Soon after the Six-Day War in 1967, Avraham Infeld became the first Jewish Agency shaliah (community envoy) to be sent to the United States. Those were great times to be representing the Jewish state, he recalls.
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“I watched as Israel became the unifying factor in the Jewish world,” says Infeld, a renowned Israeli educator who has devoted his life to advancing the concept of Jewish peoplehood.
He recently returned to his old stomping grounds for a lecture tour marking the 50th anniversary of the famous Israeli victory but was struck by how much the mood had changed.
“I found that Israel had become the most disunifying force in the Jewish community,” he told Haaretz this week. “Friends of mine who are rabbis tell me they can’t talk about Israel anymore, that their congregations don’t want to hear about it.”
The strains in Israel’s relationship with American Jewry have been evident for some time. As American Jews remain staunchly progressive, both religiously and politically, Israel has lurched increasingly rightward. As a result, its policies have become ever more difficult for the majority of American Jews to stomach.
But a red line was crossed five months ago, Infeld says, when the Israeli government decided to renege on the Western Wall agreement, which would have created a new and upgraded space for egalitarian prayer and granted formal recognition to the non-Orthodox movements at this most important Jewish holy site.
“That decision was a watershed,” he says. “What people have been telling me since is that it’s obvious to them Israel doesn’t give a damn about them, and all it cares about are Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians.”
Over the years, Israel has known ups and downs in its relations with the American-Jewish community, but Infeld insists this crisis is different.
“In the past, whenever there were fights about conversion and issues like that, it was always seen as an attack on Reform or Conservative Jews,” he says. “This time, it is being seen as an attack on all of Diaspora Jewry, and that’s what makes it unprecedented.”
Few in the Jewish world today can speak on the subject of Israel-Diaspora relations with as much authority as Infeld or bring as much perspective to the discussion. He served as president of Hillel International – the largest Jewish campus organization in the world – and was among the founding fathers of Birthright Israel, the organization that brings young Jewish adults to Israel on free, 10-day trips and is considered one of the most successful Jewish world projects. He was also founder and president of the Jerusalem-based Melitz Center for Jewish Zionist Education, director of the Shalom Hartman Institute, president of the Chais Family Foundation and head of the Jewish Agency youth department for English-speaking Europe. Today, in retirement, he serves as mentor for the Reut Institute for Tikkun Olam and Jewish Peoplehood.
According to Infeld, nothing captures the growing disconnect between Israel and Diaspora Jewry better than Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely’s recent dig at American Jews (in which she said they don’t send their kids to the army, live “convenient lives” and are using the Western Wall crisis for “political gain”).
“To me, this is symptomatic of the fact that Israelis don’t understand what Diaspora Jewry is all about,” he says.
Mending the rift
In his new book “A Passion for a People: Lessons from the Life of a Jewish Educator” (YouCaxton Publications), Infeld lays out a plan for mending the growing rift – before it is too late. But before the problem can be solved, he says, it is necessary to understand what he believes to be its root: a fundamental misunderstanding of Judaism and the Jews.
“Jews are not a religion and not a nation, but a people,” he says. “That is to say, an extension of a tribe – which in turn is an extension of a family.”
This definition, he says, is critical to understanding the role of the modern State of Israel. “We were always a people, and that’s the reason we built a state. In other words, it’s not that the Jewish people are here to ensure the future of Israel, as Hotovely may think, but rather, we built a state in order to ensure the future of the Jewish people.”
Infeld defies most of the standard labels. Born to a fiercely Zionist but atheist family in South Africa, he embraced Orthodox Judaism in the 1960s after immigrating to Israel, where he studied Jewish history and law.
Despite the black yarmulke on his head, the 73-year-old great-grandfather remains committed to his roots in Hashomer Hatzair, the left-wing Zionist movement, and is a fierce critic of the Israeli occupation. “As someone who grew up under apartheid, I know what happens when you rule over another people,” he says.
Infeld believes it would be unfair to blame the current crisis with Diaspora Jewry entirely on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “He doesn’t deserve that kavod,” he says, using the Hebrew word for honor. “Other governments ignored them as well.”
Were Israel truly interested in strengthening its ties with Jewish communities abroad, he notes, it would have created what he describes as a “reverse Birthright” program – free trips abroad for young Israelis so they could be exposed to Jewish life in the Diaspora. “Had there been 10,000 Israeli graduates of a program like that, and Hotovely said what she said, I guarantee you there would be people out in the streets here protesting,” Infeld says.
But Diaspora Jews shouldn’t be let off the hook, either, he adds. As a member of the planning committee that created the blueprint for Birthright 18 years ago, he is deeply concerned that the program’s major achievements may be short-lived because of a lack of institutional follow-up.
“Birthright’s biggest success has been its ability to give participants this sort of ‘wow’ experience,” observes Infeld. “And whenever I ask these participants what exactly was so ‘wow’ about the trip, they tell me everything they had previously thought it meant to be Jewish was not necessarily so – that being Jewish could be something else entirely.
“But instead of helping these kids deal with questions left open after the trip, the organization leaves the field open to guys who have money, who can offer freebies, but who have a single answer of what it means to be Jewish and are there to sell that answer.” (A report published in Haaretz this week found that Orthodox organizations account for a disproportionately large share of Birthright recruitment and have been far more successful than others in enrolling trip participants in follow-up programs.)
Furthermore, asks Infeld, how can young Jewish Americans be expected to maintain a connection to Israel if their community leaders do not consider it vital to teach them Hebrew?
“For most Jewish kids in America today, Hebrew is a language they learn to read for their Bar Mitzvah. They have no idea what they’re mumbling and nobody cares whether they understand it or not,” he laments. “What is this chutzpah to teach Hebrew as a language that you read and don’t understand when half of your people make love in Hebrew, buy Coca-Cola in Hebrew and go to work in Hebrew? How dare they do that to the Hebrew language?”
Progressive Israelis have been quick to attack Netanyahu in recent weeks for abandoning the vast majority of American Jews and throwing in his lot with the Orthodox. But neither are they entirely blameless for the situation that has developed, according to Infeld. Why, he asks, have they not made any efforts to forge alliances with like-minded Jews abroad?
“The ties between Orthodoxy in America and Orthodoxy in Israel are naturally close,” he says. “They meet in shul, they have something in common. But the progressive Israeli world has ignored for 70 years progressive secular Jews in the Diaspora. It has hardly done anything to build relationships with them, despite the fact that they have a common enemy.”
Infeld served as president of Hillel International between 2002 and 2006. That was before it published its controversial guidelines that prohibit collaboration with organizations critical of Israel. He had a clear advantage over his predecessors and successors, he admits, in being the only Israeli to ever hold that position.
“Any American trying to tell me what I could say about Israel, I would tell them, ‘Listen, I’m going to go to every J Street conference I want because I’m an Israeli and they’re members of my people, just like you’re members of my people,’” he says, referring to the pro-Israel, anti-occupation organization.
“They could never stop me,” he adds, “and they never tried.”
If the current crisis between Israel and American Jewry is unprecedented, so is Infeld’s mood these days.
“I’ve never been more pessimistic, but I’m still optimistic,” he says. “I guess you could say I’m at the lowest level of optimism I’ve ever been.”