Michael Chernick
Michael Chernick

Will the heat in Israel leave American Jews cold?

Presently, I am writing from Israel as a participant-observer of the Israeli scene. For family reasons, a great deal of my time is spent in the United States, but I pay taxes to the Jewish state, vote there when there is an election, and hold an Israeli passport and identity card.

This does not make me more dedicated to Israel than many American Jews who have chosen not to take the step of becoming Israeli citizens. But it makes what happens here intensely personal to me. Most of the time, I am proud and amazed by this country and its people. At other times, I am profoundly saddened by what it has to endure. And at yet other times, I am shocked by events that take place on its soil.

My wife and I are in Tel Aviv, near the rebuilt North Port. The fine shops and restaurants (some kosher, some not) are monuments to the success of many people in this incredible start-up nation. Believe it or not, Israel has no water problem any more. Desalinization has solved it, and the recycling of treated waste water keeps lawns green and vegetables growing. Medical technology here literally has helped the blind to see and the lame to walk. And it is virtually impossible to describe what goes on here in terms of cyber technology — but just think Waze. That is what makes me proud and amazed.

The recent blazes all over the country, however, have left me and all Israelis profoundly saddened. The sadness is not just for the destruction of the forests that were the product of painstaking efforts at making what had been barren land into hills and valleys of green. Nor is it just for the neighbors’ and friends’ houses that have been destroyed. The thing that is most disheartening is that these fires are not the result of natural causes. They have been set by people who just do not want there to be a safe haven for Jews in what they consider to be their neighborhood. There is no doubt that our relationship with the majority of our “cousins” (i.e., the Palestinian Arabs) is far from ideal, but the majority of Jews in this neck of the woods do not burn their cousins’ property.

But a minority does. Can any decent Jew not be deeply ashamed that three of our own burned an Arab woman, her husband, and their infant to death in the West Bank Arab village of Duma in 2015? The fact that we try to punish our terrorists and the Palestinians honor them as martyrs does not take away a scintilla from the incredible hillul Hashem, the desecration of God’s holy name, that this caused, especially when the perpetrators turned out to be “religious.”

Unfortunately, in Israel “religious” doesn’t just mean a dedicated and devout practitioner of any kind of Judaism. Rather, it means to be observant in Orthodox fashion. Even “traditional” Jews, who now make up the most significant percentage of Israeli Jews, who go to a Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat service and return home for Kiddush and Shabbat dinner but then turn on the television to watch soccer after Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals), define themselves as sinners. To them, the observant Orthodox, usually those who observe in ultra-Orthodox fashion, are the real deal.

True secularists, who now make up a scant nine percent of the Israeli Jewish population, speak of the Orthodox synagogue as the authentic one they don’t attend. Despite the fact that Progressive Judaism (Israeli Reform) and Masorti Judaism (Israeli Conservative) have, after many years of being American imports, made some significant inroads into the society of native Israelis, Orthodox Judaism remains the one and only official Judaism of the country. That means that Orthodox institutions automatically and publicly receive government funding for their institutions. This is also true for Reform and Conservative institutions — as long as they are willing to describe themselves as community centers, nurseries, or anything other than a Jewish place of worship.

As an Orthodox Jew, I guess I should be happy. After all, it’s my kind of Judaism that rules the religious roost in Israel. But the behavior of many Orthodox leaders here is shocking, dismaying, disheartening, and embarrassing to me. The unethical breaking of promises by Orthodox cabinet and Knesset members, and the two-faced permission of the prime minister that allows it, is a desecration of God’s sacred name.

For me, it is an incredible act of chutzpah for the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to come to the AIPAC annual convention and tell Reform and Conservative Jews in the audience how much he respects and cares for them, only to return home and let a government agreement to erect a worship area for Reform and Conservative Jewish worship at Judaism’s holiest site, the Kotel — the Western Wall — come to naught.

The prime minister enjoys being prime minister, even if he has to sell his soul to some Orthodox members of the coalition he heads. They shared in the agreement to create a worship space along the expanse of the Kotel for non-Orthodox Jews, or for the Orthodox Women of the Wall. Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, when the date for the implementation of this plan arrived, the Shas representative who had to sign off on the agreement refused to do so. (Shas is the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party. ) He and the other Orthodox parliament members who were parties to this plan backed out of it, and the promised space has not been made available for use by our Israeli and diaspora Reform and Conservative brothers and sisters. In essence, they have been barred from the center of the Jewish religious and historical universe.

But it is far more important to hang onto your coalition partners, many of them non-Zionist Orthodox, than to risk ceding power and honoring your statement to AIPAC members.

This does not happen in a vacuum. There is a constant stream of demonization of non-Orthodox forms of Judaism. Week after week during this Knesset’s term, this Orthodox minister or that Orthodox member of Knesset declares Reform and Conservative Jews to be non-Jews, or demeans their religious worldview in astoundingly vitriolic terms. The government-appointed and government-paid chief rabbis of the State of Israel also do this with regularity. The prime minister says he deplores these kinds of statements every time one comes into public view, but he doesn’t fire the minister, member of Knesset, or chief rabbi who made them.

He talks the talk, but he does not walk the walk.

Which brings me to this week’s fire, but not the one that burned the forests of Israel. A Reform synagogue in Rana’ana, a community north of Tel Aviv, was desecrated. Graffiti showing a knife, with a quote from Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Code of Jewish Law) saying that heretics (read Reform and Conservative Jews) deserve capital punishment, was daubed on the synagogue. As if this wasn’t bad enough, leaders of the Reform community were designated by name as people who should be killed. Perhaps, like the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, the perpetrators thought they were serving God. But their hostility and fanaticism are a “strange fire” that is liable to turn back on them. Heretic hunting season is always open, and you never know who the prey will be.

Perhaps some Orthodox Jews are not moved by this, but the ones I associate with are horrified. Some have issued statements of dismay, others have written to leaders of the Reform movement here and in America to make clear that this act does not represent them or their understanding of God or halacha.

That is all to the good, but consider the impact these acts have on American Jewry.

American Jewish leaders bemoan the distancing of American Jews, especially young American Jews, from Israel. This is only partially due to the erosion of the significance of ethnicity that has been a major game-changer in American Jewish life and Jewish survival in the United States. Even affiliated and committed Jews whose allegiance is to Reform or Conservative Judaism are getting sick and tired of being viewed as second-class Jews, or as outside the camp altogether. Their patient support of Israel increasingly is eroding, and as the untrammeled badmouthing of them and their form of Judaism continues, the more the idea of spirituality, unconnected to a sense of peoplehood or rooted in any specific place, begins to dominate their sense of what it means to be a religious Jew.

The heat emanating from Israel is leaving a lot of American Jews, especially the ones who care, cold.

This is dangerous for Israel and dangerous for diaspora Jewry.

It is dangerous for Israel because if the most dedicated diaspora Jews of all stripes are offended by the ongoing vituperations of some Israeli Orthodox leaders and the bad behavior of those who feel that these leaders give them a license to violently attack their fellows Jews, their support of the state will decrease. That has real security implications. And if Israelis care about anything, they care about security. Until Israelis see the connection between security and respectful disagreement about what constitutes a serious and committed Jewish life, we imperil the Third Commonwealth of the Jewish People, which still depends on American arms and the American Jewish Israel advocacy that acquires them.

It is also dangerous for American Jews, who should be very concerned about a vulnerable Israel. This is not about altruistic loyalty of one Jew to the rest of the tribe. This is about self-concern. As much as the American piece of me and that of most of my fellow American Jewish brothers and sisters wants to believe that it can’t happen here, Jewish diaspora history says otherwise.

If we merit it, we will ascend to live in the amazing State of Israel of our own free will, as a means to fulfill our best and most hopeful Jewish dreams. But we may not merit going to live in Israel as a matter of choice. After all, Israel does not exist only for its deep and moving Hebrew literature, music, and art, or its incredible technological inventiveness, or its ability at its best to move the Jewish spirit. As the Yiddish phrase goes, di untershte shureh — the bottom line — is that Israel is the place where Jews who are harassed simply for being Jews can find a place to call home. And none of us knows what the future will bring, and whether we will need Israel as our place of refuge.

How, therefore, do we curb the religious incitement that is undermining the sense that we are one people with a shared destiny, and that is threatening Israel in ways that mostly are going unnoticed?

The Talmud’s view of history sees factional hatred as the cause for the destruction of the Second Jewish Commonwealth and the Temple that symbolized it. It is simply too dangerous, even deadly, for world Jewry, in the land of Israel and beyond, to allow factional hatred to accomplish this a second time.

In the face of palpable factional discord that threatens to sunder the ties between the various sectors of Israeli Jewry and between Israeli Jewry and the Jews of the diaspora, it seems to me that Israel advocacy organizations have advocated too little in this area. Israel advocacy should not be based on unquestioning support of Israeli government policies, good or bad, that are more often the result of coalition horse-trading than realpolitik. Rather, it should be based on a deep understanding of the interconnection between Israel and diaspora Jewry, and how the dynamic between them can provide more light and less heat, and prevent destructive blazes that leave only cold ashes in their wake. Israel advocacy should be done with members of the Senate, but also with the leaders of government in the State of Israel. Unseemly rhetoric about fellow Jews needs to be sanctioned when it comes from political leaders, and the sanctions have to have teeth.

Therefore, for all our sakes, I would beg the various PACs whose work is so important to Israel’s safety to point out in a vigorous way to Israeli leadership the nexus between intracommunal religious respect and Israel’s security. I firmly believe that failure to do so will not help these advocacy groups hold onto their non-Orthodox supporters, whose sense of alienation from Israel is growing.

The loss of those Jews’ good will inevitably will impact negatively on these PACs’ ability to achieve their goal of keeping Israel sufficiently at peace to allow it to continue to be the vibrant and creative place it is. And Israeli movers and shakers must come to realize this.

Now more than ever we need fire fighters. Who will man the engines?

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Chernick holds a doctorate in rabbinic literature and semikhah from Yeshiva University, and he is the chair of the executive committee of Ruach Hiddush (Rabbis and Cantors for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel).He served as professor of rabbinic literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for forty years.He is an oleh hadash with continuing close ties to the United States. Rabbi Chernck regards himself as "a Jew for all Jews."
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