Opinion

American Jewish Support for Israel Is Eroding, and It's Got Nothing to Do With the Palestinians

Israelis are in complete denial about the threat the government-sponsored Orthodox religious establishment poses to Israel’s strategic interests.

Ultra-Orthodox men argue with Reform worshipers during a mixed prayer service at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem, June 2016.
Emil Salman

American Jewish support for Israel is eroding. But the most important reason is not Israel’s policy on the Palestinians. More significant is the unending submission of Israeli leaders to the dictates of the government-sponsored Orthodox religious establishment.

What is confounding here is that Israelis are in complete denial about the threat that the religious issue poses to Israel’s strategic interests. The American Jewish community has been the bedrock of American support for Israel. But now, as Zionist sympathies begin to fade, particularly among the young, Israeli leaders are clueless about the role that religion plays in this disturbing trend. They prefer to treat religious tensions not as a danger but as an annoyance, to be brushed aside with the usual do-nothing platitudes.  

The latest example: The second annual Jewish Media Summit was held this week in Jerusalem, bringing together Jewish journalists from around the world. According to press reports, the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Eli Groner, offered a defense of Israel’s religious status quo, and President Reuven Rivlin failed to acknowledge the depth of American Jewish concern about the Western Wall. In other words, more of the same.  

But more of the same will no longer work. Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, wrote several weeks ago that Israel’s religious policies have caused a dangerous erosion of support for the Jewish state among American Jews. And Leon Wieseltier, one of America’s leading intellectuals, said the following in an interview with Nahum Barnea published last Friday: “The primary reason for the widening chasm between the two communities is the behavior of the (Orthodox chief) rabbinate in Israel toward the Jews of America. I am referring to its relationship to Reform and Conservative Jews and to the Women of the Wall. The conduct of the government of Israel on this subject is insulting and repellent. I can think of few subjects on which Israel has caused such disgust among American Jews.”

Wieseltier is no fan of Israel’s settlement policies, and neither am I. He cares deeply about peace and security, and so do I. But as critical as such matters are, in an era of Middle East instability and chaos, even left-leaning American Jews know that achieving political solutions will be a long and difficult process. 

But religious issues are a different matter. For American Jews, they are deeply personal and therefore urgent and intimate. If you are a Jewish American, when Israel denies the legitimacy of your religious expression as a Reform or Conservative Jew, it is insulting your religious convictions and challenging your religious identity. It is delegitimizing your children and mocking your religious heritage. It is entering your religious home, seizing you by the throat, and denigrating all that you hold sacred.  

If Israeli politicians doubt this is true, let them spend time with Jewish students on American campuses—or for that matter, in any Jewish communal setting other than Orthodox congregations. They will find no defenders of Israel’s religious policies and no patience for the excuses that Israel has been making for bigotry and discrimination. Young Jews will respond with outrage at best and with incomprehension at worst. Some will view Israel’s policies as a personal affront while others will see them as an abuse of basic democratic values.

It is true that church-state separation on the American model is not possible in Israel. But even in a Jewish state, the monopolistic coercion that is at the heart of Israel’s religious system is indecent. And Jewish students will not hesitate to remind Israelis that nowhere else in the advanced democratic world does such a system exist.

What is fascinating is that Israeli politicians and legislators are quick to offer assistance to young American Jews in every area but this one. In August, Avi Dichter, chair of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, noted that Jewish students on U.S. campuses are being attacked because they are Jewish, and they require help from Israel. But if supporting American Jewish students is the goal, why not hold discussions on what can be done about denying rights to Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel? This issue generates as much anguish as anti-Semitism, and often more. 

What’s my plan of action? It is not easy to be optimistic, but I offer the following thoughts to the major players in this drama.

To AIPAC leaders:

Get involved in these issues in a public way. You prefer not to, and you tell others that you help quietly behind the scenes.  But the stakes are too high and the damage being done is too great.  As Robert Satloff noted (see above), the erosion in support for Israel is real, and stopping that erosion is your task.

To Benjamin Netanyahu:

You discarded a settlement on the Western Wall reached after three years of arduous negotiations, and then told American Jews last month not to make a fuss about it. This was a low point in Israel-Diaspora relations. But more is at stake than worshipping at the Kotel. Yes, Iran is a strategic threat and the Middle East is in utter disarray. This is a dangerous time for Israel. But the growing alienation of American Jews from Israel is also a strategic threat. Find some courage. Do something, such as keeping your promise to help non-Orthodox synagogues in Israel. Show Reform and Conservative Jews that you support recognition and equality.

To the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee, and the Anti-Defamation League:

You are all doing important work to advance religious pluralism in Israel—far more than you have done in the past. American Jewry thanks you for this. It goes without saying, of course, that American Jews will always be there for Israel should it be in danger. But the religious freedom issue in Israel is every bit as serious as the political divide over the Palestinians.  

You must remain actively engaged on religious matters, and remember that your work is just beginning.

And I have a word as well for Israel’s Orthodox parties:

I respect your Judaism and your commitment to Torah. But I simply ask that you promote your religious goals through persuasion and education. Neither the prophets, nor the rabbis, nor the Rambam had at their disposal a machinery of coercion. You should not need one either.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Follow him on Twitter: @EricYoffie