Opinion

American Jews: If You Really Want Pluralism in Israel, Drop the Palestinians

Fighting for an unpopular pro-Palestinian agenda that's easily framed as disloyalty fatally weakens liberal U.S. Jews' push for religious pluralism in the Jewish state

Daniel Goldman
Daniel Goldman
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A woman's finger tips on the partition between male and female worshippers at the Western Wall. October 8, 2017
U.S. Jews have to choose to fight for the (Western) Wall or the (separation) Wall: A woman's finger tips on the partition between male and female worshippers at the Western Wall. October 8, 2017Credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS
Daniel Goldman
Daniel Goldman

How do the Union of Reform Judaism, and American liberal Jewry in general, calibrate the importance of Israel’s relations with the Palestinians and the peace process (or lack of it), versus questions of state and religion in Israel and, specifically, the recognition of Judaism's liberal streams?

I've heard passionate arguments declaring each is the single most important factor impacting the future of Israel as both a democratic and Jewish country.

But fighting on two fronts simultaneously doesn't work. The time has come for U.S. Jews to make a decision: Push for peace with the Palestinians, or push for a pluralistic Jewish state. There's only room for one item on the agenda.

Like all good business or organizations, focus correlates to success.

Israel’s external relations and how it resolves the Arab-Israeli conflict is a complicated and difficult subject. How Israel defines the balance between tradition, modernity and secular values, Orthodoxy and liberal Judaism is also a very complex question, politically, socially and religiously.

It would be hard enough to exercise sufficient influence and power to resolve one of these questions. It’s going to be almost impossible to solve both. Hence any strategic adviser would force his client to choose one and thus maximize the chance for success.

Members of Women of the Wall pray with a Torah scroll during a monthly prayer near the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. July 24, 2017
Members of Women of the Wall pray with a Torah scroll during a monthly prayer near the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. July 24, 2017Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

There is a second and more uniquely Israel-Diaspora consideration.

Liberal American Jewry seeks a voice on matters that relate to religion and state in Israel. This includes a range of issues: prayer space at the Kotel, conversion policy, state recognition for Conservative and Reform rabbis and communities in Israel.

By campaigning in parallel on Palestinian human rights and the advancement of the two-state solution the U.S. movements are misaligned, not only with the current right-wing government, but with vast swathes of Israeli public opinion. That public opinion, whilst generally center-right (rather than hard right), certainly holds significantly more hawkish (some might say more realistic) views than those being promoted by the Reform movement and its affiliates (or indeed the New Israel Fund, which also promotes a multi-faceted agenda along similar lines).

Even if much of what non-Orthodox American Jews seek on the religious and social fronts are supported in theory by Israeli public opinion, that is only an opinion as expressed in surveys, and is certainly not powerful enough to sway the way Israelis decide to vote.

Worse than this, liberal Jews' dovish opinions on political issues are frequently used as a rod by Israel's political leaders, as the basis for questioning their support for Israel and/or Zionism, undermining Diaspora Jewish claims to patriotism.

Fighting on a left-of-center political agenda regarding the Palestinians will always undermine liberal Jews' struggle on social issues regarding religious pluralism. Those insinuations of disloyalty may be cynical at times, but they're strong and they have influence.

But they can be bypassed completely by liberal Jews deciding to reduce or renounce loud advocacy on issues such as the human rights of Palestinians or the critical need for a Palestinian state.

Rick Jacobs must realize he can't fight Netanyahu on peace and expect a loving relationship on pluralism: A Banksy wallpainting of a Israeli border policeman and Palestinian pillow-fighting, Bethlehem. March 3, 2017
Rick Jacobs must realize he can't fight Netanyahu on peace and expect a loving relationship on pluralism: Banksy painting of a Israeli border policeman: Palestinian pillow fight. Bethlehem. March 2017Credit: Dusan Vranic/AP

Why is this important? It is hard, if not impossible, for URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs to work against Israel’s government policy on high-impact political questions (Palestinians and peace) and then expect a full and intimate level of cooperation from the very same government (or indeed even from the Israeli public) on matters of state and religion and Jewish pluralism. It just doesn’t make good politics.

Indeed, it offers opponents of liberal Jews' domestic Israel agenda an easy target. Already, being associated with the New Israel Fund or even the term 'reformim' have become pejorative in regular Israeli usage. This negativity is only increased by the liberal, non-Orthodox Diaspora's frequent use of legal recourse to create the changes they seek. It is seen as bypassing due political process, the Knesset and the democratically elected Israeli government.

If relations with the governing political establishment were 'untarred' by the politics of peace and human rights, then perhaps more could be achieved through cooperation with government – rather than by confrontation.

Politics is all about creating influence and shifting the levers of power in order to promote decisions and policies. At the end of the day it has be measured against change and results. It is a hard-nosed game and should be fought out based on being focused on the potential for positive outcomes.

It seems to me that the dual track strategy of the North American Jewish organizations in Israel actually achieves reverse synergy, weakening rather than complementing one another. All this happens in the context of a very powerful U.S. Jewish community, but a much smaller, more fluid constituency sympathetic to its priorities within Israel.

As a Jew, and then an Israeli, I am committed to building an Israeli society that takes into account the needs and aspirations of our Diaspora siblings, not because we are forced to, but because it is our responsibility and choice to do so. Indeed, on matters relating to the internal fabric of Israeli society, I have much sympathy for and overlap with their priorities. Sadly, this is not as widespread a view as I would like.

It's time to think a bit more carefully, honestly and strategically. If American liberal Jews simply want to make their opinions heard, principally to play to their home audience in synagogues across the U.S., then I can see how the current approach might be useful. If, on the other hand, its leadership wants to make hard-nosed decisions about what can truly be achieved in Israel, then a change of course is called for.

After a generation of campaigning on these connected but competing issues it is obvious to me that this cannot be changed overnight. But it's up to the leaders of the American Jewish community to look to the future and understand that sometimes tough, even wrenching, decisions might lead to surprisingly positive outcomes.

Certainly, that's got to be a better choice than the meagre results and widespread hostility within Israel that their campaigns have achieved thus far. 

Daniel Goldman is Chairman of Gesher, an organization dedicated to bridging social gaps in Israeli society. Twitter: @goldman1007 

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