Divided Jewry

Divisions between Jews are wide, as are divisions between many other groups of people all over the globe. In Israel, among the Jews there are four basic groupings: secular, traditional, religious, haredi (ultra-Orthodox). There is friction among them, especially between the Reform and Conservative movements and the haredi political parties, who view the former as secular or non-religious.

I mention politics because religion in Israel is very political, so much so that the haredi parties are courted by the largest parties in order to form a ruling coalition. (There has never been a majority party government in Israel’s history.) Consequently, the haredi parties are in charge of “Who is a Jew,” marriage and divorce, dietary laws, and to a lesser degree, education and welfare. Most exasperating for American Jews is the haredi control of the Western Wall Plaza.

One might ask, Why is the Western Wall Plaza so important to Jews who occasionally, rarely, or never, visit there? I believe it’s politics. First of all, the idea that the Western Wall is Judaism’s most sacred site is bogus. In fact, it only began to assume importance about 150 years ago, under Ottoman rule. The Western Wall is a remnant of the retaining wall of the Temple Mount, on which stood the First and Second Holy Temples, making that space Judaism’s most sacred site. Ironically, although Israel has sovereignty over the site, it’s the Muslim Waqf that has effective control (by order of Chief of Staff, General Moshe Dayan shortly after the Old City was liberated). Jews are allowed to visit the Temple Mount only under strict supervision, which includes a prohibition against prayer.

On the Western Wall Plaza, there is one designated area already open to egalitarian prayer, plus another area just around the corner at the “Southern Wall.” At the Western Wall, non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews show up randomly or at times like the first day of a new month. Orthodox and haredi Jews are present there, in force, on a daily basis. It seems self-evident that the occasional visitors should not go out of their way to inflame the sensibilities of those who make constant use of the Plaza for worship. But they do, with very distasteful results.

The above is a preamble to consideration of the growing split among American Jews, primarily in the political realm. Jews are by nature liberal. In the last decade or two, “liberal” has become associated with the Democrat Party only. It seems to have been forgotten that one could be a liberal Democrat or a liberal Republican. The division between the two parties has become an impenetrable wall, with no meeting of the minds possible, on most issues, including Israel.

For as long as I can remember, Jews have overwhelmingly associated with the Democratic Party, at a ratio of about 3:1. The perception is that the Democratic Party has been friendlier to Israel and the Republican Party more adversarial. That assumption is certainly arguable, if not patently incorrect.

In this decade, the Democrats have put a lot of distance between themselves and Israel, while the Republicans have embraced the Jewish State. Most Jews are Democrats and many disapprove of Israel, or are disinterested in it. Sadly, more and more Democrats disapprove and are embarrassed by Israel’s policies towards the “poor Palestinians.” This opinion is supported mostly by news and analysis of the media. Most Jews know little about Israeli society except what is spoon-fed to them by the media and pro-Palestinian NGOs (non-governmental organizations), such as J Street or Jewish Voice for Peace (especially on college campuses).

Following Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign, Senator Bernie Sanders has assumed the mantle of leader of the Democratic Party. Though Jewish, Sanders likes to talk about his “Polish” ancestors. Unfortunately, or perhaps typically, he has little regard for the Jewish homeland.

It is disheartening to hear Sanders’ pronouncements, some of which are illiberal and intolerant, about Israel and Israelis. Even worse, by virtue of Sanders’ stature at the top of the party, his quotes become acceptable and routine. Some quotes follow:

In his interview at on September 22, Sanders undercuts American policy: “Certainly the United States is complicit [in the Israeli ‘occupation’ of ‘Palestinian’ land], but it’s not to say… that Israel is the only party at fault.”

Though nearly the whole world backs the Palestinian-Arabs, and the US being the country closest to Israel, Sanders said, “In terms of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the United States has got to play a much more even-handed role.”

Sanders wants a more “even-handed” approach from the US to the “Iran and Saudi conflict.” He freely criticized American ally Saudi Arabia’s support for terrorism through its funding of ultra-conservative Islamic seminaries. But he ignores similar, if not worse, material and financial support by Iran for Lebanon’s Hezbollah terrorist army, the Palestinian terror paramilitary Hamas, and other terror movements.

Sanders said that there was “extraordinary potential for the United States to help the Palestinian people rebuild Gaza and other areas. At the same time, demand that Israel, in their own interests in a way, work with other countries on environmental issues.” The senator ignores the fact that monies donated to Gaza go overwhelmingly to making and buying arms and building tunnels to terrorize Israel, with little money left over to provide benefits to the Gazans. Regarding environmental issues, the tiny country of Israel has only a negligible impact on pollution. Israel is, however, a global leader in irrigation, desalination, water purification, automated driving (which will reduce car ownership dramatically), solar field arrays, and other environmental issues.

This is nothing new for Sanders. Around the time of his election campaign against Hillary, Sanders abstained in a vote on Senate Resolution 498, which expressed support for Israel defending itself against “unprovoked rocket attacks” from Hamas. Sanders was one of only 21 Senators who refused to sign the resolution, all of whom abstained in the vote. July, 2014

‘“I thought that Bernie Sanders’s comments were disgraceful and reprehensible, and I thought he was just over the top,’ said Eliot Engel, a Democratic Jewish congressman from the Bronx who supports Hillary Clinton [and Israel]. He said that Mr. Sanders’s comments were irresponsible, giving radical left-wing elements in the party more license to attack Israel.” April, 2016 (

The subtitle of the September 25 Jerusalem Post editorial ( is, “The popularity of US Senator Bernie Sanders signals an ominous change in American public opinion.”

Democrats’ support for Israel has traditionally been lower than that of Republicans and the gap continues to grow. The gap hasn’t been this wide since 1978, when the Pew Research Center first began polling Jews on this subject.

Pew reported: In the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, 74% of Republicans said they sympathized more with Israel, compared to 33% of Democrats who favored the Palestinians. About the same percentage of Democrats (31%) said they sympathized more with the Palestinians, while just 17% of Republicans said they did.

Lately, the level of Democratic support for Palestinians has reached a new high in this century. “Among liberal Democrats, support for Palestinians surpasses support for Israel, according to a 2016 Pew survey.”

The Jerusalem Post editorial board is worried by this not just for Israelis but also for Americans who cherish democratic values and their constitutional rights. It could signal the abandonment of traditional American values within the increasingly dominant progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Certainly, the breakdown of bipartisan support for Israel has far-reaching implications.

Divisions among groups of people are to be expected. Judaism cannot afford to have a wide divide among its adherents, one that threatens to divide the two largest Jewish populations – the US and Israel. Perhaps this split will result in many thoroughly assimilated Jews giving up their tenuous Jewish identification. If that is the case, it appears that the liberal stream of Judaism will lose further ground to those who stand by a more literal interpretation of Judaism’s holy texts.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a fan of either the Republican or Democratic parties; they both seem pretty inept to me. Unfortunately, the same goes for Israel’s political parties.

About the Author
Steve Kramer grew up in Atlantic City, graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1967, adopted the hippie lifestyle until 1973, then joined the family business for 15 years. Steve moved to Israel from Margate, NJ in 1991 with his family. He has written more than 1100 articles about Israel and Jews since making Aliyah. Steve and his wife Michal live in Kfar Saba.
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