Analysis

9 Low Points in Israel-Jewish Diaspora Relations in 2018

From the detention of anti-occupation U.S. activists to the sidelining of leaders in the Reform and Conservative movements, this has been another annus horribilis – and that’s even before considering the actions of Israel’s diaspora affairs minister

People paying their respects at a makeshift memorial for the 11 people killed while worshipping at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, November 1, 2018.
Gene J. Puskar,AP

It has become almost cliché in recent years to say Israel and the Jewish Diaspora have never been more divided. But just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, along comes 2018, bringing with it new low points. Here are nine of the very lowest...

1 Pittsburgh massacre aftermath

In the deadliest attack ever carried out against Jews in American history, 11 worshippers were gunned down in the midst of Shabbat morning prayers at a Conservative synagogue on October 27. The shooter said he hated Jews because they are welcoming to refugees, and he wanted no refugees in the United States.

The Israeli government was quick to react, sending an official representative to Pittsburgh’s Jewish community as a sign of solidarity. Given his portfolio, Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett seemed a natural choice. But was he. During his visit, Bennett went on to defend U.S. President Donald Trump – believed by many progressive Jews to be partly responsible for the hateful atmosphere which served as the backdrop for the killer's actions – calling Trump “a great friend of Israel and of the Jews.” 

Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett attending a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, April 2018.
Alex Kolomoisky

Moreover, nothing could seemingly be further from Bennett’s heart than the plight of refugees. Chairman of the Orthodox, settler-aligned Habayit Hayehudi party, he has called for the deportation of African asylum seekers from Israel. And it was Bennett who, earlier this year, pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to renege on a deal that would have allowed thousands of them to obtain legal status in the country. What was the government thinking, some wondered, when it chose to send a right-winger like Bennett to a community targeted because of its progressive values?

The icing on the cake, as it were, came from Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Lau, who refused to directly call the site of the massacre a synagogue, describing it instead as a “place with a profound Jewish flavor.”

2 Leftists detained

A travel ban enacted by Israel early last year was supposed to bar key activists in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement from entering the country. It wasn’t supposed to target visitors who disagree with the Israeli government, certainly not prominent Jews. But events of the past summer would suggest otherwise.

In July, Moriel Rothman-Zecher, an Israeli author and anti-occupation activist who resides in the United States, was detained by Shin Bet security service officials when he landed at Ben-Gurion Airport. He was warned by his interrogators that left-wing activities were a “slippery slope.” Earlier that same month, prominent Jewish-American philanthropist Meyer Koplow was held up on his way out of the country after a Palestinian tourism brochure was discovered in his suitcase.

In August, Simone Zimmerman – a founding member of the Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow – was detained at the Israeli-Egyptian border, together with fellow activist Abby Kirschbaum. They were questioned about their work with Palestinians in the West Bank and their views on Netanyahu. That same month, prominent U.S. journalist Peter Beinart, on a trip to Israel to attend a family celebration, was interrogated at the airport about his participation in a protest in the West Bank city of Hebron a few years earlier.

The following month, Julie Weinberg-Connors – a young American who planned to study at a Jerusalem yeshiva and eventually immigrate to Israel – was almost deported after landing in Tel Aviv. Her alleged crime: A previous visit to a Bedouin village in the West Bank that is off-limits to Israelis. Weinberg-Connors was questioned at the airport for two-and-a-half hours before being released. Last month, her citizenship request was approved.

Still, her experience, and those of other left-wing Jewish activists, has left many progressive-minded Jews wondering whether they should risk a visit to Israel. In an unprecedented move this fall, the Reform movement began furnishing its rabbinical students in Israel with letters to present to the authorities in case they get detained at the border. The letters confirm that they are not engaged in any activities the government might consider sinister.

3 Birthright walkouts

Facebook live of the group's walkout from BirthrightHal Rose/Facebook

Almost 20 years ago, a group of Jewish philanthropists, together with representatives of the Israeli government, came up with a novel idea. To combat rising rates of intermarriage among Diaspora Jews, they said, let’s send every young Jewish adult on a free trip to Israel. The result, Taglit-Birthright, is often ranked as one of the most successful Jewish world projects of modern times.

But many things have changed since its inception. For one, the billionaire Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson was not on the scene at the beginning. Today, he is the organization’s single biggest funder. Second, in the past two decades, Israel has veered increasingly to the right, while young Jewish millennials have moved in the opposite direction. Many young millennials consider policies Israel pursues – particularly its occupation of the West Bank – antithetical to their progressive values.

With Birthright increasingly perceived as an Adelson-financed Israeli propaganda tool, the backlash was inevitable. This summer, activists affiliated with the U.S.-based Jewish anti-occupation movement IfNotNow organized a series of highly publicized walkouts on Birthright trips, causing considerable embarrassment to the organization.

The narrative participants are exposed to on Birthright trips, they charged, neglects to mention that there is another side. (The movement’s activists also handed out flyers, containing information about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, to Birthright participants flying out of JFK Airport in New York.)

Did these walkouts succeed in turning away potential participants? It’s too early to tell but, coincidentally or not, Birthright participation figures for the current winter season are down markedly, according to trip organizers.

4 Reform, Conservative leadership sidelined

It’s no secret that Reform and Conservative leaders have their issues with Israel’s prime minister. They want recognition for their movements, but as Netanyahu has explained to them on numerous occasions, he would be happy to provide them with recognition if it didn’t mean jeopardizing the future of his government. The ultra-Orthodox parties, whose support he relies on for his governing coalition, would simply never agree to such recognition.

Try as he might, the premier has not succeeded in gaining much sympathy for his plight among Reform and Conservative leaders. Convinced it was a lost cause, he decided to experiment with another strategy: If Reform and Conservative leaders were unwilling to show any flexibility or tone down their criticism of him, he would find other people in their movements who might. The idea was to create a back channel for dialogue with other representatives of the movements, not necessarily at the highest echelons.

Among the driving forces behind this initiative was Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, who helped organize a delegation of congregational rabbis that visited Israel in October and met with the prime minister. Here’s how Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs responded: “We hope that Prime Minister Netanyahu will understand his responsibility to renew a sincere, honest and meaningful dialogue with the leadership of the movement. We did not and would not break off respectful discussions with the leadership of the Israeli government. It was the prime minister who broke his promises to provide government funding for our congregations in Israel, to fund mikvehs [ritual purification baths] for the streams, reneged on the Western Wall compromise agreement, and has done nothing to stop the vicious incitement against our movement. This moment of division must be overcome through courageous leadership. We’ve always done our part, and we expect nothing less from the prime minister.”

5 Irate over nation-state

As a general rule, where Israelis stand on the controversial Jewish nation-state law is where they stand politically: Right-wingers support it, left-wingers do not. Its detractors argue that the controversial law, passed in July, downplays Israel’s democratic character and poses a potential threat to the status of non-Jewish minorities in the country.

For overseas Jews, though, it’s been less of a partisan issue: Indeed, opposition in the Diaspora has been nearly across the board. Organizations as mainstream as the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Federations of North America – usually reluctant to intervene in internal Israeli matters and criticize the government – have issued sharp rebukes of the law.

Even the Jewish Agency – that embodiment of the old-school establishment – could not resist a jab. At its last board of governors meeting in October, the Agency passed a resolution reaffirming its commitment to “the fundamental principles of the State of Israel as emerging from the Declaration of Independence.”

The nation-state law was not mentioned by name, but the resolution was clearly prompted by its passage and the opposition it has sparked across the Jewish world. The Declaration of Independence stipulates that the State of Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

6 GA no-show

Once every five years, the Jewish Federations of North America hold their big annual bash (aka the “General Assembly,” or “GA”) in Israel. This year, for the first time ever, the event was held in Tel Aviv. No doubt alluding to the deep crisis plaguing Israel-Diaspora relations, it was titled: “We Need to Talk.” Three jam-packed days were devoted to the subject, and more than 2,500 delegates from Israel and the Diaspora took part. And guess who didn’t show up? Diaspora Affairs Minister Bennett. Was he invited? Indeed. A spokesman for the Israeli government liaison to world Jewry explained that Bennett could not attend because of “prearranged commitments” that could not be moved. Efforts to discover what those commitments were have thus far yielded no results.

7 Non-Orthodox rabbi arrested

Non-Orthodox movements are not officially recognized in Israel, but never before has a non-Orthodox rabbi been arrested for doing what rabbis typically do. At the crack of dawn on a weekday morning in mid-July, police woke Rabbi Dov Haiyun and dragged him in for questioning at the nearest precinct. Haiyun is the spiritual leader of Congregation Moriah in Haifa, one of the oldest Conservative synagogues in Israel. His alleged crime was marrying an Israeli couple outside the confines of the Chief Rabbinate.

Rabbi Dov Haiyun in the auditorium at the Haifa Theatre, December 2, 2018. The deputy mayor is now chairman of the board at Israel's oldest municipal theater.
Rami Shllush

Under a law passed several years ago, rabbis who officiate at traditional Jewish weddings (in other words, weddings where everything is conducted in accordance with halakha, or Jewish religious law) but do not register, as required, with the Rabbinate could face up to two years in jail.

The incident involving Haiyun was the first time the law was tested. Word of his arrest spread quickly and, before long, condemnations were pouring in from around the globe. Their common theme: How dare Israel arrest a rabbi for officiating at a Jewish wedding? In Haiyun’s case, all’s well that end’s well. The 56-year-old rabbi was able to parlay his newfound fame into a major electoral achievement. He won enough votes in the recent municipal elections to be named deputy mayor of Haifa, becoming the first non-Orthodox rabbi to ever serve in local government in Israel.

8 Another setback for conversion reform

It’s the issue that refuses to go away: Reform and Conservative Judaism are the largest Jewish movements in the Diaspora, yet Israel refuses to recognize conversions performed by their rabbis.

In practice, this means that Jews of choice who were converted by Reform and Conservative rabbis cannot legally marry in Israel. They can, however, immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. A few years ago, the ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s government tried to pass a new law that would outlaw conversions performed outside the confines of the state-sanctioned Rabbinate. World Jewish leaders responded with outrage, so Netanyahu put the legislation on hold. In the meantime, he said, he would try to come up with an acceptable compromise.

The task of resolving the crisis was given to Moshe Nissim, a prominent Likud politician who had previously served as justice minister and finance minister. The ultra-Orthodox parties and non-Orthodox movements both waited with bated breath for Nissim to publish his recommendations. He finally did so in June, and when he did both sides finally had something they could agree on: Neither liked what he was proposing.

Nissim’s plan was to set up a new public institution, independent of the Rabbinate, that would be in charge of all conversions performed in Israel. The ultra-Orthodox didn’t like the idea because it meant that the Rabbinate, which they control, would lose its power. The non-Orthodox movements didn’t like it because the new authority, under Nissim’s proposal, would only recognize and perform Orthodox conversions.

So what happened to Nissim’s recommendations? Nada. The cabinet has yet to discuss them. Netanyahu has already made clear there’s little chance of passing them, and both the government and non-Orthodox movements agreed last week to hold off on any action that could change the status quo for another six months.

9 Western Wall broken promises

Remember the Kotel deal? In January 2016, the Israeli government approved a plan that would have granted the Reform and Conservative movements official status at the Jewish holy site, as well as creating a new and improved egalitarian prayer space for them. It was hailed at the time as “historic.” But no sooner had the deal entered the world than it began crumbling. Within 18 months, under pressure from his Orthodox coalition partners, Netanyahu announced it was being suspended. However, he promised, a key part of the deal would be implemented: The renovation and upgrade of the existing egalitarian prayer space on the southern expanse of the Western Wall.

In a video address to the GA of the Jewish Federations of North America late last year, the prime minister said, “I hope you will see the improved space before next year.” How hard could it be to undertake a renovation of a few hundred meters of space? Almost impossible, it turns out. More than a year has passed since Netanyahu reassured North American Jewish leaders that the plan was proceeding on schedule. A visit to the site tells a very different story.