Former U.S. Defense Official: Israel’s Security at Risk Due to Religious Intolerance

Speaking at Knesset, Dov Zackheim warns that non-Orthodox American Jews' support of Israel is weakening due to its lack of Jewish pluralism.

Clashes between ultra-Orthodox groups and Reform and Conservative rabbis attempting to enter the Western Wall plaza with Torah scrolls, November 2, 2016.
Clashes between ultra-Orthodox groups and Reform and Conservative rabbis attempting to enter the Western Wall plaza with Torah scrolls, November 2, 2016. Emil Salman

Israel’s disregard and disrespect for the non-Orthodox Jewish movements could end up costing it the longstanding support of the United States government, a former senior defense department official with close ties to Israel warned on Wednesday.

Speaking at a session of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, Dov Zackheim, head of a new U.S. organization that advocates for Jewish pluralism, noted that the 85 percent of American Jews who do not identify as Orthodox are not accepted by Israel’s religious establishment. 

“Neither they nor their rabbis or leaders are recognized officially by the Chief Rabbinate of this country, which means that their marriages are not marriages, their divorces aren’t divorces and their conversions aren’t conversions,” he told the committee. "This is a major problem for us in the United States."

Zackheim, who is Orthodox, serves as chair of the Jewish Religious Equality Coalition, a broad-based coalition of American Jews and Israelis trying to promote religious diversity in Israel. The organization, whose representatives are visiting Israel this week, was created by the American Jewish Committee. Zackheim, who speaks fluent Hebrew, served as under-secretary of defense in both the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations.

Speaking at the Knesset session, Zackheim warned that Israel was losing the support of the American Jewish community because of its refusal to recognize the non-Orthodox movements, and that without this support, its relationship with the U.S. could turn sour. 

“There is no other country in the world, other than my country, that has always supported Israel,” he said. "Why? To a great extent because of the American Jewish community." Proof that American Jewish support for Israel was weakening, he said, was that many U.S. Jews today back the BDS movement, many supported the Iran nuclear deal, and not that many were upset when the United States abstained in the recent UN Security Council resolution that condemned Israeli settlement policy.

Dov Zackheim (left) and Steven Bayme at a Knesset committee meeting, January 9, 2017.
Judy Maltz

“To me, this is a national security threat to Israel,” he said. “It won’t happen tomorrow, it won’t happen next year, but it is coming unless we do something about the 85 percent whose support Israel needs.”

Steven Bayme, the director of the Contemporary Jewish Life department at the AJC, echoed this warning, noting that many young Americans who visit Israel in order to connect with their Jewish identity and the Jewish state are told that they are not Jewish enough for the state.

Only among Orthodox Jews in America, noted Bayme, is support for Israel stable and even growing. He warned, though, that “it would be a tragedy for Israel, the Jewish state, and for American Jewry if the cause of Israel became an exclusively Orthodox cause.”