Why is Israel Losing American Jews?

Many American Jews are wondering what’s happened to Israel and why is it straying so far from its original principles, especially as evinced by the recently-passed Nation-State Law of the Jewish People. I wondered whether to write about this law and whether Jews in America even knew about it. However, the torrent of articles against the law by American Jewish leaders has decided the question for me.

“Israel is losing its soul and weakening its democracy and Jewish character,” said the head of Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Steven Wernick. “[The Nation-State Law] raises significant questions about the government’s long-term commitment to its pluralistic identity and democratic nature,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL. Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said, “The damage that will be done by this new Nation-State law to the legitimacy of the Zionist vision and to the values of the state of Israel as a democratic — and Jewish — nation is enormous.”

Is Israel losing American Jews? In my opinion, shared by many other Israelis, it’s not Israel losing the American Jews, but American Jews losing Israel. Yes, there is no doubt that criticisms, such as made in two recent articles by Ronald Lauder published in The New York Times, illustrate problems that Americans are concerned about. But the point is that these concerns hardly affect Jews who live in the United States.

One example: conversions are not accepted by the Israeli Rabbinate unless they have been performed by an approved rabbi, who definitely is not a Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist rabbi. This fact is only an issue for a minuscule number of people: Jewish converts who want to become Israeli citizens under the Law of Return. Unfortunately, the number of American Jews who make Aliyah to Israel is tiny and always has been. And, the great majority of those Americans who do tie their future to Israel are Orthodox Jews.

Another example: the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. It seems to me that the main problem for Americans about this subject is that Prime Minister Netanyahu broke his promise to Reform and Conservative leaders. In fact, there already is such a prayer space under Robinson’s Arch, at the southern end of Western Wall.

Try to understand that the men’s and women’s sections are mostly filled with pious, Orthodox Jews who come to pray, many every day of the week. How often does the average non-Orthodox Israeli or American come to pray there? Nevertheless, Netanyahu felt pressured to agree to specific American demands for egalitarianism, but later felt much more pressure from the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties in his coalition government to go back on his promise and quash the deal. In the meantime, the egalitarian section remains, mostly empty at that.

A word of explanation about Israel’s democratic government: it’s not a two-party system like in America. It’s a multi-party system which has always resulted in a coalition government. Each component party of the ruling coalition receives a certain amount of power, its “price” for joining the government. So the Haredi parties, which usually vote as a bloc, put pressure on the prime minister (who is the head of the largest party in the coalition) when laws concerning religious affairs are considered. Equally, all parties in the coalition make demands on the prime minister at particular times.

American Jews who are Israeli citizens constitute less than 2% of Israel’s population, and the majority of those are Orthodox. Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism never caught on with the Israeli Jews. The joke is that, “The synagogue I don’t go to is Orthodox.” Michal and I belong to the largest Masorti (Conservative) synagogue in Israel, whose membership is mostly older Americans and other English speakers. The children of the members rarely join the congregation.

The point of this is, if Reform and Conservative American Jews want Israel to share their American values, more of them must make Aliyah. Short of that, American-style liberal values will never be a big factor in Israel.

Israel’s Supreme Court has claimed for itself the ability to interpret and judge laws according to “universal” values, which sometimes coincide with American liberal ones. Of course, this was, and is, helped by the feckless Knesset, which fails to legislate in many cases, forcing the non-elected justices to, in effect, become law-makers. (The Supreme Court occasionally defers making judgement where there is no law, or at least no “acceptable” law, and sends the issue back to the Knesset.)

The need for Israel’s Basic Laws: Israel has no Constitution or Bill of Rights for the Supreme Court to refer to. It does have a Declaration of Independence (not a law, per se) which enunciates the rights of the Jews and other citizens, which are equal in all respects except for the unique right of the Jews to define Israel’s ethos as building the State of the Jews.

One existing Basic Law already addresses civil rights: “The Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty declares that the basic human rights in Israel are based on recognition of the value of man, the sanctity of his life and the fact that he is free. The goal of the law is to defend Human Dignity and Liberty, in order to establish in a Basic Law the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” (https://knesset.gov.il/)

More about the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, which is being widely misconstrued (especially by American Jewish leaders who aren’t Orthodox) as undemocratic and harmful to the civil rights of Israel’s minorities:
Israel is the Jewish State, the only Jewish State. It is surrounded by Muslim states, many of which include “Islamic” in their official titles and have little or no tolerance for non-Muslims. Israel wasn’t created to be a state of all its peoples, but to be a State of the Jews, with equal rights accorded to its minorities. The Druze, in particular, are being radicalized to protest the new law for no good reason other than to promote the Arab agenda. (Druze are Arabs, but not Muslims. Their religion allows no converts.)

This new Nation-State Law codifies the status of the symbols of the state (flag, etc.); the capital of the state (united Jerusalem); the language of the state (Hebrew, with Arabic given special status without diminution); the primacy of Jewish immigration (Zionism); the connection to the Jewish people (safety of all Jews, affinity with Israel, preservation of the cultural, historical and religious heritage of the Diaspora (as is automatic in Israel with its Hebrew calendar, Jewish holidays, Shabbat as the day of rest); and the declaration that the State views the development of Jewish settlements as a national value and will act to encourage and promote the establishment and consolidation of such settlements (again, Zionism). [https://en.wikipedia.org/]

There is nothing in the above Basic Law that is contrary to, or refutes, the objectives of the founders of the modern State of Israel. Israel is a thriving country, not without problems, disputes, corruption, undue influences, and everything else which prevents countries from being Utopias. Despite being no Utopia, Israel is the essential core of Judaism, as enunciated in the Bible, which is written with one particular place on earth, the Land of Israel, as its point of departure.

The United States is a country with Christianity and Judaism (Judeo-Christian ethics) at its core, as signified by its motto: “In God We Trust.” Jews have reached unprecedented heights in the US, greater than in all other countries excepting Israel. But there are big cracks in the foundation of American Jewry. I won’t enumerate them here, because Michal and I chose Israel as our home and it’s Israel that we feel free, and obligated, to criticize. By the same token, Jews living outside of Israel shouldn’t obsess on perceived slights to civil rights in Israel; Israelis are quite aware of them and are taking actions that we deem appropriate to our country.

Before criticizing Israel, American Jews should look to their own house. Israel certainly has the right, as both the homeland and protector of the Jews, to work out its own problems. At the same time, an influx into Israel of non-Orthodox American Jews would be wonderful and would eventually have an impact here. In the meantime, how about visiting Israel, which is certainly as fun, educational, and meaningful for American Jewish tourists as their usual European and other destinations.

About the Author
Steve Kramer was born and raised in Atlantic City. He is an opinion journalist and author who made Aliya in 1991. Prior to that, Steve was in business in New Jersey after graduating from Johns Hopkins University.
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