AIPAC’s Conundrum – Unifying American Jewry

Parshat Zachor, March 7, 2020
In spite of the Coronavirus the turnout to this year’s AIPAC conference was beyond expectations. Over eighteen thousand people including over four thousand students were in attendance. This is a remarkable tribute to the organization and the pro Israel lobby in the United States. I’m also impressed by its evolution and growth over the past two decades. Yet growth brings unique challenges and it is one of those challenges that I want to address.
Two decades ago AIPAC was a much smaller organization. Relatively few delegates came to Washington DC and those who attended were predominantly non-orthodox. The event itself was not kosher and religious observances were absent from the programming. This year, the pre-conference shabbaton had 1,800 people in attendance over Shabbat and a majority were Modern Orthodox. All the catering facilitated by AIPAC was strictly kosher and the vibe was very Jewish.
I’m proud to be an Orthodox Jew and my heart swells with pride at their commitment and dedication on matters of importance to Israel and the Jewish community. However, it may come with a heavy and costly price. Three thousand plus years ago God told the fledgling Jewish nation, as they were about to enter the land of Israel, that he won’t wipe out all the hostile nations at once. Doing so would create vast emptiness and wild animals would roam the void. By doing it slowly, the expansion could be better managed creating a more hospitable and enduring environment. AIPAC and the American Israel alliance must ensure there will never be a void; that support for Israel will always be the shared responsibility of all Jewish denominations. There can never be a vacuum that must be filled, because you never can be assured of who will fill the void.
I know some may find my words disturbing, especially written by an orthodox rabbi, but one of AIPAC’s looming challenges may be due to the disproportionate amount of kippot at the conference. An organization that has strengthened bipartisanship in Congress has a unique responsibility to maintain that bipartisanship in their organization. It must promote the continual support of the orthodox without jeopardizing the long-term association and commitment of the non-orthodox. In truth, the same issues can be ascribed to the State of Israel. Israel will probably be able to confront the Palestinian issue and limit the negativity from the United Nations and the ICC, but it will face a long-term problem with its secular majority due to its success in harnessing the growth of the kippa-wearing Orthodox Jew. Israel as well must balance the needs of a religious revivalism with assurances to the secular majority that their needs and desires won’t be ignored.
What’s happening in Israel and the United States is beyond miraculous. Until recently, Orthodox Jews shyly kept in the background, interested solely in their local communities. The big shots, the “machers,” were always secular Jews who had the clout, sophistication, and connections. But that, too, has changed. Today’s Orthodox Jew is more likely to be at the forefront in every and any area important to the Jewish world. While I’m delighted that Orthodox Jews are taking greater interest in the broader Jewish community, it is imperative that we continuously acknowledge that the American Israel alliance owes its success to a broad base and cohesive Jewish community.
However, I sense the shifting tides and realignment in the Jewish world and it portends deeper division among coreligionists. This dramatic change may be the result of the orthodox filling a void of the many secular Jews who are no longer diehard supporters of the State of Israel. Alternatively, and I’m saddened to even suggest this hypothesis, as Orthodox Jews have woken up to their communal responsibilities, many secular Jews have found that due to philosophical differences, they are uncomfortable associating with an orthodox leaning organization.
Either way, the State of Israel and the Jewish community are the big losers. Unfortunately, as orthodoxy continues to flourish, secular Jews proportionately leave Judaism and assimilate. Currently, in the United States approximately 10 to 15% of the Jewish population are orthodox and upwards of 40% are secular. Thus, as orthodoxy continues on its upward trajectory, the secular Jew continues its spiral to oblivion. Over the course of time it is a losing proposition as there are three times as many secular Jews than Orthodox Jews. By focusing only on our successes it will ultimately serve to heighten our failures.
If AIPAC loses the support of the secular Jew then it will ultimately lose the support of congress and the senate. Bipartisan support for Israel is largely due to a perception that Israel is supported by all streams and factions of the Jewish people. Although on a percentage basis our numbers are insignificant, we do wield significant financial and political clout. If, however, the divide within the Jewish community continues and AIPAC is perceived to be in the clutches of the “Orthodox,” then it won’t be too long before it’s influence will wane and Israel and its citizens will suffer. And need I say, that when Jews sever their relationship with Israel they are that much closer to severing their relationship with Judaism and the Jewish community.
Even in Israel the beauty of the country is that it’s a haven for all Jews. Regardless of belief and commitment our people are united by our ancestral DNA. Members of the IDF subject themselves to unfathomable and often life threatening situations to protect their country. They do so with disregard to the faith and piety of those they are protecting. Unfortunately, this balancing act is precarious and a substantial increase in the orthodox will have severe implications and ramifications on the culture and dynamic of Israel. My fear is that the successes of orthodoxy will breed discontent among the secular majority and ultimately lead to a mass exodus of everyone but the orthodox. Sounds great? Look again. Immediately, the Arab minority becomes a more frightening potential majority while those who have protected Israel by serving in the IDF are no longer residing in Israel. The economy will suffer, thereby reducing Aliyah and the reduction of new immigrants will be insufficient to replace those all those who left. The global Jewish community will no longer find commonality with the Jews of Israel, thereby limiting their financial and political support and interest in visiting. This snowball effect can be devastating to Israel/Diaspora relations.
Israel, Judaism, and AIPAC are all central in my belief system. I think they are all essential for the future of Israel, and the Jewish people. However, inasmuch as I delight in seeing kippot I do fear the ramifications. I’m generally optimistic but I’m concerned that what used to be a diverse gathering all converging on Washington to show their support for the United States and Israel has become disproportionately orthodox. While nowadays it is definitely easier to get a minyan in Washington, DC that is not my primary reason for attending the conference.
Sometimes what you wish actually comes to fruition only to realize that had you known then what you know now you never would have made the wish.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Jack Engel
About the Author
Rabbi Jack and his wife, Miriam have reinvigorated Anshei Emuna, a Modern Orthodox Synagogue located in Delray Beach, Florida, in the ten plus years they have been at the Shul, through their experiences gleaned from serving in pulpits in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. They are advocates of a modern Orthodoxy, being open minded, yet adhering to the integrity of halacha. They believe that being an “ohr lagoyim” refers first and foremost to the entirety of our collective Jewish family.
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