly briefs members of Congress and think tanks on the Middle East and is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post.