There is a complicated relationship between the State of Israel and the Israeli public on one side, and Diaspora Jews, especially American Jewry, on the other. In an editorial published on Israeli Independence Day, Jane Eisner, chief editor of The Forward, declared “It’s time for Israel to recognize that diaspora Jews are already home.” Israelis have generally responded to this assertion with outrage. How dare American Jews refer to that place as home! How dare they live there and still express an opinion on what is happening here in Israel! How dare they even suggest that immigrating to Israel is not the solution to all of their woes?
I am a Zionist. I don’t think about leaving the country. I’m happy for every immigrant who comes to Israel. I served as a combat soldier in the regular army and reserves, and I have dedicated most of my life to social action centered on Israeli society and the Jewish people. From this existential position, I have been engaged, over the past few years, in an illuminating and fascinating dialogue with American Jewish communal leaders and thinkers.
For many years we Israelis have held fast to the premise that every Jew belongs in Israel and that there is something wrong with those who don’t grasp this. We have struck a sort of deal with the Jews of the United States: we take upon ourselves the most important endeavor in the history of the Jewish people and even endanger our lives for that purpose. You are invited to either immigrate to Israel and join us, or continue living your lives in comfort and send us money, lots of money. And no less important, it’s your job to apply pressure on the American administration to act on our behalf and provide us with billions of dollars in aid per year. That’s the deal we offer and it’s a deal they no longer agree to accept.
In my opinion, this shift offers a golden opportunity to replace this one-sided, shallow relationship with a respectful dialogue between equals. In the past few years, in my work at Kolot’s Leadership Empowerment Center, I have had the privilege of leading delegations of senior Israeli public and private sector leaders to the US. It is exciting to see how instructive the encounter between the Israelis and key figures in American Jewry can be. We have so much to learn from each other.
For example, the encounter with the pluralist, feminist, vibrant Judaism that has developed there can be a source of great inspiration for us. It may not be right to import it to Israel, but there’s certainly plenty we can learn from it. Or, for example, there are fruitful and important conversations for us to have about the Pew Survey’s remarkable findings on identity, which indicate that a large majority of American Jews see “leading an ethical and moral life” and “working for justice and equality” as central to who they are as Jews.
The mindset that rejects the legitimacy of Jewish life outside of Israel must therefore change. At no other time or place have Jews lived in the conditions of security and welfare currently enjoyed by American Jewry. That could change in the future, but there’s also no guarantee that Israel’s future is safe. We need to understand that it’s legitimate for them to want to stay where they are and stop attributing their choice to some kind of cluelessness or misperception. They are simply at home in their home, and we need to also understand that staying there has positive points and an important role to play in the future of our people.
It’s not that there are no problems. A large percentage of American Jews are losing touch with established (and very expensive) Judaism, a high percentage marry non-Jews. The challenges are many, and we must engage with them and their challenges with humility and without prejudging. Intermarriage can not be stopped or even significantly reduced. We need to help them embrace these couples and bring them inside the Jewish fold, into the various communities, and not lose them.
Instead, we do the opposite and disparage the liberal streams, their rabbis and their synagogues, we mock their conversions and block their access to praying in their own way in places like the Western Wall. The philanthropist Charles Bronfman captured the impact of this Israeli attitude last week in his commencement speech at the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion graduation ceremony in New York. “It shocks me to the marrow of my bones that Conservative, Reform, liberal and Reconstructionist Judaism are legally un-recognized by the State of Israel; that indeed only one expression of our religion is officially sanctioned from birth to death and all the intervening mitzvot.”
There’s no denying that we sorely need the financial and political support of American Jews, but we can and must establish a relationship that is not solely transactional. We can, and we must, establish a meaningful and respectful dialogue between the Israeli public and its leaders, and the Jewish American community and its leaders.