Israelis Don't Think Netanyahu's Government Should Listen to U.S. Jews, Survey Shows

Israeli Jews back Netanyahu’s snubbing of Jewish-American views on conflict with Palestinians, religious pluralism. But support from U.S. Jews still seen as essential

Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
New York
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American Jews protesting outside Trump International Hotel in Washington against the new U.S. Embassy opening in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018.
American Jews protesting outside Trump International Hotel in Washington against the new U.S. Embassy opening in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018.Credit: LEAH MILLIS/ REUTERS
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
New York

NEW YORK – Many American Jews feel the current Israeli government has repeatedly snubbed their views or taken actions that broaden the divide between the two communities. Now, a new study of Israeli Jews’ attitudes toward their American peers shows that the decisions by Israel’s political leaders have broad backing at home.

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The study found that slight majorities of Israeli Jews do not want their government to consider the views of American-Jewish leaders on matters of conversion, prayer at the Western Wall, or the status of the Reform and Conservative movements in the Jewish state.

When it comes to the peace process with the Palestinians and expanding the settlements, Israeli opinion is even starker: 64 percent of Israeli Jews say their government should not take into any or much consideration American-Jewish leaders’ views on peace negotiations. Two-thirds say little or no mind should be paid to U.S. Jewish views on building new settlements in the occupied territories.

The study, titled “Together and Apart: Israeli Jews’ Views on their Relationship to American Jews and Religious Pluralism,” was commissioned by UJA-Federation of New York. It was conducted by a team of researchers headed by Steven M. Cohen, a longtime scholar of American-Jewish life and research professor of Jewish social policy at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. He is a citizen of both the United States and Israel.

“Bibi is actually to the left of his voters,” Cohen said, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Bibi made a deal on the Kotel, then reneged. He made a deal on [African] asylum seekers and then reneged. His voters would never make these deals to begin with,” Cohen added.

Some 2,050 Israeli-Jewish adults participated in the survey, which was fielded online in Hebrew last November. Respondents self-identified across the Jewish religious spectrum, ranging from ultra-Orthodox to secular.

The study’s good news, from the perspective of its American Jewish backers, is that a clear majority – 89 percent – of Israeli Jews said that Israeli Jews have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. Nearly three-quarters said they agree or strongly agree that “a strong and thriving American Jewry is important for the future of Israel.” And four out of five, or 81 percent, agreed or strongly agreed that American-Jewish support is essential for the State of Israel’s security.

But responders also communicated paradoxical attitudes. While 93 percent agreed to some or a great extent that Jews in both countries should be responsible for one another’s welfare, just 30 percent agreed “to a great extent” that Jews in Israel and the United States share a common destiny, while 45 percent had a more limited view and said they do “to some extent.”

“Notwithstanding their feelings of mutuality and interdependence with American Jews, by a two-to-one ratio Israeli Jews believe that a Jewish life is much more meaningful in Israel than in the U.S. And a plurality of 46 percent vs. 41 percent see most non-Orthodox American Jews assimilating in the next 10 to 20 years,” Cohen’s report said.

File photo of American Reform Rabbi Zachary Shapiro, center left, and other American and Israeli Reform rabbis at the southern end of the Western Wall, Feb. 25, 2016.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Much of that attitude is rooted in the classical Zionist view that negated the value of living in the Diaspora, noted Elan Ezrachi in another new report, “Israelis, American Jewry and American Judaism,” which was also commissioned by UJA-Federation of New York.

“This needs to change fundamentally,” wrote Ezrachi, since over 85 percent of world Jewry lives in either the United States or Israel, and the population is about evenly divided.

Cohen’s study was first shared with UJA-Federation executives in late January, and Ezrachi’s in February. While both were made available to executives in Jewish organizations, neither has been publicly written about until now.

Ezrachi explains the context for the growing breach between American and Israeli Jews in his report, writing: “Relations between Israel and American Jewry have seen difficult moments throughout recent decades. But it seems that in 2017, the tensions escalated to new levels. There were several visible triggers that could be observed: the Israeli government’s withdrawal from the compromise over the Western Wall, threats to change regulations regarding conversions to Judaism, and occasional insulting statements from Israeli political leaders that were pointed against liberal Jews in America,” he continued. “In addition, the Israeli government’s decisive support of the newly elected president, Donald Trump, pushed many American Jews to an uncomfortable position. Many American Jews expressed emotions of betrayal and deep insult.”

UJA-Federation of New York, North America’s largest Jewish Federation, has recently underwritten much research concerning the relationship between American and Israeli Jews. This year it is spending $35 million, or about 20 percent of its overall budget, in Israel. The federation maintains offices and staff in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Hindy Poupko, the federation’s deputy chief planning officer, said the studies are used to inform decisions about what new directions to take.

The good news, she said, is that “Israelis view their fate inextricably linked with American Jews. There is seldom consensus on anything, yet a large majority of Israelis said we’re mutually responsible.” And though in general there may be growing estrangement between American Jews and Israel, “the need for us to be in a relationship with each other has not changed. It enriches both of our communities,” she added.

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Cohen’s report also studied correlations between religious identity and political views – and its implications for religious pluralism in Israel. Respondents who voted for parties in Israel’s governing right-wing coalition were “solidly against” Jewish-American involvement on issues of peace and pluralism, Cohen said. He hadn’t expected to find “Israel as divided on these issues,” he said.

Cohen’s is the first such survey to explore Israeli attitudes toward American Jewish priorities in depth, according to Cohen and Ezrachi.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which is American Jewry’s largest denomination, said he wasn’t fazed by Israeli Jews’ clear rejection of liberal U.S. Jewish priorities. Rather, he criticized the design of Cohen’s study, saying “the idea that it’s all about Israel versus the Diaspora is a false dichotomy.

“The idea that we’re just sitting in our armchairs without any skin in the game” is offensive, Jacobs said. “The truth is we’re deeply committed to Israel’s well-being. We do have a voice there that’s really critical,” he added, even if Israelis often don’t appreciate the centrality of liberal denominations in the lives of American Jews.

Jacobs is a prime example of an American-Jewish leader who regularly makes his constituents’ wishes known to Israeli government officials.

For instance, he called Netanyahu’s flip-flop on an initial agreement to not deport all African asylum seekers “a complete abdication of leadership.” And when the government froze the Kotel compromise, Jacobs accused it of “throwing us crumbs.”

He is currently focusing on the conversion bill being redrafted for consideration by the Knesset, a previous version of which would have given the Orthodox authorities full control over conversions.

Cohen’s study found that a slim majority of Israeli Jews – 55 percent – feel their government should not consider the views of American-Jewish leaders in connection to the status of the Reform and Conservative movements, which currently have little legal standing in the Jewish state. Their rabbis cannot officiate at state-sanctioned marriages or divorces, and their synagogues and rabbis get far less funding than government-approved Orthodox ones do.

Furthermore, 57 percent of Israelis don’t think the government should consider the views of American-Jewish leaders when it comes to regulating prayer at the Western Wall, which has been the focus of decades-long dispute. In January 2016, the Israeli government agreed to create a renovated, accessible space for egalitarian prayer at the southern end of the Kotel, as opposed to the existing prayer spaces, where Orthodox traditions and gender separation are strictly enforced. But the Kotel compromise was frozen in June 2017 after pressure from ultra-Orthodox members of Israel’s coalition.

Cohen’s survey shows that most of the Israeli government’s policies have the backing of its voters. An overwhelming majority of Israelis, 78 percent, favor maintaining official Orthodox control of religious services. But slight majorities also favor allowing the Reform and Conservative movements to provide such services as well.

No matter how harsh Israeli opinion is about the value – or lack thereof – of American Jewish views, it will not dissuade the latter from trying to impact attitudes and policies in the Jewish state, Jacobs said.

The Reform movement sends thousands of teens to Israel each year, he said – for instance, they account for 40 percent of Birthright participants. “We’re not saying ‘Wait until Israel gets more friendly to our values’ to go. We’re saying, ‘Bring the message with you. You’re there not just there to sightsee and buy trinkets. You’re there to be ambassadors for the Jewish community that nurtured you.’

“We think there’s a huge need for our activism, our financial investment, and it is too important to push us away. We’re leaning into it like we lean into political challenges here,” Jacobs said, referring to the Trump era. “It’s time to get more active, more strategic and move the needle.”

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