How the Progressive Religious Diaspora Fails Israel

As countless battles rage partly in the Knesset, and partly behind closed doors in elusive meetings between the Rabbanut  and law-makers over a slew of topics such at Mikveh access, the Kotel, and conversion, the country moves more and more to the political right every day. Needless to say, this is an issue which has multiple sources, and the purpose of this article isn’t to address them all, but rather to address the criticisms and concerns voiced by the Jews of liberal denominations in the Diaspora, and predominantly in America. These concerns amount up to the standard issues voiced by members of Conservative, Reform and other Jewish communities, such that Israel does not invest in them, that they are targets of some Israeli political measures of the right wing, and that Israel has become so politically and religiously disparate from them, that they find little association with it. The function of my letter here isn’t academic like other work, but rather, a letter imploring you to partake in the Zionist project. The simple answer to these claims are: You won’t have an effect on what happens here, because you don’t live here, and you don’t intend to.

Granted, I don’t mean to thrust the issue of Israel inching more and more to the right every day solely on the lack of aliyah-mindedness in Conservative and Reform Judaism, there’s countless contributions, ranging from pandering to the Haredim who’ve mastered political blackmail, to the Ultra-Nationalist Russian voting block. Nonetheless, the mentality of these movements, and their virtual absence is one of the reasons why Israel “doesn’t represent them”. The reality is that those Jews who do make aliyah from Israel, and those who don’t come back to the States from their gap year programs, are usually Orthodox Jews who believe in both nationalist and religious Zionist ideology, and while this in and of itself is no issue, their right wing, politically conservative mentalities and votes contribute to keeping the people who you claim make you disparate in power. And while their numbers are added every years to the pools of right wing voters, you remain in America bleating, and some of the reasons for this are apparent.

Women of the Wall director Lesley Sachs arrested on June 7th 2016 (Photo Credit: Michal Patel)
Women of the Wall director Lesley Sachs arrested on June 7th 2016 (Photo Credit: Michal Patel)

As an individual who frequents a Conservative synagogue, among other more Orthodox synagogues, the reality of the Conservative movement is bleak. It’s obsessions have become with it’s denominational survival, as the number of the movement dip lower and lower every year, while Orthodoxy and Reform movements grow at the same rates they shrink. With all assets being poured into surviving outside the realm of the proud Jewish Theological Seminary, Conservative Jews have abandoned the idea of flourishing in Israel, that Israel could be what saves their movement. They’ve become so preoccupied with saving their own sick man of the west,  that they may be losing sight of a bigger picture. Further than this, the ideology of the Reform movement merits little desire to move to Israel at all, with one of the “selling points” of Abraham Geiger being that an Israel was unnecessary, and that Diasporic cities could be “home”. The maintenance of Jewish values and traditions don’t take off beyond America. Even more than these two denominations, we need the liberal-minded Orthodox Jews, usually from the Modern or Open Orthodox community, who understand that voting for a party any less than Likud doesn’t make you a traitor to Orthodoxy, and that it’s perfectly consistent to vote for Labour and live in Gush Etzion or Jerusalem, as well as the unaffiliated or secular Jews who feel that Israel is too dogmatic or religious for them, and want nothing to do with it.

Aside from these groups, you have right-wing Israel-advocacy organizations which convince formerly apathetic college students that Israel is constantly under existential threat, which of course is isn’t, and that Netanyahu and the stoic right wing is our only hope of survival and stability. Their goal is to sheerly co-opt the Zionist ideology and status for their own political gain, all the while masking it in the name of Zionist festivals and tokenistic Non-Jewish speakers or apocalyptic rhetoric echoing Kahane’s “Never Again”. These students who might be influenced to eventually make aliyah, though they completely agree with liberal policy and likely vote Democrat in every election, end up moving to Israel and voting for the right-wing coalition due to the information they’ve been fed by groups like Hasbara. Westernized Jews have become obsessed with their “comfortable” life in America and other countries, where one has a slightly bigger house, or has cheaper access to a TV large enough to cover an entire wall, that they’ve lost a sense of pioneering adventure and Zionist zeal. It’s true that the job market is more competitive and limited here, it’s true that life is much more difficult in the Middle East than in Massachusetts, it’s true that your child might one day be drafted into the military, but don’t you believe that if it’s worth it for others to do so, then it should be worth it for you and your children as well? Like David Ben-Gurion implored, “We need their technical knowledge, their unrivaled experience, their spirit of enterprise, their bold vision, their “know-how… But the decision as to whether they wish to come — permanently or temporarily — rests with the free discretion of each American Jew himself.”  And it’s certainly different to agree with “Zionist philosophy”, and act in a “Zionist manner”.

Ultra Orthodox Protesters at Robinson's Arch in conflict with worshippers (Photo Credit: Emil Salman)
Ultra Orthodox Protesters at Robinson’s Arch in conflict with worshippers (Photo Credit: Emil Salman)

Complaints come from afar that their rabbis are disrespected, that their converts are not acknowledged, and that their religious egalitarian practice is trampled on. These same individuals will wave the banner of the two-state solution, and criticisms of the fear-mongering right-wing coalition, all the while offering claims of a fierce and honest Zionism in the spirit of Amos Oz, championing in Israel’s right to exist, and right to defend itself against violent neighbors or international bullying. But when it comes time to arrive at the voting booths, where are you to defend these views? Do you think the pandering to the Haredi Rabbanut which has a monopoly of religious practice will simply cease because you donated eighteen dollars to the Women of the Wall campaign? Do you think organizations like ITIM and various Rabbis and lawyers who believe in this cause can sit here shouldering this all on their own? Do you think the hundreds of Haredi men who poured in Robinson’s Arch and tore your siddurim apart will stop, or that Netanyahu will keep his Kotel promise because you in the Diaspora are a upset or frustrated? Do you really think Israel is going to invest in you if you insist on not contributing to it aside from your blog posts and gap-year programs which result in far less olim than others? Where are you, children of Amos Oz? The reality is, that Israel really is the “Jewish country” within the global framework, to say otherwise would be to ignore globalized realities, and frankly we have a responsibility to this Jewish country if we dare to call ourselves Zionist.

The truth is very simple, either you come here and join the Israelis who are attempting to change the political status quo, or your egalitarian, two-state ideology will have to start accommodating for the Haredi One-State reality. I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to sacrifice the potential for a more easily obtained life of leisure in America, so that my country does not become overrun by those who seek an unsustainable and destructive future for the sake of placating their ideologies which seek to annex “Judea and Samaria”, ensuring our seat as an oppressor. Worse than this, those groups which seem to be causing this conservative political plague across the nation’s policy seem to hold the trump card of demography, and in fifty or sixty years, it may be too late to save ourselves from this one-state nightmare. Surely, the lack of liberal olim from Reform, Conservative, and Liberal-Minded Modern Orthodox isn’t the sole cause, or even large scale contributor to Israel’s political malaise, but could one imagine what might happen if in the next five years, 500,000 or more Jews of progressive denominations and beliefs arrived in Ben-Gurion Airport, and really dedicated themselves to persevering through the challenges and staying here?

My goal isn’t to shame or belittle these various progressive camps of Western Jews, but rather to make an attempt at joining those who would commence a revitalization project amidst your numbers, to partake in the risky Zionist pioneering which the brave few did a hundred years ago. Surely there are those who would disagree with me, that cling to the importance of Diaspora Jewry, and they are welcome to, but I hope that this letter will reach the open ears and minds of those to which this is addressed. Admittedly, I haven’t moved here permanently yet myself, but my family has literally lived on this land for over a thousand years or more, and the point is that in the next year or two, I will be moving back to Israel, I will be commencing my military service I ought to have served some-odd years ago, and I implore these movements to consider following suit. If you don’t, the consequences of inaction and simple grousing in the face of growing right-wing fervor could be dire.

About the Author
P.M. Shamah studied at Rutgers University, and has family heritage in Israel/Palestine for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Shamah is currently working on several essays, potential books, and thesis work pertaining to Israeli Politics & Minorities within Israel