Bridging The Gap

As a firm believer in the importance of relations between Israel and the Diaspora, I dedicate a great deal of time to dealing with core issues that worry Jews overseas, meeting with a variety of representatives of world Jewry, and trying to promote more inclusive policies. This is why I often invite American Jewish interns to join my team and assist in our outreach to the English speaking community, and also to always make sure their voices are heard.

This year I have two American interns — students at the Hevruta Gap Year program at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a pluralistic Jewish think tank here in Jerusalem, spending the year learning and working before they return to the United States to attend university.

On the very first day they began working with me, they experienced a very sensitive and emotional meeting with a group of American rabbis visiting Israel as part of a Jewish Agency delegation. This cohort of rabbis included representatives from across the denominational spectrum, mostly from the area of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

So in this article I am taking the liberty to do something a little different. Instead of again presenting my own ideas, I’ve decided to give you the opportunity to hear directly from my two American interns about how they experienced this meeting and deal with this issue in general.

Jacob Fortinsky

I think the rabbis brought up some very important issues about the topic of Israel within the American Jewish community. For many congregations and Jewish communities — especially non-Orthodox ones — Israel is considered off limits, or something too divisive to talk about. I think that the issue is definitely problematic, but I think their overly simplistic characterization of the situation in the United States is neither true nor productive.

In my Conservative community growing up, for example, it was always assumed that everyone supported Israel; however, within the parameters of supporting Israel there was a wide range of opinions regarding the limits and role of criticism. Many believed that we should continue to publicly give unequivocal support for Israel. But others thought that it was important to voice concerns as well. They felt insulted that though we might be considered Jews in Israel, what we practice is not considered Judaism; they felt that Israel was not making enough of an effort to maintain its role as an open and welcoming home to Jews of every stripe; they criticized the expansion of settlements and other increasingly belligerent and undemocratic policies. These people felt at odds with the overt message of “blind support”, but felt as though they did not have a seat at the table to do anything about it.

I think that the traditional display of unanimity is unfair and untrue, and that the current model of hasbara is not engaging enough to the young, modern Jew. Instead, the community should strive to create a more nuanced and informed conversation centered on values, rather than one that paints the conflict as black and white.

What the rabbis said did not surprise me and is fairly common within the American Jewish community. But I don’t think it is as simple as blaming Americans Jews for not being supportive enough. In my opinion, the blame lies just as much on the Israeli government. For most Americans, being egalitarian is central to their Jewish identities, and when they see the way Reform and Conservative Jews are treated in Israel and the way women are often treated in Israeli society, they feel alienated. Furthermore, the American Jewish psyche is significantly influenced by the ideas of freedom of religion and individual choice, so the fact that Jewish life in Israel is dictated by the Rabbinate disturbs them. Several of my cousins are rabbis (Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform), and it bothers me that even though they spent their entire lives dedicated to learning and spreading Torah, they are not recognized as rabbis here, they cannot marry people here, and the Jews they convert are not considered Jewish here. Even my grandparents’ Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Lookstein, is not considered legitimate enough by the Rabbinate to issue conversions. In my community we often joke that Israel is the only country in the Western world where we don’t have the right to practice our religion freely.

I understand where Israeli Jews and Prime Minister Netanyahu are coming from when they say that Israel should not be so concerned with world Jewry; but their hypocrisy becomes evident when they pour tons of money into the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs to try to alter world Jewry instead of trying to understand it.

I marched last month at the Western Wall alongside Anat Hoffman and Rabbis Steven Wernick and Rick Jacobs to stand with the movement to create an egalitarian section. I heard people yelling at us “You’re worse than Christians” and “Death to Reformim”, and I saw people pushing us — even though we were holding sifrei Torah! Shouldn’t Israel encourage the inclusion of Jews who otherwise would not be engaged in Torah or in Israeli society?

Israel should strive to be a place that includes all Jews, not just those who practice in accordance with the Rabbinate. When that happens, maybe Israel will be talked about more in our synagogues.

Yael Marans

Growing up, I considered Zionism a core value of the American Jewish community. Yet I was not surprised that the group of American rabbis expressed a struggle to discuss Israel in their congregations, fearing attack from their communities.

I am familiar with their ambivalence. I know of communities that are tired of being divided by discussions about Israel, and I have peers from a variety of religious backgrounds who feel genuine confusion about the role of Israel in their lives, who wonder if their tepid connection to Israel can coexist with their liberal values. In my opinion, the reluctance to discuss Israel is not an entirely new phenomenon, nor does it lack a legitimate basis.

As a young adult, I sometimes experience this ambivalence to discuss Israel. I grew up in Jewish day schools, and I feel an impenetrable sense of Zionism, but I also feel exasperated by the contemporary discourse. In my schools and my Jewish summer camp, we almost never criticized Israel, and I started to associate any outward signs of Zionism with a narrow minded, unquestioning approach.

On the other hand, I want Zionism to remain an integral value of the Jewish community. Jewish leaders should never have to apologize for believing in the Jewish state. Most rabbis in America still consider Zionism an inherent part of their Jewish identities. But I wish more of them tried to present a complex message, one of unrelenting Zionism in tandem with criticism of the Israeli government.

One comment that stuck with me from the meeting with the rabbis was a request for more hasbara tools from the Israeli government. In my eyes, hasbara is at the root of the problem. We need to move away from a defensive model of speaking about Israel. If the Jewish people doesn’t accept that Israel is a complex state, one with both strengths and weaknesses, then no one will.

Since we do not want to be caught in a cycle of defending Israel’s right to exist, we must raise the level of the discourse. This change must include more nuanced education about Israeli history and policy because it is our responsibility as American Jews to criticize Israel. Our love and commitment must be rich with complexity and questions.

It may be true that anti-Zionism reaches dangerous levels today in America. Next year when I begin college, I will encounter BDS, which is, in my eyes, a destructive movement. So I must hold fast to my nuanced Zionism, forcing myself to express out loud that I am an unflinching Zionist, as well as a passionate liberal.

Part of me still resists the loud expressions of Zionism with which I grew up, the ones that signify to me the shallow, right-wing Zionism that dominates American Jewry. But I believe that we must continue to express overt liberal Zionism in order to reclaim the primacy of Zionism in our community.

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Years ago I might have been surprised hearing such voices. But today not only are these voices not surprising at all, but on the contrary, they are very common. These views, as described by Yael and Jacob, must also be heard loud and clear here in Israel. However, the basis for addressing the issue is first acknowledging its existence.

My sense is that many Israelis aren’t aware of the significance of this challenge and don’t fully understand the impact that religious decisions here have on Jews worldwide. Jews around the world are watching Israel closely, and they are increasingly feeling frustrated. They see what is going on with the Western Wall, conversions, ritual baths (mikveh), and they hear the despicable things being said by senior politicians and head rabbis about the way they practice religion. All these things cause unimaginable damage to our relations.

The responsibility for fixing the situation is mutual just as our interests are mutual. It is our responsibility as Israelis to remember that Israel must maintain its historic commitment to be a homeland for the entire Jewish people, to speak much more sensitively, and most importantly, to promote tolerant and respectful policies. And on the other hand, I would love to see Jewish communities and the Jewish Federations, despite the controversies, continue to strengthen their identity and their connection to Israel, especially among the youth.

Relations between Israel and Diaspora Jewry are at a crossroads. Both sides must come together and return to the shared path of mutual guarantee, mutual respect, and mutual responsibility. Bridging the gap and finding the common ground is the greatest challenge of our generation. Implementing the Western Wall plan would be a good first step.

About the Author
Dr. Aliza Lavie served as a member of the Knesset for Yesh Atid between 2013 and 2019, serving as chair of the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality. She is a senior lecturer at the School of Communication at Bar-Ilan University.