Is Israel Choosing the Devout Over the Diaspora?
The conversation over the widening ideological gap between American and Israeli Jews was reignited this month after the publication of a poll that found dramatic differences in the way the two groups view political issues. The split may be exacerbated by the Jewish homeland’s prioritization of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox constituents over secular ones.
The survey, published by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), paints a picture of a conservative Israel concerned with its own security contrasting a more liberal and progressive American Jewry. While 77 percent of Israelis polled approved of how President Donald Trump is handling U.S.-Israel relations, only 34 percent of American Jews agreed, and a majority, 57 percent, said they disapproved. Similarly, although a majority (59 percent) of Americans supported the notion of a demilitarized Palestinian state on the West Bank, only 44 percent of Israelis feel the same way.
Nadav Tamir, a close advisor to former Prime Minister Shimon Peres and ex-Israeli diplomat to the United States, attributes this disparity to the influence of the Orthodox camp in Israeli politics. “In general, religious people, Orthodox people, are more right-wing,” Tamir explains. The Orthodox minority’s voluble presence in Israel, he continued, push more liberal and secular citizens further to the right. “They don’t know the damage that is being caused because of the Orthodox establishment,” he says, such as making comments and enacting policies that cause Diaspora Jews to distance themselves from Israel. “The Orthodox monopoly on Israel treats Reform and Conservative denominations as second-class Jews, which is another reason why the American Jewish community is feeling less and less connected to Israel.”
The official faces and voices of Orthodox Judaism in Israel are those of the Chief Rabbinate, a state-sanctioned council that serves as the ultimate authority on Judaism in the Jewish state. The Rabbinate regulates marriage and divorce, conversion, kosher laws and other religious aspects of Israeli life. The Rabbinate has often been seen as disparaging to non-Orthodox denominations, such as last year when the current Sephardi Chief Rabbi sparked controversy by comparing Reform Jews to Holocaust deniers, although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately dismissed those remarks in a statement. “All Jews are part of one family and the diversity of our people should always be respected. I categorically reject any attempt to delegitimize any part of the Jewish people.”
The director of AJC’s contemporary Jewish life department, Steven Bayme, describes the Chief Rabbinate as “radiating contempt” with respect to non-Orthodox denominations, which includes the vast majority of both Israeli and American Jews (79 percent and 89 percent, respectively). Bayme says that such comments as the Sephardi Chief Rabbi’s “demean the image of Judaism in the Jewish state.” He continues, “They’re very demoralizing. Reform and Conservative Judaism’s representatives are among the strongest advocates and supporters of the State of Israel; why should their expression of Judaism be dismissed by official organs of the Jewish state?”
AJC reinforced these ideas when several senior members, including Bayme and AJC president John Shapiro, appeared last week before the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs. Shapiro warned the committee that, by capitulating to ultra-Orthodox demands, “you are losing the next generation, and you are losing the passion of the current generation.” He recounted a story of his son questioning his support for Israel and saying, “We’re giving so much money, and we’re giving so much time, and they don’t even look at us. They’re pushing us away.”
By alienating less religious Jews, some argue, the Rabbinate is failing in its duties. “When statements coming out of the Chief Rabbinate delegitimize Conservative and Reform Judaism,” Bayme says, “they’re undermining the very role they’re supposed to be playing in terms of Jewish continuity.”
The role of religious pluralism and non-Orthodox denominations has been a hot-button issue in Israel for some time. An agreement to expand the mixed-gender section of the Western Wall collapsed last year under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox, and is often used as an example of conflict between progressive, secular Israelis and the Orthodox establishment.
These disagreements are likely to only become more common in the future; current trends project the proportion of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel jumping from one-fifth to one-third by 2030. “You’re talking about a Haredi demographic that’s growing by leaps and bounds that will alter the shape of Israeli society in ways that American Jews will feel even more distant from in years ahead,” Bayme says. “So that you’re having an Israeli society that’s becoming more religious, more Haredi, more ultra-orthodox, and an American society that’s assimilating rather than renewing orthodoxy.”
Both Tamir and Bayme advocate a better form of communication between Israeli and American Jews as a way to bring the two communities closer together. “There’s a need for a very quick turnaround here in terms of Israel-Diaspora relations,” Bayme argues. “We need programs that will bridge American Jewry and Israel in much stronger ways than we have now.”
While Americans may be concerned over Israeli Orthodoxy, many Israelis worry about American Jews assimilating. At AJC’s June conference in Jerusalem, Israel’s Minister of Education and Diaspora Affairs, Naftali Bennett, described assimilation as the number one thing that keeps him up at night. “If we don’t act urgently, we’re going to be losing millions of Jews to assimilation,” he warned. He called the “Atlantic Jewish chasm” “one of the greatest challenges of our generation.”
“We don’t fully agree on everything,” he added. “We are Jews, for heaven’s sake. We’re not supposed to agree on everything—but we are supposed to remember we’re one family.”