Israeli Domestic Policy–Not the Peace Process–Is Where to Start “Bridging the Gap” Between Israelis and Western Jews

Often time we hear from policymakers, writers, and public speakers–Jewish and Gentile alike–that Israel isn’t doing enough to bridge the gap between Israeli Jews and Jews living in other countries, notably the liberal West. It’s generally thought that this has to do with the so-called “Peace Process”, and that Israel’s policy of building settlements isolates it from young Jews in the West. While this is sometimes the case, it’s too simple-minded to believe that this is the main reason younger Jews (and for that matter, non-Jews) in the West feel alienated from Israel. Much of this has to do with domestic policy.

In the United States, and probably in other Western countries as well, Millennials are extremely critical of the “religious right”, which is often seen as infringing on the secular values and civil rights of women and minorities, and is considered overly preachy. An example of this in America would be Ted Cruz, a Texas Senator who is very opposed to gay marriage and rails against abortion. Many Republicans also are opposed to “Equal Pay for Equal Work”, which would see a woman’s salary equal that of a man’s, and also are against the Violence Against Women Act. Much of this probably has to do with pleasing the evangelical base and religious special interest groups that heavily donate to the campaigns of Republican senate, representative, and presidential campaigns. Evangelicals often view a woman’s role as being a homemaker and caretaker. Millennials are more progressive on gay rights and probably women’s rights than any previous generation, and thus naturally are opposed to the current anti-equality proposals of many in the GOP. This also puts them at odds with Israel sometimes.

One simple reason for this is that Israel as a “Jewish state” is sometimes interpreted as it being a state based on one religion. For a lot of people, it’s hard to grasp that Jews are not just a religious group, but also an ethnic group–almost like a tribe. This is because, similarly to the Hindus of India, we usually share common ancestry with each other. Unlike Islam or Christianity, there is no proselytizing, and so few people convert. We need to make a better effort at clarifying that Jews are not just a religious minority, but also an ethnic one. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Israel is a liberal bastion in the Middle East, where gays receive civil protections under the law, and where women by law are equal. For that matter, Israel has had a woman as head-of-state long before America and most other countries had one! But sadly, there’s still a long way to go before there is true equality in these regards. Mixed gender prayer at the Western Wall, or Kotel, is still causing an outrage. Ultra-Orthodox extremists throw stones at women for “dressing immodestly” or otherwise not “being in their place”.

These same people also try very hard to stop many people from being recognized as Jewish (even if they converted through the Orthodox method), especially if the conversion was done in another country. Some Jews–from the former USSR, and even more so from places in Africa and Asia–are not considered truly Jewish, and must go through a conversion process in Israel after making aliyah. This is off-putting and insulting to a lot of people, and sometimes results in any deciding not to go through the process, which can endanger Israel’s Jewish majority in a few decades’ time. It also reeks at times of racism, given that some of these Jewish communities in Africa and Asia have been practicing the same way since their ancestors first moved into the area, and have intermarried far less than Ashkenazim throughout history.

And then there are incidents like last summer’s awful hate crime, where an ultra-Orthodox extremist murdered a 16 year-old girl in a Jerusalem Pride Parade–a stark reminder that homophobia is still a serious problem among certain segments of Israeli society. Gay marriage, like other civil marriages, is still illegal in Israel, though it is recognized if performed abroad. But adoption processes for gay couples can be challenging. When progressive Millennials and others read such news stories about the extremist grip of some religious people on the government, and the effect it has on women and minority communities at times, it’s extremely off-putting, and makes many of them wonder if Israel really is all that progressive, as they may have been told, compared to other countries in the region of the world. It only encourages them to become more anti-Israel, and sometimes even openly bigoted against Jews. Some call for boycotts against Israel, accuse it of “pinkwashing” when it defends its record on protecting gays and other minorities, and buy the false narrative of the Palestinians that they were subjected to “colonization and ethnic cleansing”. In other words, some of the wounds on Israel’s reputation among younger people and progressives are self-inflicted, but not really because of settlements. This needs to be addressed and examined more thoroughly in the future. The argument of anti-Zionist leftists needs to be nullified.

It’s likely that progressives, minority groups, and young people would be more defensive of Israel if the religious right in the Jewish state had less power in the government. Many politicians in Israel, including PM Netanyahu, are very progressive on issues of concern to the LGBT community, women and minorities. But sadly, too often they give in to or are silenced by radical Orthodox officials. This needs to end, and end quickly. Israel should start making more of an effort to legalize gay marriage within the next few years and join with the rest of the growing majority of Western-styled states in doing so. It should argue for reform in how people are recognized in terms of being Jewish, and make olim from outside of the West & Near East feel more welcome in the Holy Land. And there should be a safe space in the Kotel where men and women can worship together in peace. Israel has the right and obligation to defend itself from radical Islam, but has the same obligation to do so from radicals in its own society, especially if it wants the leftist youth–Jewish and non-Jewish alike–to embrace it.

About the Author
Dmitri Shufutinsky is a graduate of Arcadia University's Masters program in International Peace & Conflict Resolution. He is an ardent Zionist and a supporter of indigenous rights, autonomy, solidarity, and sovereignty. He currently lives in Philadelphia, USA.