An American Jew in Israel
By Uri Regev
Jessica Fishman’s skillfully written memoir Chutzpah and High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land presents to the reader a key chapter in the life of a young American Jewish woman who attempted to transform her life through Aliyah. It describes the numerous challenges she confronted in her decision to uproot herself to immigrate to Israel. It is written with candor and humor, and it raises many fundamental issues involving Israel-Diaspora relations. For all its sharp criticism of different facets of life in Israel, it is at its core a Zionist treatise anchored in a deep love for the State and its people. It also offers a thought-provoking indictment of the young generation of American Jewry. This is a story of Jewish life’s complexity, of core values and of the challenging realities facing both major Jewish communities.
Some of the fissures between Israel and Diaspora Jewry are well known and vocally addressed. For example, wide circles in the U.S. and beyond protest the exclusion of women’s prayer groups and Reform and Conservative egalitarian services at the Western Wall. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heeded their outrage and tried to promote a compromise between the non-Orthodox movements, the Women of the Wall and the ultra-Orthodox elements of his government, which run the Chief Rabbinate and Israel’s religious establishment. However, after three years of negotiations and arriving at a seemingly perfect win-win solution, it turned out, in the spirit of Kol Nidrei, that agreements are not agreements and obligations are not obligations.
Fishman’s failed efforts—as a young woman who grew up in a Jewish American family deeply committed to the Jewish people, Judaism and Israel—to be fully recognized as Jewish, be respected by the State of Israel and fully enjoy her rights as a citizen should sensitize us to how marginal the struggle for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall truly is. The existential threat arising from fundamentalist Orthodoxy’s takeover of Israel’s Jewish core—with many Israeli coalition governments bowing to their whims—not only goes against the promise of Israel’s Declaration of Independence for “freedom of religion and conscience,” but also undermines the legitimacy of the majority of the younger generation of Diaspora Jewry.
There is no hope of convincing Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to accept the fundamentals of Jewish pluralism and democratic values. We should hope, instead, that both Israeli and Diaspora leadership heed Fishman’s voice, for her pain represents the that of the majority of her contemporaries in the Jewish community. They (the children of converts, those who are converts themselves and the children of mixed marriages) are outwardly welcomed to come live in Israel (to a great degree thanks to our legal victories in Israel’s eternal battle over “Who is a Jew”). Together we successfully overcame the political pressure of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties and the U.S. Chabad movement to exclude them from the scope of the Law of Return. Due to our legal and public victories, the State of Israel opened its gates to Fishman and her peers, granting them citizenship and allowing them to register as Jews in Israel’s civil population registry. Alas, they remain second-class citizens, often realizing this, as did Fishman, only when they want to start families of their own, and find that they cannot legally get married in Israel.
I believe that a key reason for the continuation of this situation is the lack of awareness among the rank and file of world Jewry, many of whom mistakenly think that the successes of our “Who is a Jew” struggle resulted in the full acceptance of immigrants and their children as Jews in Israel. Recently, I returned for another round of lectures and meetings with American Jewish leaders—one of many—and I was once again surprised and sorry to note how unaware many of my listeners were of the reality that has so hurt Fishman and others like her. My listeners were amazed to learn that Israel is the only Western democracy that denies its citizens marriage freedom, placing it in the unenviable “family” of 45 countries that impose severe restrictions on their citizens’ right to marriage, most of which enforce Sharia law. On the other hand, my listeners were encouraged to hear that most Jews in Israel support and yearn for religious freedom and Jewish pluralism, and reject the Israeli government’s religion and state policies, which are driven solely by political opportunism. These policies harm the unity of the Jewish people and the interests of the State of Israel, as evidenced by sundry studies on its economy, security, individual rights, women’s status issues, education and more.
It is so important to read Fishman’s book and internalize its message. We urgently need close cooperation between Jewish leadership in the Diaspora, civil society organizations in Israel and the silent majority to demand policies that protect the rights and dignity of Fishman, her peers, their families and the Diaspora communities that stand behind them. Heads of state pay lip service to injustice while ceding matters of religion and state to the religious political parties, as Netanyahu did when he publicly declared that he would “always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel—Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews.” The struggle over the Western Wall is part of the picture, but it is not central to this battle. Victory in the prayer plaza will not change the reality. This understanding is shared by major Jewish which have announced initiatives to champion marriage freedom in Israel. They deserve our support and appreciation, for they have identified the tremendous responsibility resting on our shoulders: to stand with Fishman and her peers, for they are the future of the Jewish community.
Fishman’s parting words in her book are “I’ve lost all hope in this country.” But she also describes how she would start her days in America after leaving Israel with a careful review of the Israeli daily news. Obviously, her loss of hope was temporary, for Fishman has returned and lives in Israel once again. Still, this does not minimize the serious challenges that she outlined for us—both for Israelis and for Diaspora Jewish leaders. On the contrary, she represents a small core of young idealistic Jews who prevail in spite of the obstacles and the rejections. The majority of her peers are moving away from Israel, and if this trend is not reversed, those of us concerned with the future of Israel and committed to the well-being of the Jewish people have much to worry about.
Rabbi Uri Regev, Esq. heads Hiddush, and Israel-Diaspora partnership for religious freedom & equality in Israel.