The General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America is not just another conference. It is an annual Jewish convocation in which thousands of activists from all over the United States celebrate their work on behalf of their people and their connection to Israel.
The attendees regard the prime minister of Israel as no mere guest, but as a sharer in the celebration.
His absence will cast a shadow over the conference, but that is not all.
It will be a seminal moment in the most negative sense, a rock-bottom point in the relationship between the two largest Jewish communities on Earth, when Israel’s prime minister, who represents the Jewish state to the entire world, lays aside his responsibility for, and representation of, almost half of the world’s Jews.
The Jewish community of the United States is the second-largest Jewish community in the world and the most important one outside Israel. Therefore, the connection between the two largest Jewish communities – 43% in Israel and 39% in the US – is vital to the integrity and the strength of the Jewish people.
On the Israeli side, the State of Israel has seen itself as the national home of the entire Jewish people since the day it was established.
This is, among other things, the reason for its existence. This view finds tangible expression in many ways, such as the Law of Return, willingness to work on behalf of Jewish communities in distress and to protect their security, taking a leading role in the fight against antisemitism throughout the world, and investing resources from the State of Israel’s budget in Jewish communities outside Israel.
Such responsibility for the Jewish people in its entirety is also a matter of principle. Throughout Israel’s history, its prime ministers have seen themselves to a large extent as leaders and representatives of the Jewish people as a whole.
They have allowed themselves to speak and act in its name in their dealings with international entities and world leaders. Responsibility for the Jewish people is at the heart and the essence of the Jewish state.
American Jewry has been the largest and strongest Jewish community outside Israel for decades.
It has used its political, economic, and intellectual resources to support the State of Israel over many years, and sees itself as sharing responsibility for its security, prosperity, and welfare.
For many American Jews, identification with the State of Israel is a significant component of their Jewish identity. They celebrate its festivals, share in its sorrows, and see it as a second home.
However, deep cracks have begun to form in the relationship between the two communities, primarily due to the changes that the State of Israel is undergoing and its policy regarding matters that are at the core of the Jewish identity of most American Jews. The State of Israel that they would like to see as a second home and a source of pride and identity is a country with which they share fundamental values and beliefs, in other words a secular and liberal Jewish state. But that is not the Israel of today.
For demographic reasons and due to its changing values, today’s Israel is more religious, more conservative, and much less liberal, and is running roughshod over the values that most American Jews hold dear.
Today’s Israel is a Jewish state that, in some perspectives, is being run according to ultra-Orthodox values and is therefore unwilling to recognize the non-Orthodox movements to which the vast majority of American Jews belong.
This unwillingness, which finds expression in many matters, has recently taken on greater force regarding issues such as the Western Wall and conversion.
The Israeli government’s ongoing readiness to surrender to the dictates of the ultra-Orthodox on these issues, together with its reluctance to recognize the non-Orthodox movements, are also chipping away at American Jews’ solidarity with the State of Israel.
The results of this crisis are all too visible among American Jews.
Jewish leaders are very angry with the State of Israel and less willing to work on its behalf. Solidarity with the Jewish state is steadily decreasing among the younger generation as Israel becomes less important to their Jewish identity.
These changes have disastrous implications for the Jewish people and for American Jewry. The widening abyss between these large and important Jewish communities is tearing the Jewish people apart and turning it, for all intents and purposes, into two peoples.
These changes are only making things worse for American Jewry, which must address its young generation’s apathy toward – and, in many cases, abandonment of – their Jewish identity.
When the Jewish state, the strongest Jewish symbol on Earth, promotes values that differ so greatly from their world view and which they perceive as bad and regressive, the alienation they feel is not only toward the state, but also toward the Jewish people whom it represents.
The State of Israel is not only pushing Jews away from identifying with it, but is also pushing them away from the Jewish people.
While the prime minister’s absence from next month’s General Assembly is bad in itself, it is even worse due to the symbolic statement it makes. It shows that the State of Israel is laying aside its role as being responsible for the wholeness of the Jewish people. It shows that Israel’s prime minister is laying aside his responsibility toward the world’s largest Jewish community.
It shows that the State of Israel no longer takes Jews who live outside Israel into account in its policy considerations, even when it is obvious that what the Jews who live here do has a strong influence on the Jews who live there and on the Jewish people as a whole.
If this process continues and Israel becomes “a nation that dwells alone,” never taking the Jews of the world into account, this would be a historic tragedy.
The writer is director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute and a member of the Faculty of Law at the Peres Academic Center.
This piece was originally published in the Jerusalem Post.