May 30, 2019 — New York
This piece originally appeared in The Jewish Week.
Hardly a week passes without a media report concerning the growing chasm between American Jews and Israelis over issues of culture, religion and politics. The recent Israeli elections may aggravate the divide. The religious parties now control 21 Knesset seats and likely will veto efforts to find compromise over religion/state issues. In advance of the elections, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), where I direct the Contemporary Jewish Life department, sent a letter to the heads of all the Zionist parties urging them to set forth their views on Israel-diaspora relations. Most affirmed the critical importance of world Jewry to Israel’s future as a Jewish state.
To be sure, election promises often fall short of realization. Beyond the political echelon, it is instructive to examine what efforts currently exist to strengthen ties between American Jewry and Israel and how they may be enhanced. Hopes in turn may be raised that the “facts on the ground” ultimately will impact political decision-makers.
Three overlapping yet distinct models of programming are in play: educational initiatives, person-to-person exchanges and political lobbying. Each is important, although it will take time for fruits to be realized.
Educational programs occur both within Israel and the United States. The Center for Israel Education (CIE), directed by Prof. Ken Stein of Emory University, has conducted seminars for high school instructors teaching courses on modern Israel. For over two decades CIE has convened one-week intensive summer workshops on Israeli history and politics for over 800 participating teachers. Similarly, Brandeis University, initially with the assistance of AJC, for over 15 years has been building a critical mass of faculty able to introduce courses on modern Israel at their own institutions. Professors who have taken the university’s intensive three-week seminar are now teaching courses at over 200 universities worldwide.
Of course, there cannot and should not be any uniform model of instruction. However, these tangible and pragmatic initiatives enhance both the quantity and quality of instruction regarding Israel. In turn, a better educated student, more knowledgeable about Israel, is far more likely to feel greater attachment to Israel.
Other educational programs are targeted to Israelis with the goal of enhancing understanding of American Jewry. Haifa University has developed a master’s program, the Ruderman Program of American Jewish Studies, that promotes Israeli academic research on American Jewry, translates into Hebrew one book annually on American Jewish history and brings graduate students to the States for direct encounters with the Jewish community.
Even more intensive has been the Wexner Israel Fellowship, based at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. For the past two decades mid-career Israeli public servants have honed their leadership skills through a year-long study program at the Kennedy School. During the year, the fellowship arranges encounters with American Jewish leaders and counterparts. Observers have been impressed by the high quality of the fellows and noted how their presence has enhanced solidarity with Israel.
Beyond formal educational programs one must acknowledge the importance of direct encounters between Israelis and American Jews. For several years I attended the Moriah Conferences of the North American Jewish and Israel Forums. Personal encounters, often occurring at all hours of the night, both formed contacts and framed my understanding of Israelis and their unique circumstances and life trajectories. Ultimately, the “Moriah Process” ran its course and closed following Moriah VII in the 1990s. Yet the model of direct encounter has continued in recent years in other forms and under other auspices.
Of these, Birthright Israel has been in the forefront with its series of “mifgashim,” encounters, built into trips. In addition to touring Israel and celebrating her vibrancy, Birthright participants partake in a series of direct exchanges with Israelis. Many of these involve soldiers assigned to Birthright busses. Observers note the impact of these encounters on the Israelis often matches or exceeds their impact on the Americans.
Other groups have sponsored “reverse Birthright” programs bringing Israelis to the American Jewish community. In 1985 AJC pioneered its “Person to Person” two-week exchange program for Israeli young leaders, many of whom since have assumed prominent positions within Israeli society. More recently, the Ruderman Foundation has brought over delegations of Israeli journalists and Knesset members, as has the Reform movement, for purposes of enhancing mutual understanding.
The common thread underlying these experiences is the quality of the “mifgash.” Heartfelt dialogue alone will not bridge divides of politics and identity. What dialogue does achieve is build personal ties, enhance mutual understanding and reduce the level of toxicity that often pervades public discourse.
Direct lobbying efforts comprise a third model of engagement. The high tide of diaspora lobbying in Israel occurred in 1988 when American Jewish leaders successfully intervened in Israeli politics so as to prevent change in the “who is a Jew” clause within the Law of Return to reflect halachic criteria. More recently, the collapse of the “Kotel Compromise” permitting egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall’s southern extension and renewed efforts to cement an Orthodox monopoly over conversion to Judaism have galvanized American Jewish passion behind lobbying efforts. AJC launched the Jewish Religious Equality Coalition (JREC), a broad-based coalition of individuals and Jewish organizations for the purpose of creating recognized alternatives to the Chief Rabbinate’s control over marriage, divorce, burial, and conversion. With the suspension of the Kotel Compromise two years ago, JREC and other American Jewish groups and coalitions undertook lobbying efforts geared towards securing implementation of the previously agreed-to Kotel Compromise.
To date, these efforts have failed to move the needle. Short-term prospects for change are dim given the strength of the respective religious parties. What the lobbying efforts have achieved thus far has been the raising of public awareness and the reduction of chances to further religious legislation.
Given the failure of strategies adopted to date, Jewish leadership is considering alternate strategies. For example, Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, chair of JFNA’s Rabbinic Cabinet, led an interdenominational “Unity Mission” to meet with the prime minister and impress upon him the need for Israel-diaspora unity. Weinblatt’s group pointedly eschewed public criticism of Israel and pledged “unconditional love,” notwithstanding critical disagreements. The group opted for engagement rather than confrontation. Only time will tell if the Unity Mission and/or similar approaches will bear fruit.
This brief survey of efforts to heal the breach, to which many more initiatives could be added, delineates both the obstacles to and the possibilities for success. The underlying problem remains assimilation in the diaspora. Even if Israel undertook everything that American Jews wished for, Americans would still confront the problem of distancing from Jewish matters generally, which in itself connotes distancing from Israel.
Second, distancing from Israel is occurring also among highly committed American Jews alienated by aspects of Israeli public policy. This sub-population needs to find ways to give voice to dissent without undermining Israeli security and U.S.-Israel relations or incurring charges of treasonous behavior. One possibility lies in legitimating individual as opposed to institutional dissent. Individual dissent ought always be welcome and it may be useful in challenging existing policies. Conversely, institutional dissent, particularly when expressed by organizations dedicated to pro-Israel advocacy, may well attenuate the well-founded hypothesis that American Jews largely desire a continued U.S.-Israel “special” relationship.
Last, Israeli Orthodoxy and its American counterpart need to recognize that the religious status quo in Israel offers short-term benefits to Orthodoxy but at increased long-term cost. Orthodox leaders need to compete in the open marketplace of ideas. Many Jews undoubtedly will continue to prefer the Orthodox way. Others will follow diverse modes of Jewish expression. But collectively the Jewish people will be strengthened by greater numbers of committed Jews dedicated to advancing their particular expression of Judaism through persuasion rather than force of law. ✡
Steven Bayme is national director of Contemporary Jewish Life at AJC.