For Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state, Diaspora Jews believe it must end the occupation, treat its Arab citizens more fairly and eliminate the Orthodox monopoly over religion.
These were the key findings of a document published Wednesday by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), a Jerusalem-based think-tank, entitled “Jewish & Democratic: Perspectives from World Jewry.”
The report was not based on a quantitative survey, but rather on impressions gathered from a series of international seminars held earlier this year, which were attended by Jewish leaders, professionals, rabbis, philanthropists and activists. The findings also incorporated input from previously published research by the JPPI and other organizations on attitudes in the Jewish world toward Israel.
The overwhelming majority of participants in the seminars reportedly said that despite the challenges involved for Israel, their desire is for the country to remain both Jewish and democratic, with neither characteristic having a clear preference over the other.
In response to various right-wing legislative initiatives designed to give Israel’s Jewish character precedence, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni last year appointed Ruth Gavison, a veteran Hebrew University law professor, to draft a constitutional proposal aimed at striking a balance between the country’s two identities.
Before presenting her final proposal, Gavison enlisted the JPPI to gather input from Diaspora Jews. The information was gleaned from discussions held in January, February and March in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Brazil, France, Australia and South Africa, involving hundreds of participants.
Many of the participants voiced concerns, according to the report, that Israel’s continued control of the West Bank threatened its democratic character. “Jews in many communities are critical of Israel’s Palestinian policy and are not convinced that Israel has made a sincere [effort] to improve the situation,” it noted. Furthermore, Diaspora Jews expect Israel to abide by higher ethical standards than its neighbors in the region, and the “continued ‘occupation’ erodes belief in the Israeli democracy.”
According to the document, the participants said that Israel’s treatment of its minorities left much to be desired, and posed another potential threat to democracy. “The belief that Israeli Arabs do not enjoy full equality was widely held,” the report's authors wrote. “This was true even for participants who showed little patience for accommodating Arab ‘discomfort with Jewish symbols.’”
Also mentioned was the country’s treatment of foreign workers and its Bedouin minority as “detrimental to Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity.”
According to the findings, Diaspora Jews feel more comfortable voicing their opinions on internal Jewish religious matters in Israel, rather than on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the treatment of Arab citizens – topics about which they are not sure they should have a say, and about which they feel they are less knowledgeable.
It was not surprising then, as the authors of the report note, that discussions at the seminars often gravitated toward issues of religion and state, and in particular, criticism of what are perceived as Israel’s exclusionary policies toward the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, mainly the Reform and Conservative movements.
“Israel’s implementation of Jewishness was challenged because – the way world-Jews see it – for Israel to be truly deserving of the title ‘Jewish,’ it needs to be a place where more Jews can feel comfortable in expressing their type of Judaism,” the report noted. “It was also challenged because – to Diaspora Jews – not being inclusive and tolerant of other types of Judaism makes Israel less ‘democratic.’”
According to the JPPI findings, Diaspora Jews take a particularly harsh view of marriage and conversion laws in Israel, and of restrictions on women’s prayer at the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites.
“The example of the Western Wall – that is, the inability of non-Orthodox Jewish women to hold services at the Kotel in ways compatible with their own understanding of Judaism – was commonly cited by Jews who are unhappy with Israel’s religious preferences, and was often mentioned in JPPI seminars,” the report said, describing the subject as a “sore wound that has greatly affected the way non-Orthodox Jews view Israel.”
In order to preserve its Jewish character, not only does Israel need to show more tolerance for non-Orthodox Jews, seminar participants reportedly said: It also needs to take a more proactive approach to educating its citizens about their Jewish heritage, and correcting what was referred to as “most Israelis’ ignorance of Jewish traditions, values and history.”
The report was prepared by JPPI senior fellows Shmuel Rosner and Avi Gil. Because of the particular methodology they used, the authors acknowledge that it has various shortcomings and does not necessarily provide an accurate reflection of the views of all Diaspora Jews.
As noted, most of the participants in the JPPI seminars tended to be older and, by definition, less likely to be critical of Israel than younger Jews. The way participants were chosen also guaranteed that the overwhelming majority were already very engaged with Israel – meaning that the voices of those less knowledgeable about and involved with Israel were not likely to be heard. For lack of time, two major Jewish communities were omitted from the discourse – the former Soviet Union and Argentina. Also, members of the ultra-Orthodox community in the Diaspora were not represented.