Even Jewish Liberals Realize That Israel’s Purpose Isn’t to Be a Clone of America

Chemi Shalev’s reading of U.S. Jewry lumps the legitimate defense of the Jewish religious tradition with anti-Arab discrimination and zealous nationalism, laying the blame at least partly on Orthodox Jews. That’s offensive – and inaccurate.

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Avi Shafran
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Jewish Americans.
"One of the tensions in American Jewish history is navigating the extent to which American Jews want it to be distinct."Credit: AP
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Avi Shafran

The majority of American Jews are hypocrites. They champion liberal values at home but ignore ostensible assaults on them in Israel. That’s the upshot of Chemi Shalev’s recent reading, in Haaretz, of the Jewish scene in America (“Time for American Jews to confront Israel’s demons”) .

“There is no denying,” writes Mr. Shalev, “that the core liberal values that are sacrosanct for Jews in America are under increasing threat in Israel. Anti-democratic sentiments are gaining ground, the Arab minority is being stigmatized and isolated, and freedoms of speech and assembly are no longer taken for granted.” There are, moreover, “wild-eyed Israeli legislators” with “retrograde ruminations about women, minorities, human rights, democracy and basic constitutional rights.”

Of course, prominent in the mix of the mire is “the Rabbinate’s religious stranglehold on other Israeli Jews.” Mr. Shalev contends that “U.S. Jews who go bananas whenever a Republican dares to support a divinity scene in city hall have nothing to say about the Orthodoxy that is creeping” into Israeli society. What’s more, he adds, “even the messianic Temple Mounters, who could bring Israel to ruin, hardly merit a peep.”

I confess to not being a typical American Jew. As a Haredi Jew, I have conservative beliefs with regard to many social values. I oppose, for instances, the redefinition of marriage and the killing of fetuses in the absence of medical necessity.

But, even from my perch outside the American Jewish political mainstream, I see Mr. Shalev as misjudging the scene. For starters, there is no dearth of outrage in the U.S. – merited or not (more about that below) – over social issues in Israel. The New Israel Fund, which champions “social justice” and “progressive” issues, manages to raise tens of millions of dollars yearly in America. And when Woman of the Wall Anat Hoffman alights on these shores she is celebrated at temples, Hadassah coffee klatches and Jewish community centers across the country as the virtual second coming of Rosa Parks (though early Al Sharpton would be a more accurate appraisal).

To be sure, most American Jews, unfortunately, are generally disconnected from Israel. But among liberal American Jews who do care about Israel, there is concern not only for her security but for her internal societal affairs.

What many American Jews understand, however, that Mr. Shalev either does not, or chooses to gloss over, is that, unlike the United States, whose separation of church and state underlies its very identity, Israel was pointedly founded as a Jewish state.

That is not to say it is a theocracy. No one’s right to worship fervently, demonstrate peacefully or party wildly in Israel is in any way limited by the government. But, just like countries as diverse as England, Denmark and Liechtenstein, Israel professes a state religion. That doesn’t mean that Jewish religious law is enforced on anyone, but it does mean that there’s no wall, not even a low mechitza, between synagogue and state.

As a result, and in keeping with an agreement forged at Israel’s birth, the state has always incorporated elements of religious tradition into its national workings. Kosher food, for example, is served in the armed forces and at government functions; the national calendar recognizes Jewish holidays. And personal status issues like conversion, marriage and divorce are determined by Jewish law, or halakha, overseen by an official state rabbinate.

That latter fact is widely (and wildly) portrayed these days as some sort of violation of human rights, or of the hallowed new ideal of “religious pluralism,” which seems to mean what the Jewish prophets of yore called “each man according to what is proper in his own eyes.”

But a Jewish state must perforce have a Jewish standard. And many American Jews, including at least the more realistic in the non-Orthodox community, understand that only a standard that commands the respect (even if it is not the personal preference) of all Jews who care about Judaism can serve that purpose. And the only such standard is that of halakha, as it has existed for centuries.

To enshrine different sets of standards in Israel, as pluralism-proponents advocate, would inexorably lead to what no less a non-Orthodox Jew than David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, called “the splitting of the Jewish house.”

Mr. Shalev seeks to lump the legitimate defense of the Jewish religious tradition together with anti-Arab discrimination and zealous nationalism, and then to lay the entire mixture at the feet of Orthodox Jews. That’s offensive – and inaccurate.

Both my non-Orthodox fellow American Jews and my Haredi compatriots condemn mistreatment of Arabs (though many of us recognize that legitimate security concerns will always have negative fallout for some). And many of us (certainly we Haredim, who consider it forbidden a Jew to ascend Har HaBayit) consider the nationalist “Temple Mounters” to be misguided and dangerous.

But we (at least, here, we Haredim) bristle when the maintenance of the religious status quo ante in Israel is vilified as a violation of human rights – with Haredim portrayed as an amorphous black-hatted plague poised to infect Israel.

It may be surprising for some to realize, but practically no socio-religious conflict in Israel has been engendered by the country’s religious populace. The conflicts were initiated by people seeking to change the modus vivendi that has preserved relative comity among Israel’s religious, traditional and secular citizens since the state’s inception.

Whatever the issue – images on buses in Meah Shearim, the introduction of women chanting from the Torah in the Kotel plaza, demands to end the closure of streets on Shabbat in religious neighborhoods, allotment of government funding for the institutions of new “Judaisms,” amending conversion procedures – the strife was produced by those intent on changing things, not those committed to preserving them.

Yes, opponents of the religious status quo in Israel claim that changes are necessary. But those of us in America, Orthodox or otherwise, who dare to disagree, while we proudly embrace our country’s religious neutrality, wish for Israel to retain its Jewish identity and preserve what it can of Jewish unity.

That’s not hypocrisy. It’s hope.

Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs and blogs at www.rabbiavishafran.com. His most recent collection of essays is entitled “It’s All in the Angle” (Judaica Press, 2012).

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