The view from the ground.

Are American Jews Giving Up on Israel?

As the ultra-Orthodox pass new measures governing prayer at the Western Wall and religious conversion, a rift is growing between Israel and American Jews.


TEL AVIV, Israel — A scene in the 1964 Israeli film Sallah Shabati offers a pitch-perfect crystallization of the relationship between American Jews and Israel.

TEL AVIV, Israel — A scene in the 1964 Israeli film Sallah Shabati offers a pitch-perfect crystallization of the relationship between American Jews and Israel.

It plays out in a Jewish National Fund forest in central Israel, where new Israeli immigrant and titular character Sallah is planting trees. A taxi pulls up bearing the rich American couple who paid for the forest. After the pair snaps a few photos and drives away, a new couple pulls up, and the sign bearing the first donors’ names is quickly swapped out for a new one. The Israelis nearby wipe the sweat off their brows, smile for the second couple’s camera, and chuckle among themselves.

The satire feels particularly poignant this month, as an unprecedented rift between Israel and American Jewry threatens to erupt into a permanent schism. Some diaspora Jews, furious with a series of legislative blows from Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious establishment, are now threatening to stitch up their deep pockets once and for all.

“The rift is real,” says Seth Farber, a modern Orthodox rabbi who leads ITIM, an organization that offers assistance to Israelis in navigating the country’s religious bureaucracy. “[Jews who are not ultra-Orthodox] are not just shifting uncomfortably. They are saying: This is not the Israel that we know.”

The issues, all revolving around the ever-thorny questions of who is a Jew and what claim non-Israelis can stake to matters of Israeli life, have been simmering for years. But last month, when the Israeli government issued a swift one-two punch to non-Orthodox Jewish observance by nixing egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and approving a bill that would block all but the most religious rabbis from performing Jewish conversions, the pot boiled over.

Despite its status as a parliamentary democracy, Israel grants a coalition of ultra-Orthodox rabbis legal authority over major life issues, including marriage, divorce, and burial. Only about 11 percent of Jews in Israel define themselves as Haredi, or ultra-religious, but their significantly higher birth rate — 6.9 children per woman, compared with 3.1 among secular Israelis — means their numbers are projected to dramatically increase over the next 10 years.

The sector also wields immense power in the nation’s multiparty system, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu currently holds a razor-thin 61-seat coalition; dissent from a single party could throw the majority, forcing new elections and bringing a challenge to the premiership. Netanyahu knows that in order to hold on to power, he needs the cooperation of ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, and nowhere has this reality played out more dramatically than at the Western Wall.

One of the most important sites for Jewish prayer in the world, the Western Wall is under the control of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which means that the rules there are the same as within an ultra-Orthodox synagogue. Male and female worshippers are segregated, and there is a total ban, on the women’s side, on traditionally “male” accoutrements of prayer such as Torah scrolls, tefillin (phylacteries), and kippot (skullcaps).

In Israel, even the most secular Jews are used to the idea that prayer at synagogues and religious monuments usually requires adjustments like modest dress and gender segregation. But in the United States, the picture of Jewish observance is much more complex. More than half of American Jews identify with either the Reform or Conservative Jewish movement, where women are welcomed to don prayer shawls and read from the Torah, husbands and wives sing Hebrew liturgies together, and ancient Jewish laws over issues such as kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) and keeping the Sabbath have a looser, modern interpretation. Whereas most Jews in Israel identify as either religious or secular, outside of Israel’s borders it’s entirely possible to practice a form of secular Judaism that looks, to the average ultra-Orthodox observer, not like Judaism at all.

So when Netanyahu bowed to ultra-Orthodox pressure late last month and nixed a hard-won agreement to build an egalitarian space at the Western Wall — one that would have allowed not just for mixed-gender worship but for women to sing prayers and read from the Torah and for girls at the site to engage in the ritual of the bat mitzvah — the move was seen as a slap in the face to the majority of the globe’s Jews.

“The Wall is the most visited place in Israel for all Jews, from both Israel and abroad, and the government of Israel has taken the keys and given it to one extremist minority group,” says Anat Hoffman, the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center and co-founder of Women of the Wall, an organization that has been at the forefront of the struggle at the site. “I think the government, for political reasons of just survival, is willing to sell downriver some of the most precious values that our country holds dear.”

On the very same day, the Israeli government also pushed through a controversial conversion bill that would declare the Israeli Chief Rabbinate the sole power for determining who is indeed a Jew.

The response from diaspora Jewish organizations was swift and scathing. The Jewish Agency, the world’s largest Jewish nonprofit and a key supporter of immigration to Israel, immediately canceled a planned dinner with Netanyahu in protest and issued a rebuke, saying it “deplore[d]” the decision. It called upon the Israeli government to immediately “understand the gravity of its steps” and reverse course.

Meanwhile, key Jewish donors, including Florida real estate tycoon Isaac Fisher, a board member of the conservative American Israel Public Affairs Committee, publicly announced that they were freezing financial contributions to Israel until the government backtracked on the decisions.

“People are pulling their hair out. They say, ‘I’m not writing checks,’” says ITIM’s Farber. “This is a serious issue for Zionism. Zionism is meant to relate to the Jewish people, not just the Jewish state.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which represents some 1.5 million Jews in the United States and Canada, says the term “rift” is an understatement. “There has been a bit of a tectonic shift,” he says. “What happened on June 25 signaled something unprecedented.… It’s no longer business as usual, and it strikes at the very heart of some core commitments of Jewish life.”

The United States is Israel’s oldest and most vocal ally, but many American Jews, frustrated by an intractable occupation and facing a swell in anti-Zionist sentiment on college campuses across the country, are finding it more complicated than ever to declare their support for the Jewish homeland. And in America, Zionism and religious practice operate hand in hand: A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center described an American Jewish community that is increasingly drifting away from religious observance and where support for Israel is weaker among the younger and less religiously observant segments of the population.

So why, then, would the Israeli government allow a fringe group of rabbis to push through legislation that adds fuel to the fire? Farber points to a few factors. The first is a weakening dialogue between the chief rabbis of Israel and the rest of the Jewish world. The second, more critical factor he identifies was the absorption of nearly 1 million Russian-speaking Jews to Israel in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“That aliyah,” Farber says, using the Hebrew word for immigration to Israel, “exposed the Rabbinate to the incredible diversity of the Jewish world in a way they had never been exposed before. All of a sudden they were faced with hundreds of thousands of people who thought they were Jewish, but in the Rabbinate’s mind, they weren’t Jewish. And what it did was create an enormous suspicion of all diaspora communities.”

Israel’s Law of Return states that all Jews are eligible for immediate citizenship in Israel and defines “Jewishness” as having one Jewish grandparent. But Jewish Talmudic law, or Halakha, defines Jewishness as having a Jewish mother. From 1988 to 2004, Israel was faced with a flood of new citizens who not only did not have Jewish mothers, but they also had little or no connection to Jewish customs such as avoiding pork or keeping the Sabbath; some even went as far as celebrating Christmas. As those immigrants have married, raised children, and brought forth an entire new generation of Israeli citizens, the nation’s ultra-Orthodox have been increasingly alarmed that the sanctity of Jewish rituals such as marriage and Sabbath observance is being violated. This dynamic, along with the mathematics of Israeli coalition politics, has brought the issue of the role of Jewish law within the democratic state to the forefront of the political debate.

“A few generations ago, the ultra-Orthodox were basically interested in protecting their own lifestyles,” says professor Yedidia Stern, the vice president of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute. “Now we see [Haredi Jews] are much involved in shaping the public sphere, and this is a new phenomenon.”

Israel’s West Bank settlements also played a critical role in paving the way for Haredi control over issues of Jewish identity. The National Religious community — the knitted kippa-wearing Israeli Jews who define themselves as Orthodox but not ultra-Orthodox, who proudly serve in the Israel Defense Forces, and for whom the right of Jews to settle in the West Bank and Gaza is a fait accompli — used to serve as the arbiter on questions of religion and state. But as the ultra-Orthodox gained power, they hatched a deal with the Jewish Home party, which now represents the National Religious, effectively ceding control of conversion and religious practice issues in exchange for greater leverage on settlement expansion.

Call it single-issue voting, or the kosher version of pork-barrel politics: Israel’s ultra-Orthodox legislators have convinced its more moderate religious representatives to turn a blind eye to the nation’s slow creep of fundamentalism in exchange for leeway over increased West Bank construction. But while they were protecting their own interests, Jacobs says, they gambled on world Jewry sitting idly by. It was, the Reform rabbi believes, a bad bet.

“I don’t believe many members of this current cabinet have a deep understanding of the strength of world Jewry,” Jacobs says. “We’re all in this together, but these decisions signaled that we’re not as together as all of us may have thought, and that causes real harm. It was a profound miscalculation.”

Whether Netanyahu will feel the repercussions of that miscalculation, many Israelis say, depends on old-school grassroots politics. The prime minister has plenty of experience maneuvering between rocks and hard places, and he feels more secure politically with the support of the ultra-Orthodox. American Jews, Hoffman says, need to do more than get angry or apathetic. They need to lobby Israeli voters to bring the repercussions of this rift to the next Israeli election.

“Israel is a joint project of all Jews around the planet. Israel reflects on every one of us and affects every one of us. The biggest enemy is to be apathetic or to say Israel doesn’t matter,” she says. “Israel is too important to be left to just Israelis.”

Photo credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images

Debra Kamin is a freelance journalist based in Tel Aviv.

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