Stop Try­ing To Bring Lib­eral Ju­daism To Is­rael

Forward Magazine - - OPINION - Ei­nat Wil and Ram Vromen

When I had the honor of speak­ing at a con­ser­va­tive syn­a­gogue in New York City, I was asked why, as a proud Is­raeli fem­i­nist, I am not mo­bi­lized for the cause of the Women of the Wall.

I ad­mit­ted that while I am a fem­i­nist I am also a de­vout athe­ist, and the im­por­tance of pray­ing to a god who does not ex­ist next to the ru­ins of an outer sup­port wall was en­tirely alien to me.

The mem­bers of the con­gre­ga­tion were vis­i­bly shocked by my re­sponse.

And I was shocked that they were shocked.

But our mu­tual as­ton­ish­ment ac­tu­ally clar­i­fied some­thing for me: Lib­eral Amer­i­can Jews seemed to have no idea that the peo­ple in Is­rael who share their com­mit­ment to plu­ral­ism and lib­eral val­ues are, by and large, sec­u­lar. This means that when Amer­i­can Jews push for re­li­gious plu­ral­ism in Is­rael by fo­cus­ing on re­li­gion rather than on plu­ral­ism they are ac­tu­ally shoot­ing them­selves in the foot. For in so do­ing, they are seek­ing a coali­tion with the very peo­ple — re­li­gious Is­raelis — who will never ac­cept them.

Ju­daism’s Amer­ica/Is­rael Di­vide

Ever since Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu scut­tled a deal that would have al­lowed Con­ser­va­tive and Re­form Jews to pray at the Western Wall, Di­as­pora Jews have been loudly con­demn­ing Is­rael for its lack of re­li­gious plu­ral­ism.

In fact, these ac­cu­sa­tions are noth­ing new; for years, Amer­i­can Jews have ar­gued that the “State of the Jews” is not truly a home to all Jews, lack­ing the re­li­gious plu­ral­ism they find in the Di­as­pora.

And yet, most Is­raeli Jews have no idea what they’re talk­ing about.

As far as Is­raelis are con­cerned, they have an in­cred­i­bly plu­ral­is­tic so­ci­ety re­flect­ing mul­ti­ple re­li­gious prac­tices, sects, sub­sects and eth­nic­i­ties. Is­raeli Jews are re­mark­ably tol­er­ant of a host of di­er­ent modes of prac­ti­cal rit­u­al­is­tic ex­pres­sion. One can be a de­vout athe­ist-shrimp-eat­ing-Shab­bat-driv­ing Jew or a fa­nat­i­cal, carry-out-all-themitz­vahs one, and all are cit­i­zens of the Jewish state.

As a so­ci­ety, Is­raelis re­ally could not care less how cit­i­zens ex­press their re­li­gious iden­tity, Jewish or oth­er­wise.

Of course, this is not what lib­eral Amer­i­can Jews want when they ask for more “plu­ral­ism.” What they mean is hav­ing equal stand­ing in the pub­lic and po­lit­i­cal sphere for Con­ser­va­tive and Re­form Ju­daism, which are all but for­eign con­cepts to Is­raelis.

This distinc­tion is based on a rather fun­da­men­tal di­er­ence in the his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment of Ju­daism in the United States and Is­rael. It was a col­league

One can be an athe­ist-shrimpeat­ingJew or a anat­i­cal, carry-out-alltheone, and all are cit­i­zens o the Jewish state.

at the Jewish Peo­ple Pol­icy In­sti­tute, Shlomo Fisher, who elu­ci­dated this phe­nom­e­non for us in his su­perb es­say “Amer­i­can Jews Are Protes­tants, Is­raeli Jews Are Catholics.”

There, Fisher ex­plains that the lib­eral Jewish Amer­i­can con­cep­tion of re­li­gion de­vel­oped in a uniquely Amer­i­can con­text, where re­li­gion is viewed as a per­sonal choice and a form of in­di­vid­ual self-ex­pres­sion, o cially sep­a­rate from the po­lit­i­cal sphere. For Amer­i­can Jews, as for Amer­i­cans more gen­er­ally, re­li­gion is com­pat­i­ble with “plu­ral­ism, civil rights and democ­racy.”

Mean­while, Is­raelis, fol­low­ing the Euro­pean model, came to view democ­racy, civil lib­er­ties or plu­ral­ism as re­quir­ing the over­throw of re­li­gion. As op­posed to Amer­i­can Jews, for Is­raelis “re­li­gious iden­tity is not re­ally a mat­ter of in­di­vid­ual choice or con­vic­tion, rather, it goes along with one’s na­tional, eth­nic or po­lit­i­cal iden­tity,” Fisher writes. In Is­rael, Jewish­ness is not an in­di­vid­ual choice but part and par­cel of the pub­lic, po­lit­i­cal sphere.

It wasn’t al­ways so. In the early years of the State of Is­rael, the cul­tural elite was sec­u­lar, even mil­i­tantly athe­ist. Un­der the mis­taken as­sump­tion that Zion­ism had com­pleted the re­form of Ju­daism, the ques­tion of re­li­gion in the pub­lic sphere was viewed as the purview of small mar­ginal groups that would quickly be swept by the for­ward march of his­tory into sec­u­lar­ism.

Un­for­tu­nately, David Ben-Gu­rion was wrong to think that re­li­gion would evap­o­rate. These days, the sec­u­lar Zion­ist La­bor Party has ceded power to a coali­tion of re­li­gious na­tion­al­ists, ul­tra-re­li­gious Haredim and re­li­gious tra­di­tion­al­ists. As a re­sult, Ju­daism it­self moved from the mar­gin to the cen­ter, be­com­ing a key fac­tor, per­haps the key fac­tor, in Is­raeli pol­i­tics.

This was a key in­sight em­ployed by Ne­tanyahu in the ŒŽŽ‘ elec­tions — that at­ti­tudes to­ward Jewish re­li­gious prac­tice were the sin­gle great­est de­ter­mi­nant of one’s po­lit­i­cal lean­ing. He has rid­den that in­sight to the polls again and again, al­low­ing Jewish re­li­gion to be­come the means through which ret­ro­grade ideas, il­lib­eral val­ues and in­creas­ingly su­prem­a­cist ide­olo­gies pro­mote and ce­ment in­equal­ity be­tween Jews and nonJews, and be­tween men and women.

The uni­ver­sal idea that re­li­gious “sen­si­tiv­i­ties” are some­how sacro­sanct has lead them to be used to im­pose in­creas­ingly strin­gent forms of se­gre­ga­tion against women. The Jewish re­li­gious male is posited as the su­pe­rior be­ing for whom all al­lowances must be made. Un­der the pre­text that re­li­gious men some­how are deeply o“ended by the pres­ence of women in the pub­lic sphere, women have been pushed to the back of some buses that go through re­li­gious neigh­bor­hoods, pre­vented from serv­ing in sev­eral roles in the mil­i­tary, and

Lib­eral Amer­i­can Jews have wasted hun­dreds o mil­lions o dol­lars try­ing to shore up Re orm and Con­ser­va­tive Ju­daism in Is­rael, to no avail.

in­creas­ingly forced to fol­low “mod­esty codes” so as not to “o“end” re­li­gious male soldiers. Re­li­gious ar­gu­ments also un­der­pin op­po­si­tion to full LGBTQ equal­ity, and in gen­eral op­pose any kind of fam­ily form that is not Jewish male, Jewish fe­male, Jewish chil­dren.

Lib­eral Amer­i­can Jews, ac­cus­tomed to the Amer­i­can tra­di­tion of re­li­gion in the ser­vice of lib­eral val­ues and progress, have ob­served these de­vel­op­ments with dis­may and in­com­pre­hen­sion, and per­haps even de­nial. They be­lieve that the Jewish re­li­gion could play a di“er­ent role in Is­rael. They are wrong.

An Amer­i­can phi­lan­thropist re­cently shared his frus­tra­tion at the fact that when­ever and wher­ever he sees

some­thing wrong in Is­rael — in the treat­ment of women, of non-Jews, and ex­pres­sions of racism and ha­tred — he also sees a rabbi. This is not a co­in­ci­dence. This is not an aber­ra­tion. This is the role of the Jewish re­li­gion in Is­rael.

If Amer­i­can Jews are ever to find a home for their brand of Ju­daism in Is­rael, their goal can­not be sup­port for a “kinder, gen­tler” type of Jewish re­li­gion in the pub­lic and po­lit­i­cal sphere, com­men­su­rate with their lib­eral val­ues.

Their goal should be no re­li­gion at all.

What Amer­i­can Jews Get Wrong About Is­raeli Lib­er­al­ism

Lib­eral Amer­i­can Jews will be eec­tive in se­cur­ing a home in Is­rael for their brand of Jewish prac­tice only if their goal is to se­cure the Zion­ist project of a na­tional sec­u­lar Jewish ex­is­tence.

Un­like in Amer­ica, in Is­rael, lib­eral val­ues can be pro­moted only in the con­text of sec­u­lar­ism. As a broad rule (there are in­di­vid­ual ex­cep­tions, of course), the more sec­u­lar Is­raelis will up­hold lib­eral val­ues, and vice versa.

There­fore, as sec­u­lar­ism be­comes po­lit­i­cally stronger in Is­rael, so will lib­eral val­ues.

A more sec­u­lar Is­rael is a more lib­eral Is­rael. A more re­li­gious Is­rael is a more il­lib­eral one. It is as sim­ple as that. This is the choice.

Hav­ing badly de­fined the goal to­ward a “kinder, gen­tler” Jewish re­li­gion in the pub­lic sphere in Is­rael, Amer­i­can Jews have also cho­sen the least eec­tive strat­egy pos­si­ble. They have sought recog­ni­tion for their brand of Ju­daism whether in mat­ters of con­ver­sion, mar­riage or prayer at the Ko­tel, from the very same au­thor­i­ties that have been given mo­nop­oly power over these mat­ters by the state, prin­ci­pally the chief rab­binate.

The rab­binate will never, ever cede its power. No mo­nop­oly in the his­tory of mo­nop­o­lies has ever given up or shared power vol­un­tar­ily. Just ask AT&T. Amer­i­can Jews have been be­hav­ing like the frus­trated cus­tomers of a cor­rupt mo­nop­oly.

You do not ask a mo­nop­oly to treat you nicely. You break up a mo­nop­oly, with force.

Above all, if Amer­i­can Jews are to eect change in Is­rael to make room for their brand of plu­ral­ism, they need num­bers. No po­lit­i­cal change is ever pos­si­ble with­out num­bers. And there are no num­bers in Is­rael for the kind of Ju­daism that Amer­i­cans have in Amer­ica.

To get the big num­bers, lib­eral Amer­i­can Jews have to de­cide who their ac­tual po­ten­tial al­lies are. If they seek Is­raeli Jews who will have a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude to­ward re­li­gion, then they are likely to be non-lib­eral Or­tho­dox Jews who re­ject their form of prac­tice com­pletely. If they seek Is­raeli Jews who will share their val­ues of plu­ral­ism, equal­ity, tol­er­ance, fem­i­nism and lib­er­al­ism, they are, by and large, likely to be the shrimp-eat­ing-Shab­bat-driv­ing Jews, whose at­ti­tudes to­ward re­li­gion range from re­vul­sion to ap­a­thy.

If Con­ser­va­tive, Re­form and gen­er­ally lib­eral Amer­i­can Jews seek part­ners in Is­rael who share both their lib­eral val­ues and pos­i­tive at­ti­tude to­ward re­li­gion, they will limit them­selves to a pool of cit­i­zens that is barely likely to get one seat in the Knes­set.

Lib­eral Amer­i­can Jews have wasted hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars try­ing to shore up Re­form and Con­ser­va­tive Ju­daism in Is­rael, to no avail. They cel­e­brate the in­crease in num­bers from next to noth­ing to a lit­tle more than noth­ing. But fun­da­men­tally Is­rael is not the soil for that kind of Ju­daism, which ap­peals al­most ex­clu­sively to

olim, com­mu­nity rep­re­sen­ta­tives, from the West, who, over time, re­vert to the dom­i­nant Zion­ist ethos.

As a re­sult, Amer­i­can Jews have been fi­nanc­ing mi­cro-op­er­a­tions that will never be able to make a real im­pact on Is­raeli so­ci­ety. It is un­der­stand­able that donors ap­pre­ci­ate pro­mot­ing the val­ues they care for in the spe­cific form they are ac­cus­tomed to. But it has zero im­pact on Is­raeli so­ci­ety.

Worse, hav­ing long ago un­der­stood that they have no chance to con­vert re­li­gious Or­tho­dox Is­raeli Jews to their kind of plu­ral­is­tic Ju­daism, Amer­i­can Jews have in­stead piv­oted to try­ing to con­vert Is­raeli sec­u­lar Jews to their brand of re­li­gion. The tragedy is that in do­ing so, they have un­wit­tingly con­trib­uted to strength­en­ing their re­li­gious Or­tho­dox il­lib­eral en­e­mies.

Con­sider a par­al­lel in the Sec­ond Amend­ment in Amer­ica. Imag­ine an in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion seek­ing to con­vince mem­bers of the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion to limit the ex­er­cise of the Sec­ond Amend­ment to pis­tols. Now imag­ine that once it be­comes clear that Amer­ica’s gun-own­ing com­mu­nity would never warm up to lim­it­ing its love of guns to pis­tols, the or­ga­ni­za­tion in­stead redi­rects its en­ergy to­ward con­vinc­ing the Amer­i­cans who loathe and fear guns to warm up to the idea of car­ry­ing pis­tols.

Amer­i­can Jews might re­coil at the par­al­lel be­tween Jewish re­li­gion and guns. But in the Is­raeli con­text, that is the proper par­al­lel.

In Is­rael, the Jewish re­li­gion has been weaponized in the ser­vice of il­lib­er­al­ism and supremacism. Any sup­port for re­li­gion of any kind only pro­vides fuel for such val­ues.

This is what Amer­i­can Jews have been un­wit­tingly sup­port­ing in the past sev­eral decades. Il­lib­eral Re­li­gion vs. Lib­eral Sec­u­lar­ism

A prime ex­am­ple of this dan­ger­ous process has been the Amer­i­can Jewish sup­port for the in­tro­duc­tion of “ad­di­tional” Jewish stud­ies into sec­u­lar schools.

The Is­raeli school sys­tem is di­vided into sev­eral sys­tems, de­ter­mined by the level of re­li­gios­ity of their com­mu­ni­ties. The re­li­gious schools pro­mote

The uture o the re­la­tion­ship be­tween lib­eral Amer­i­can Jews and Is­raeli Jews de­pends on Amer­i­can Jews un­der­stand­ing the toxic role o re­li­gion in Is­rael.

strict, Or­tho­dox prac­tices and place a strong em­pha­sis on Jewish re­li­gious stud­ies. Amer­i­can Jews have no chance of pen­e­trat­ing this sys­tem to pro­mote lib­eral val­ues.

But the sec­u­lar sys­tem is nat­u­rally open and lib­eral, so it has been the long-stand­ing de­sire of the right-wing re­li­gious coali­tion in Is­rael to elim­i­nate this open and lib­eral char­ac­ter — since they con­sider it a threat to their il­lib­eral and su­prem­a­cist pol­i­tics. Their most eec­tive weapon, to that end, is to re­duce as much as pos­si­ble the study of gen­eral and uni­ver­sal hu­man­i­ties, in fa­vor of an in­creased amount of Jewish stud­ies.

In one of the great­est acts of self­de­feat­ing phi­lan­thropy, Amer­i­can Jews have un­der­writ­ten nu­mer­ous pro­grams, both in schools and in in­for­mal ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems, in­tended to in­tro­duce “nice re­li­gious Ju­daism” into the cur­ric­ula.

But there is no such thing in the Is­raeli con­text. In­tro­duc­ing re­li­gious stud­ies to sec­u­lar schools — even of the “nice” kind — con­trib­utes to a more re­li­gious Is­rael, and in Is­rael, Jewish re­li­gion can­not be dis­man­tled from the Or­tho­dox and il­lib­eral man­ner in which it is prac­ticed. This is the choice.

If lib­eral Amer­i­can Jews want to be eec­tive, they need to un­der­stand the sim­ple fact that in the Is­raeli Zion­ist con­text, the choice is be­tween il­lib­eral re­li­gion and lib­eral sec­u­lar­ism. None other.

In­stead of these self-de­feat­ing mea­sures, lib­eral Amer­i­can Jews should sup­port all the var­i­ous bat­tles ac­tual Is­raelis, liv­ing in Is­rael, wage on be­half of greater sec­u­lar­iza­tion and less re­li­gion in the pub­lic sphere. This means re­sist­ing all eorts to in­tro­duce re­li­gion, of any kind, into Is­rael’s pub­lic sec­u­lar schools. This means fight­ing for the teach­ing of evo­lu­tion. It means sup­port­ing the nu­mer­ous grass­roots eorts of Is­raeli par­ents to keep re­li­gion out of their chil­dren’s school­books, and to keep re­li­gious “vol­un­teers” out of ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties in school.

It also means sup­port­ing pub­lic trans­porta­tion on Shab­bat for those mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties that seek it (imag­ine if in ad­di­tion to hav­ing the names of donors on am­bu­lances, they would be on buses pro­vid­ing ser­vices on Shab­bat). It means sup­port­ing the pro­mo­tion of full equal­ity for LGBTQ cit­i­zens, es­pe­cially on mat­ters of fam­ily life.

It means sup­port­ing the cur­rent le­gal bat­tle against the pro­hi­bi­tion on in­di­vid­u­als bring­ing flour prod­ucts into hos­pi­tals dur­ing Passover. It means es­pe­cially stand­ing firmly be­hind those who fight for the equal­ity of women and men in the mil­i­tary, and against any no­tion that “con­sid­er­a­tion for feel­ings” of re­li­gious soldiers should some­how come to mean dis­crim­i­na­tion against fe­male soldiers.

Amer­i­can Jews need to also stop try­ing to get crumbs of recog­ni­tion from the chief rab­binate. They should seek to side­line the rab­binate com­pletely.

The goal should not be to get the state to al­low Re­form and Con­ser­va­tive rab­bis to per­form mar­riages in Is­rael. The goal should not be an ad­di­tional prayer area next to the Ko­tel. The goal should be break­ing up the rab­binate’s mo­nop­oly al­to­gether, on mat­ters of con­ver­sion, mar­riage, kashrut and, yes — the Ko­tel.

Sec­u­lar Is­raelis are never go­ing to po­lit­i­cally mo­bi­lize, in great num­bers, for the spe­cific goal of the State of Is­rael fund­ing Con­ser­va­tive and Re­form rab­bis, or Con­ser­va­tive and Re­form mikvehs. Sec­u­lar Is­raelis want the state not to fund rab­bis and mikvehs at all.

In a sec­u­lar Is­rael, lib­eral Amer­i­can Jews will have no prob­lem find­ing a home for their brand of Jewish prac­tice. In an Is­rael of civil unions, their rab­bis, just like any­one else, will be able to per­form cer­e­monies for those who want them. In a na­tional, sec­u­lar Ko­tel, Amer­i­can Jews will be able to pray how they want and see fit, be­cause there will be no rabbi to reg­u­late them. In an Is­rael that doesn’t fund rab­bis and mikvehs, any com­mu­nity that wants to fund their kind of re­li­gious ser­vices and prac­tice would be able to do so.

This is the only kind of Is­rael that would be a home to all Jews, from all around the world.

It is high time that Amer­i­can lib­eral Jews join forces with sec­u­lar Is­raelis for a sec­u­lar Zion­ist Is­rael.

The fu­ture of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween lib­eral Amer­i­can Jews and Is­raeli Jews de­pends on Amer­i­can Jews un­der­stand­ing the toxic role of re­li­gion in Is­rael, and redefin­ing the goal — ruth­lessly — to­ward a sec­u­lar Is­rael.

Sec­u­lar Is­raelis want the state not to und rab­bis and mikvehs at all.

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