Crisis With U.S. Jews: Diaspora Comes to Grips With More 'Illiberal' Israel

‘People expect that there will be some kind of massive abandonment of Israel by American Jews, but I don’t see that happening – it’s a much longer process’ says one expert

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, in an altercation with security guards at the Western Wall site, November 2017.
Israel Religious Action Center

Exactly a year ago, the headlines in Israel talked about an “unprecedented crisis” between the government in Jerusalem and the Jewish community in the United States. The main catalyst for the crisis was the government’s withdrawal from its commitment to expand the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

The heads of the Reform and Conservative movements – the two largest religious streams in American Judaism – warned the government that its violation of the “Kotel agreement” would lead to a serious fracture between them and Israel.

A year has passed and for a brief moment last week, the “crisis with American Jewry” once again became a top headline in Israel. This time, it was due to a number of events that happened over a span of 24 hours: the police interrogation of Conservative Rabbi Dov Haiyun; the passage of the “Jewish nation-state law”; and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s betrayal of the Israeli LGBT community on the issue of surrogacy rights.

As if trying to add fuel to the fire, these events took place during the same week as Israel gave a hero’s welcome to Hungary’s far-right prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and security at Ben-Gurion Airport questioned a prominent Jewish-American philanthropist because of a Palestinian pamphlet found in his suitcase.

“If I had tried to invent a series of imaginary headlines that would cause damage to Israel among members of my congregation, I probably wouldn’t have succeeded to surpass what happened last week,” says a rabbi at one prominent synagogue in the Washington area, who asked not to be named for this article. “It was like being caught in heavy rain: Every time you think the rain is finally going to slow down, it suddenly gets stronger.”

The rabbi said the interrogation of Haiyun was the event that “left the strongest negative impression on people in my community” – because unlike other negative stories that emerge out of Israel, “this can’t be excused by security circumstances. People were shocked by this event.”

The sense of shock was evident in the reactions by leading Jewish organizations that are usually supportive of Israel.

Rabbi Dov Haiyun, a Conservative rabbi who has been arrested by the Chief Rabbinate for presiding over a wedding deemed to be illegal according to Jewish law, at a prayer protest at the Haifa Rabbinic Court, July 22, 2018.
rami shllush

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, compared Israel’s religious authorities to those of Iran and Saudi Arabia. The UJA- Federation of New York said the incident contradicted Israel’s promise to be a home to all the Jewish people. Denunciations were also issued by other groups.

But in the week that has passed since last Thursday, when Haiyun was interrogated and the nation-state law passed, it seems the anger has subsided. The agenda of the national Jewish groups has moved on to other, internal issues.

“We all have short memories, but the crisis of the past week wasn’t truly unprecedented,” says Northeastern University’s Prof. Dov Waxman, who has written extensively on Israel and the Jewish-American community.

Waxman says this crisis isn’t different from other crisis points in recent years, such as last year’s Western Wall backtracking and Netanyahu’s Iran deal speech before Congress in March 2015.

There were also earlier crisis points, such as when Israeli police used violence against the Women of the Wall group, or when Netanyahu was being accused by U.S. Democrats of interfering in the 2012 presidential election on behalf of Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

In each one of these cases, Israeli diplomats in the United States reported back to Jerusalem about a wave of criticism from within the Jewish community, including threats by philanthropists to stop giving funds to institutions in Israel, and a sense of confusion within the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC, which faced difficulties trying to explain Israel’s actions.

But with time, all of these previous crisis points also became something to “move on” from and focus on the future.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the AIPAC Policy Conference, March 6, 2018.
Haim Zach / GPO

Slow, trickling process

“The media likes to create a sense that we are nearing a breaking point every once in a while,” Waxman tells Haaretz. “People expect that there will be some kind of massive abandonment of Israel by American Jews, but I don’t see that happening. It’s a much longer process.”

Waxman says he can’t envision a single event that would lead to the collapse of the pro-Israel sentiment among the Jewish community. Instead, he sees a slow, trickling process that escalates every few years.

“There isn’t going to be one event that changes everything,” he predicts. “This didn’t start with the Western Wall issue and it won’t end with the nation-state law.”

According to Waxman, “There is a growing sense among the majority of non-Orthodox Jews in the United States that Israel is moving in an increasingly illiberal direction.” He says Netanyahu’s return to power in 2009 was an important turning point in that process but that, actually, the gaps between the two largest Jewish population centers in the world go way back.

“For example, the discrimination against Arab citizens in Israel – this didn’t start with the nation-state law,” he observes. “It has always been a problem in Israel, even though a lot of progress has been made. In the 1950s and ’60s, Arab Israelis lived under military rule. Their situation was much worse than it is today.”

But back then, he says, Israel had a mythological standing in the Jewish-American community. It was considered a miracle and was above criticism. “People constructed something in their imagination that was very different than the reality on the ground. Today, that myth is beginning to weaken and reality is emerging.”

Waxman says the difference is between “seeing Israel as a ‘real country with real problems,’ which is what Israel truly is, versus seeing it as a ‘Jewish-American fantasyland.’”

Brandeis University’s Prof. Yehudah Mirsky, a dual Israeli-American citizen, says that although there is clearly a crisis between the two communities, there is no clear definition of its scope and severity.

“We all agree we see somewhat of a distancing between the two sides, but the data isn’t clear-cut and even the trend line has ups and downs,” he says.

Mirsky says that if Israel were to be attacked tomorrow morning by Hezbollah, almost every Jewish organization in the United States would express support for the country. Yet in May, when Israel used deadly force to keep Palestinians from crossing the Gaza border fence during massive demonstrations, many Jewish-American supporters of Israel found it difficult to defend its actions.

Tear gas canisters are fired by Israeli troops at Palestinian demonstrators during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border east of Gaza City June 8, 2018.
\ MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS

“There was a huge gap between how this event was seen by most Israelis and how it was seen by many American Jews,” Mirsky says.

Over the past year, Israeli media outlets have tried to put a face and number on the crisis by highlighting stories about philanthropists who have decided to stop giving to Israel. Mirsky says this reflects the fact that “many Israelis view American Jewry as a huge ATM machine,” but adds that he is not aware of big changes on this front.

“I’ve heard about specific cases where people said, ‘Why should I donate to a country that doesn’t recognize me as Jewish? I can give instead in Denver or Chicago.’ But these are isolated cases. Most people who support causes in Israel separate between those causes and the government.”

Uptick in donations

The head of one prominent Jewish organization, who asked not to be identified, echoed those comments in a conversation with Haaretz this week. “We’re not seeing a drop in donations to causes in Israel – in fact, there might be an uptick,” he reveals. “But there is definitely a change in the kind of donations people are making. People who in the past simply gave money to JNF [the Jewish National Fund, or Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael] or to hasbara groups, are now looking to support Reform synagogues in Israel or organizations for social change. They don’t want to completely disengage from Israel, so they are looking for objectives they can identify with.”

Nadav Caine, a Conservative rabbi from Ann Arbor, Michigan, says he also believes the events of last week aren’t a watershed moment. He sees them as a continuation of ongoing trends that have bothered him and others for a number of years. However, he says he is hesitant to criticize Israel “because of what’s happening in our own country, here in America. Some of us feel that we see in Israel what we see in America these days. I think Trump and Netanyahu both don’t see themselves as committed to leading the entire country. They feel committed only to those who voted for them.”

Caine believes Netanyahu’s attitude is also reflected in his treatment of American Jews.

Caine has lived in Israel thrice in his life, the last time being in 2009. He has led trips to Israel and has encouraged people to support the country. Today, he says, he feels caught between two generations of American Jewry who have very different views of Israel.

“The older generation has a very strong, living memory of the Holocaust. Many of them can’t accept any criticism of Israel. They view it like a Christian views criticism of Jesus. The younger generation is in a totally different place, and many of them have a more critical view of the situation there.”

One of the challenges being a rabbi in such a situation, he says, is that “no matter what you say about Israel, half of the people are going to be angry at you. If you say something positive, people will be angry that you didn’t mention the problems they have. If you say something critical, half the people will accuse you of hating Israel. It’s not a rational debate.”

A protester waving a flag in front of a banner showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a rally to protest against inequality for the LGBT community, Tel Aviv, July 22, 2018.
Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Caine gives an example of the generational gap by telling about a major Jewish-American philanthropist he knows who was presented with data showing young American Jews’ estrangement from Israel, and refused to accept it. “He said, ‘But we give money to send them to Birthright – isn’t that supposed to solve the problem?’” recounts Caine.

Waxman says the growing list of crises could actually lead to a healthier relationship between Israel and American Jewry in the long run.

“I don’t think most Jews are going to simply give up on Israel,” he says. “We are seeing that more and more American Jews are visiting Israel, and there is a great interest in knowing and learning about it.

“On the other hand,” he continues, “there is also more criticism of Israel and it’s coming even from mainstream organizations. To me, there are signs of a more mature and balanced relationship. People today want to learn about Israel the real country, not the fantasy they were taught about in Hebrew school. The idealization of Israel is over. But that doesn’t mean the relationship is over.”

Waxman says American Jews can support Israel even if they don’t view it as “a fetish creature of their imagination,” and even if that support isn’t unconditional and unquestionable.

An Israeli official who works with American Jews on a regular basis compared the events of the previous week to a massive storm.

“It felt at some point like we were caught in a hurricane,” the official said. “But eventually, the hurricane caused its damage and then passed.”

In the United States, hurricanes are a regular occurrence – something that happens every year, mainly in the summer. Perhaps that’s also the new reality for the relationship between Israel and the American-Jewish community.