Rifts over Israel: is it all about Judaism?

Is the debate inside the Jewish world over Israeli and U.S. policy in the Middle East increasingly about religion and the bitter question of “who is a Jew?”

Talk about asking the obvious.

Yet this escapes the notice of most commentators, who continue to see only political and ideological differences. And it’s something Jewish leaders don’t like to face up to because it eats at the heart of one of their most cherished self-deceptions – that Israel is the issue that unites a disunited Jewish community.

I was thinking about this as I wrote last week’s story headlined “ADL List Fuels Debate Over What’s Anti-Israel,” examining the controversy over the ADL’s ten worst “anti-Israel” groups.

That list included Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that supports targeted boycotts and sanctions against Israel, wants an end to U.S. military aid to the Jewish state and has lots to say about Israel’s human rights abuses, almost nothing to say about Palestinian terrorism or the lack of human rights throughout the Arab world.

A persistent undertone I heard in interviews: these people aren’t really Jewish. End of argument.

But it’s not just JVP.

I’ve heard the same thing over and over again from critics of J Street, a group some are trying to push out of a narrowing pro-Israel umbrella.  J Street isn’t just for a peace process many hate, it’s a nasty den of intermarried and secular Jews who couldn’t find their way to a synagogue if they tried.

And Americans for Peace Now. And sometimes I’ve heard it about the the Reform movement, which, after all, is generally pretty dovish. and doesn’t that just figure, since they don’t care much about being Jewish?

I know, there’s nothing new in this;  it’s been going on since the founding of the modern State of Israel, with religious Zionists pushing back against its secular founders. But there’s little doubt it’s gotten more pronounced, especially since the advent of the Madrid peace process in 1991 and the Oslo process a few years later, when abandoning settlements became a real possibility.

All settlers aren’t religious Jews – far from it – but the intensity, fury and ideological drive of the settlements movement come mostly from Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox settlers and their friends here, who see a God-given right – indeed, an obligation – to the land they now occupy.

The divisions have become starker because of the issue of Jerusalem – a passionate religious imperative to the Orthodox, a religious symbol but not necessarily an absolute red line to most other Jews.

My point: differences over Israel have become entangled in much broader, deeper religious disputes.

In Orthodox circles, there is a sense their world is under attack: by assimilationists, intermarriers, Reform rabbis who change the rules, gays and lesbians seeking equal rights in Judaism, activists who say the environment and immigration reform are Jewish “values” and so on. Telling Israel it has to give up more land many Orthodox Jews regard as a Biblical bequest, and maybe to divide Jerusalem to boot, is part and parcel of the same assault, some see.

On the other side, the non-Orthodox world increasingly sees an Orthodox community allied with the nationalistic right in Israel and with the forces that want to increase the power of the Orthodox rabbinate in Israeli life, and in the process disenfranchise a large Jewish majority. At home, they are seen allied with a Christian right at home that few Jews have any use for.

The American Jewish community is more divided along religious lines than ever, with fewer points of commonality and a reduced level of tolerance on all sides. And that disunity is entangled in complex ways with growing divisions over the future of Israel.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.