“Israel and the Diaspora – We Need to Talk”

It is to the credit of the Jewish Federations of North America that they have chosen “Israel and the Diaspora – We Need to Talk” as the theme for their General Assembly to take place in Tel Aviv in a week’s time. They refer to the Pew Israel Report and the AJC 2018 Poll to illustrate the gulf that divides us.

Nearly 25% of Israelis believe that religious law should take preference over democratic principles. No less than 48% of Israeli Jews think that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel”.

The Israeli Orthodox establishment rabbinate enjoys a state-imposed monopoly in the fields of Jewish marriage registration and divorce and many of its rabbis receive their salaries from the public purse. Needless to say, Reform and Conservative rabbis and their institutions do not enjoy similar support or equal rights even at the Western Wall.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman wrote last year that “Israel needs the Kotel agreement not to secure political support from world Jewry, but to be a home to all Jews”. There is no Kotel agreement and Prime Minister Netanyahu would appear to be oblivious to the consequences.

Bibi preferred to backtrack on his support for the establishment of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall rather than risk the ire of his ultra-orthodox coalition partners. So Israel is not “a home for all Jews”.

However, Bibi knew what he was doing. He was first elected as prime minister in 1996, over 20 years ago, and is currently heading his fourth Likkud-led coalition government. Should there be elections early next year as many predict, polls indicate that he will be elected once again to the chagrin of many both in Israel and in the Diaspora.

Whereas some 70% of American Jews voted for Hilary Clinton in the last US presidential elections, just 25 percent voted for Trump. Most American Jews are liberals. Most Israelis are not.

Gone are the days when Golda Meir travelled to the General Assembly of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds in Chicago in 1948 to ask for money to buy weapons for the Haganah. Back then she managed to raise some $50 million. Israel’s GNP for the second quarter of 2018 totaled $64,403,000,000.

Bibi also understands only too well what is happening to much of US Jewry. As Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on New York’s Upper West Side remarked last week: “The growing inclination among liberal Jews to de-emphasize Jewish distinctiveness is the gravest threat to the future of liberal Judaism….. Is it possible to sustain the Jewish people without being committed to the Jewish people? Can Judaism survive without Jews?”

Gil Troy, American Professor of History at McGill University and popular political commentator, is quoted in a Ruderman Family Foundation White Paper as stating that “Today’s third generation American Jews are open-spirited Freedom-fromers, pro-choice, and deeply, proudly American. They inherited an understanding of their past from their parents and grandparents and absorbed post-modern culture fears of restrictions, commitments, and norms, imposed from the outside, especially governmentally or religiously”.

The days of the last survivors of the Holocaust are numbered. Many of their grandchildren are now middle-aged and high intermarriage rates and low birth rates among liberal Diaspora Jews place their very numerical survival as Jews at risk. They have no memory of the Holocaust or of what it meant for Jews to have nowhere where they could feel safe. American Jewry, apart from the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox minority streams, is numerically on the decline, while Israel’s Jewish population is close to becoming 50% of world Jewry.

Therefore, the theme chosen for the GA, “Israel and the Diaspora – We Need to Talk”, is surely a relevant one. However, I fear that it reflects Diaspora anxieties rather than any real concern by many of Israel’s political leaders about the relationship between Israel and world Jewry.

About the Author
Rabbi Boyden was educated and received his rabbinical ordination in London, England. Having served as the rabbi of Cheshire Reform Congregation for thirteen years, he made aliyah with his family in 1985. He has established Reform congregations in Ra'anana and Hod Hasharon and previously served as director of the Israel Reform Movement's Beit Din.