An apprehension concerning the role of Israel in shaping what Jews perceive in terms of culture and peoplehood heightens the demand for Israeli sensitivity as it influences the way Jewishness is defined and practiced around the world
We have dealt briefly with Israel’s authority to define Jewishness in a previous chapter, but there were things left to say about how Israel’s role is perceived by Israelis and non-Israelis. That is because Israel, as a matter of fact, has at least two important functions in determining the nature of Jewishness for a great number of Jews.
For Israeli Jews – more than 40 percent of world Jewry – Israel makes the rules, some of which have to do with Jewishness. For example, since Israel lacks a mechanism for civil marriage and only allows marriage under the auspices of religious authorities, it effectively gives these religious authorities a mandate to determine a person’s Jewishness and hence their marriageability within the system.
For non-Israeli Jews, Israel also determines some matters pertaining to Jewishness. It is the only arbiter with the authority to say who is (or is not) eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return – the most visible manifestation of Israel’s claim to be the state of the Jewish people. Diaspora Jewry, as we reported in 2014, “widely supports the Law of Return as an expression of solidarity between Israel and the Diaspora and believe that it guarantees a safe haven for Jews in distress.”151 This issue came up in this year’s discussions as the Law of Return and its definitions of eligibility were presented to participants. “One of the major attributes of Israel is that it’s a place for all Jews,” one participant reminded his friends 152 (a more elaborate discussion of the Law of Return and its meaning, appears later).
Moreover, Israel is the most powerful body of the Jewish world, and, hence, can make decisions – for example, encouraging and allocating funds for projects such as Birthright, or prohibited mixed-gender prayer at the Western Wall – that impact Jewishness. Again, this was an issue covered in JPPI’s 2014 Dialogue report where we concluded, among other things, that “Israel, as the most visible manifestation of Jewish national expression today, impacts the way Judaism is perceived by Jews and non-Jews alike. Hence, its character… can influence Jewish identity in several ways – from enhancing the role of nationality as the main expression of Judaism, to making Judaism more or less attractive for young people, and intensifying or diminishing their desire to belong to, and take pride in, their Jewishness.”153
Alas, not all participants in this year’s JPPI Dialogue were comfortable with the way Jewishness is interpreted by Jewish Israelis. “There are many people who are not considered Jews by Israel, yet they are much more Jewish than many Jews in Israel,” one young participant remarked.154 In Chicago, a participant said that Diaspora Jews should craft their Jewishness “without always looking to what Israel is doing, and without the need for [Israeli] approval.”155 In Philadelphia it was argued that “it is inappropriate for the Israeli government to take a position on Diaspora Jewry’s manner of Jewish practice, definitions, and observance”. 156
Recent studies have shown time and time again that most Israeli Jews and non-Israeli Jews appreciate relations between all Jews, and see value in maintaining them. “Jews in the U.S. and Israel have deep connections,” the 2016 Pew report on Israel concluded. Jews in Israel “support the [D]iaspora population’s right to move to Israel and receive citizenship”; they believe “a thriving Jewish [D]iaspora is necessary for the long-term survival of the Jewish people.”157 JPPI’s 2016 Pluralism in Israel survey showed that Israelis, by and large, agree that Diaspora Jews contribute more to the thriving of Israel than many Israeli groups.158
But, as we wrote in last year’s Dialogue report: “It is one thing for Israel to acknowledge the changing dynamics of its relationship with the Diaspora, its need to work harder at strengthening Jewish communities abroad, and even the desirability of taking Diaspora Jewry’s views into consideration… It is another thing to agree to World Jewry’s intervention in Israeli affairs.”159 That is to say, Israeli influence on the character of Jewishness around the world, does not necessarily mean that Israel (and Israelis) would be willing to accept explicit Diaspora interference in the affairs of the Jewish state (in an interconnected world a measure of influence through various channels is inevitable). Israelis, as the Guttman-Avichai survey reported, are of the view that “the Jews in Israel are a different nation than the Jews abroad.” 160 This surely includes differences in defining and understanding Jewishness.
Like last year, this year’s Dialogue survey included several questions concerning Israel’s role(s) and how it relates to questions that pertain to Diaspora communities. One question asked participants to agree or disagree with the statement: “Israel’s definition of ‘Jew’ is an insult to Diaspora Jewry.” We did not provide specific details about the nature of the insult, assuming that the question left general would give us insight into the negative perceptions of some Diaspora Jews vis-à-vis Israeli definitions of Jewishness.
The findings are inconclusive. We utilized a 1 – 4 scale (1 = “totally disagree”; and 4 = “totally agree,” for the question: “Israel’s definition of ‘Jew’ is an insult to Diaspora Jewry.” The difference in how Israelis and North Americans (and Australians – but not Brazilians)161 answered is notable. Only 8 percent of Israelis “totally agree[d]”, while more than 20 percent of Americans and Australians “totally agree[d]” with the statement. Younger Dialogue participants agreed with the statement more than older participants. And, obviously, the response to this statement varied according to religious affiliation, with Orthodox Jews least disturbed by Israel’s definitions and Reform Jews most disturbed by them.
“Strongly agree” that Israel’s definition of a “Jew” is an insult to Diaspora Jewry, by religious affiliation
One of the interesting things we tested this year was the difference in opinion among Jews when asked about how Israel-Diaspora relations feed into Israeli decision making on various topics. Last year, when the Dialogue focused on armed conflict, we showed that “a fair number of Diaspora Jews feel they are entitled to express their opinions and that Israel should take them into account, even on major security issues.”162 When we asked Dialogue participants whether they think: 1. Israel should conduct its armed conflicts without regard to the views of Jews living outside of Israel; 2. Israel should consider the views of other Jews because its armed conflicts could have impact on their lives; 3. Israel should consider the views of other Jews, because all Jews define the framework of conducting an armed conflict in accordance with Jewish values; or 4. Israel should consider the views of other Jews if it wants to keep their support for its armed conflicts. Thirty-eight percent of respondents chose the second statement, that Israel needs to consider their views because “its armed conflicts could have impact on their lives.”
This year, on a totally different topic, we presented a dilemma with a similar set of four possible choices: Thinking about Israel-Diaspora relations, do you generally believe that: A. Israel should decide who is considered Jewish in Israel without regard to the views of Jews living outside of Israel; B. Israel should consider the views of non-Israeli Jews mostly because its definition could have an impact on their lives; C. Israel should consider the views of non-Israeli Jews, mostly because all Jews define the framework of Jewishness; or D. Israel should consider the views of non-Israeli Jews, mostly because it wants to keep other Jews associated with it and supporting it.
Unlike last year, when the issue was security, people’s concern for their own safety, and the expectation that Israel would take the possible impact on their lives into account – this year, on the issue of Jewishness, the priority was a sense of partnership. Jewishness is not an Israeli business. It is the business of all Jews. Hence, about half of all participants (including a plurality of Israeli respondents) chose C., that Israel “should consider the views of non-Israeli Jews, mostly because all Jews define the framework of Jewishness.” Israeli, Orthodox, and secular Jews had a slightly stronger inclination toward the pragmatic instrumental answer (to keep other Jews associated with Israel and supporting it) than other Jews. But the leading choice emphasized the partnership of Jews in defining Jewishness. Notably, the number of participants believing that Israel has no need to consider the views of Diaspora Jews dropped from about a third of respondents last year, when the issue was armed conflict, to a negligible 5 percent this year, when the issue was Jewish identity. Even among Israelis, who one might expect to be less enthusiastic about Diaspora influence on Israeli determinations, less than 10 percent of respondents thought there was “no need for Israel to consider Diaspora views.” 163
JPPI 2016 Dialogue – Israel Diaspora relations about Jewishness: Thinking about Israel-Diaspora relations, Israel should consider views of non-Israeli Jews when determining who is considered Jewish in Israel:
JPPI 2015 Dialogue – Israel-Diaspora relations about security: Thinking about Israel-Diaspora relations, Israel should consider views of non-Israeli Jews when conducting armed conflicts…
Israelis are supportive of the idea of Israel taking Diaspora Jewry “into consideration” when major decisions have to be made. An Israel Democracy Institute survey showed that 71 percent of respondents stated that Israel should take Diaspora Jewry into account when making decisions, versus 26 percent who felt that Israel has no need to do so. And yet, as we explained last year: “It is one thing for Israel to acknowledge the changing dynamics of its relationship with the Diaspora, its need to work harder at strengthening Jewish communities abroad, and even the desirability of taking Diaspora Jewry’s views into consideration… it is another thing to agree to World Jewry’s intervention in Israeli affairs. Especially in security related matters, on which Israelis have a very different perspective from Diaspora Jews.” 164
The two tables above clearly show that JPPI’s previous two Dialogue reports were quite accurate in identifying that it is easier for Israel – as it is for other Jews – to accept and expect Israeli consideration of Diaspora when the discussion pertains to Israel’s Jewishness. The reports were also accurate in asserting that it is more complicated for Israelis to agree to, and for Diaspora Jews to demand, such consideration on matters concerning Israel’s security and defense policies.
Our integration of the answers to all the questions about Israel’s role in defining Judaism finds the following:
- An acknowledgment of Israel’s major influence on how Jewishness is perceived and practiced around the world.
- An apprehension surrounding the role of a state in shaping what Jews see as a culture and a people.
- A demand for greater Israeli sensitivity because of this influence (and the displeasure with its current level of sensitivity).
- A desire for partnership between Israel and Jewish communities around the world in crafting the future of Jewishness.
- An understanding that on some matters (as we will see in the discussion of the Law of Return) Israel ought to define Jewishness more strictly than other Jewish communities