Israel, Please Don't Forget About the Majority of the World's Jews

Most Jews are not Orthodox, but a large portion of Israel's new coalition is. What will this mean for Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews?

Olivier Fitoussi

The information about the Jewish community that was revealed in the recent Pew study of religion in America does not address the crucial issue of the relationship of American Jews to Israel. All the same, one statistic speaks volumes to the growing cultural and religious divide between Israel and American Jews.

That number is the proportion of American Orthodox Jews, which the Pew study puts at 14 percent of the American Jewish community (a higher estimate than the 10 percent found in a different Pew poll two years ago).

But whether non-Orthodox Jews in America number 86 percent or 90 percent, the numbers stand in stark contrast with the composition of Israel’s new coalition – 21 percent of which is ultra-Orthodox and 34 percent of which represents an Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox base. Given the religious ideology of the new coalition, it hardly looks promising on issues of religious freedom and personal status including marriage, divorce and conversion, which are of central importance to the vast majority of American Jews.

Israel’s secular majority doesn’t understand why American Jews are so outraged over the Chief Rabbinate's attitude toward non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism, since it is an institution that they mostly dismiss. American Jews are equally shocked that Israelis take so little interest in a government-funded religious establishment that exercises so much control over such intimate matters as marriage and divorce.

The gap between the religious identity of most American Jews and the coercive power of a vast and growing government-funded religious establishment in the Jewish state is an increasing source of tension, especially among the committed non-Orthodox Jews who make Israel advocacy a significant priority in their lives. But the chasm between how Americans often understand that gap between religious identity and coercive power and how Israelis often do so is even larger.

I was reminded of this during a session of the annual retreat of the Jewish People Policy Institute, an Israel-based think tank whose meetings tend to focus on the staggering geopolitical threats facing the Jewish state. For the past few years, the institute has also put a toe in the water of looking at how the differences between American and Israeli Jewish identities are poised to affect the cohesion of the Jewish people and U.S.-Israel relations.

A two-hour discussion was entitled "How can we best maintain the connections and solidarity between Israeli and Diaspora Jews at a time when ideological and value-based disputes are becoming more prominent?” Participants shuttled back and forth between the current tense climate of Israel discussions in synagogues and Hillels and the myriad sources of frustration and alienation felt by many Diaspora Jews toward the rejection of their Judaism by the Jewish state. In the final moments, one of the Israeli participants, someone known for his in-depth knowledge of the Diaspora community, tried to sum up the discussion by reminding the Americans in the room that in the hierarchy of needs for Israelis, concerns about personal status, religious freedom, and religion and state barely make the list. It would be fair to say the conversation exploded.

This informed Israeli’s seemingly blanket dismissal of our concerns held no intention of malice; from his point of view, he simply meant to educate us about the fact that Israelis don’t care about issues that are central to American Jewish identity. From my perch in the Conservative/Masorti movement, events of the past few weeks seem to confirm that describing these issues as “low priority” is a more than benevolent characterization.

A bar mitzvah ceremony for four autistic boys was suddenly and unilaterally canceled by Rehovot Mayor Rahamim Malul, cruelly punishing families of special-needs children for their choice to conduct a bar mitzvah in a Masorti synagogue after months of painstaking preparation and hopeful anticipation.

And last month, men were physically assaulted at the Western Wall for passing a Torah to Women of the Wall, and subsequently held without access to lawyers or medical care while their attackers were not charged by the authorities despite a preponderance of video evidence of the assault. Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz responded by securely locking the gate separating the men’s and women’s sections for Rosh Hodesh to prevent a Torah scroll from being passed to the women again.

As the recent festival of Shavuot reminds us, Jewish tradition teaches that all of us were present for the giving of the Torah. To keep the Torah, the Jewish people and the State of Israel secure in the world, all of us need to be present. Israel's acceptance of the vast majority of the world’s Jews is of utmost importance. There is no time to waste.

Julie Schonfeld, a rabbi, is the executive vice president of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly.