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2010 Annual Assessment

The past year has been characterized by intensive preoccupation with the issue of “distancing”, which will continue to accompany those involved in the Israel-Diaspora relationship in the upcoming years. Many of those adhering to the “distancing” theory believe that political gaps make a real contribution to the feeling of young American Jews that Israel cannot constitute for them a “core state”. However, the “political” explanation is not the only one possible. Parallel to it and to a large extent complementing and strengthening it is the “religious” explanation, meaning the feeling of young Jews that the way in which the relations between religion and state in Israel are managed, contradict their fundamental values and make it difficult for them to identify with Israel. The gaps between Israeli and American Jews in this matter are hardly new, and throughout the years have surfaced and at times brought about “crises” in Israel-Diaspora relations.

In brief, one may say that the majority of American Jews are faithful to the idea of separation of “church and state” as it is practiced in the United States. In Israel, on the other hand, the religious establishment is part of the institutions of the state. This gap between the American approach d and the Israeli one is, in and of itself, productive of tensions and a feeling of alienation of Jewish Americans from Israel. However this gap is exacerbated when Israel, in the eyes of young Jewish Americans, is a country whose religious life is ruled by the “Orthodox” establishment, which suppresses the other religious streams , namely the Reform and Conservative – at a time in which the majority of young Jewish Americans identify more with the Conservative and Reform denominations.

As mentioned above none of this is new, but in the past year a renewed tension between Israel and American Jewry concerning the “religious” issue became noticeable, and this may have contributed to “distancing” tendencies, if there are any, and in any case it did not benefit the relations between the two communities. On this background one can mention many examples of incidences that have received varying degrees of exposure in American Jewish communities such as: the segregation of men and women in buses in Jerusalem; the rabbis’ letter opposing rental of apartments to Arabs; a ruling against a woman being a member of the local Council of a religious community in Samaria; various antagonistic statements made by important rabbis against the progressive denominations, sometimes in scathing terms, and so on and so forth.

The renewal of tensions between Israel and the Diaspora in recent years has several reasons:

In Israel:

  • The rise in the demographic strength of the ultra-Orthodox and their attempts to translate this power into religious legislation.
  • Religious radicalization of rabbinical factors, both ultra-Orthodox and national-religious.
  • A relative calm in security tensions alongside a relative stagnation in the political process which contributed to the reappearance of essentially civil matters on the agenda.
  • A certain strengthening of the progressive movements in Israel and their attempts to gather even more strength – which brought about a counter-reaction on the part of the Orthodox establishment.

In the Diaspora:
A change in the attitude towards Israel and broadening acceptance of a more “critical” discourse.

A growing trend of philanthropists directing their money towards specific targets, including strengthening progressive elements in Israel (political as well as religious).

A rise in the number of visits of young Jewish Americans to Israel, which expose them personally to the manner in which religious issues are handled in Israel.

Two prominent issues were at the center of the relationship this year between Israel and American Jewry concerning the issue of the state-religion relationship. The first was an attempt to change the Israeli conversion law (“the Rotem Bill”), and the second is the ongoing clash related to the desire of a group called “the Women of the Wall” to conduct religious ceremonies for women at the Western Wall. These two issues received much attention from the central American Jewish establishment, from the communities, rabbis, and activists from all over the United States. Nearly in all cases the attention was of a negative nature, including severe criticism of Israel.

The Rotem Bill touched upon an essential issue that causes a crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations each time it is raised. We refer to the attempt made by MK David Rotem from the Yisrael Beiteinu party to solve an internal Israeli problem of the treatment of converted Jews, especially from among Commonwealth of Independent States (the former Soviet Union) immigrants, due to the refusal of rabbis in various places to accept their conversions. MK Rotem tried to change the law so that the system would become more accommodating towards those going through conversion. As part of the package deal (that included other elements) concocted by Rotem and the ultra-Orthodox MKs the law was worded in such a manner that the authority and responsibility for all matters of conversion were placed in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate. It was this item in the law that raised the most objections, due to its opponents’ fear that it had the potential to dramatically alter the status quo. Furthermore, every attempt to change the conversion laws also means a change in the Israeli approach to the larger question of “who is a Jew” and therefore is also perceived as having a direct impact on Diaspora Jewry (Although in this case it was unclear whether there would be any practical implications for the Jewish Diaspora).

The Women of the Wall’s struggle also concerns a Jewish symbol “shared” by Israel and the Jewish Diaspora – the Kotel (Wailing Wall) plaza. This struggle has been going on for many years and it is founded in the demand of a group of women to conduct a women’s prayer service in the Kotel plaza, while wrapped in talittot (prayer shawls) and reading from the Torah. This demand and the ban imposed by the authorities on their desired form of prayer have already reached the High Court of Justice several times, and finally a compromise was reached. In the past year a new height was reached in the continuing struggle as the police detained for questioning several of the group’s leaders after they had participated in a prayer that was ostensibly contrary to the verdict of the Court. The detention was met with sharp reactions in many Jewish communities in the United States. It is worth mentioning in this context that in the past few years the rules governing behavior at the Kotel have been seen to become even stricter, for instance, in the establishment of separate entrances for men and women, and this too has contributed to the growing feeling among American Jews that Israel is “radicalizing” in terms of religion and is on the path “leading to fundamentalism”.

The two crises have received the attention of American Jewry, although not equally. The immediate crisis – the Rotem Law – was met with a sharp reaction on the part of the leaders of American Jewry, primarily because there was a clear deadline in this case. The threat of an uncontrollable crisis actually caused a suspension of the legislation and perhaps even its cancellation. The Women of the Wall’s crisis is yet to be resolved, and it continues to erode Israel’s image among certain audiences of American Jews.

American Jews feel that Israel is “radicalizing” in terms of religion and is on the path “leading to fundamen-talism”

The ongoing process of bolstering the rabbinical-Orthodox establishment in Israel in the face of growing criticism in the Diaspora will necessarily lead to the erosion of Israel’s image as the country of “all the Jews”, to the erosion of its image as a liberal and pluralist country, and to a growing feeling of alienation on the part of those that do not identify with Judaism in its Orthodox form (meaning – most of the Jewish people). Therefore both Israel and the leadership of the Jewish Diaspora have a clear interest in defusing the tensions and reach compromises that will neutralize their potential damage. In outlining such solutions it would be appropriate to consider several issues:

  • On issues clearly concerning the “Jewishness” of Israel and its Jewish symbols, formal and informal consultations should be considered before taking steps that may change the status quo.
  • In the specific context of the Kotel plaza it would be proper for Israel to reconsider the existing arrangement and attempt to strive for a new situation that would enable Jews from the Diaspora to conduct prayers and ceremonies according to their custom.
  • The relations between the religious denominations in the United States are much better than in Israel. In this matter Israel must try and learn from the American community and try to improve the relations wherever possible.
  • Even before discussing legislative action to improve the status of the progressive denominations – moves that are politically complicated – a feeling that the leaders of the country respect and appreciate the progressive denominations will contribute greatly to an improved atmosphere.
  • It is recommended that the leadership of the Jewish Diaspora channel the feeling of frustration among progressive Jewish young adults in a way that will lead them to action and not to indifference.
  • In our estimation, if compromises and arrangements in the spirit proposed here will not be promoted, it can be assumed that the erosion of Israel’s status among American Jewry on religious issues will continue and even worsen.