‘Like Second-class Jews’

U.S. Jews Say Israel Is Losing Their Support by Capitulating to ultra-Orthodox Demands

If ‘unprecedented’ divisions on conversions, marriage and Western Wall prayer continue, ‘you will have nobody’ left to defend Israel abroad, AJC leaders warn Knesset session

A confrontation at the Western Wall between the ultra-Orthodox and a Conservative rabbi in 2016.
Emil Salman

Leaders of one of the oldest and largest Jewish organizations in the world warned Monday that Israel is losing the support of its staunchest advocates in the American-Jewish community because of its refusal to recognize the different forms of Judaism they practice.

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Appearing before the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, senior representatives of the American Jewish Committee – a mainstream Jewish advocacy organization that rarely criticizes Israel – spoke in unusually harsh terms about the dangers facing Israel. They cited the government’s capitulation to ultra-Orthodox dictates on matters of marriage, divorce, conversion and prayer at the Western Wall.

“I understand that you have complicated politics over here and many opinions, but I think that to lose the American Diaspora – and I’m telling you as someone who views it from many organizations – you are losing the next generation and you are losing the passion of the current generation. And I think it would be a tragic loss if this split continues,” said AJC President John Shapiro.

“At some point, we’re not going to be able to put the pieces back together again,” he added.

Shapiro, a Reform Jew, noted that in addition to his position at the AJC, he is on the executive committee of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and, before that, served as president of the UJA Federation of New York.

The AJC is holding its Global Forum conference in Jerusalem this week – the first time in its 112-year history it has held the annual event outside of the United States. More than 2,400 delegates are participating.

A delegation of 40 participants attended the special Knesset committee session, many of them voicing frustration and bitterness toward the Israeli government for treating them as “second-class Jews.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the AJC Global Forum in Jerusalem, June 10. 2018.
Emil salman

Their message appeared to be a sharp rebuttal to proclamations issued the night before by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his keynote address to the forum, about Israel being “the home of all Jews.”

To illustrate how disconnected many American Jews feel from Israel today, Shapiro used the example of his own son, who was devastated last June when the Netanyahu cabinet suspended its agreement to undertake a major overhaul of the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. It had been promised in order to provide equal status to Reform and Conservative Jews at the holy site.

On that same day, the cabinet also voted to advance legislation that would provide the Chief Rabbinate with a monopoly on all conversions.

When the news broke, Shapiro related that his son called him and said: “’You know, Dad, why are we doing all this? We’re giving so much money, and we’re giving so much time, and they don’t even look at us. They’re pushing us away.’”

The crisis hadn’t yet reached the point where “80,000 donors are calling me up,” Shapiro said. But he added that “enough of them do.”

Dov Zakheim, chairman of the AJC’s Jewish Religious Equality Coalition, warned that the Israeli government’s treatment of American Jews would come back to haunt it when the next Democrat is elected president. “You think Obama wasn’t a friend of Israel?” asked Zakheim, an Orthodox Jew who held senior positions at the Department of Defense during the Reagan administration. “Wait until the next Democratic president decides to support sanctions against Israel in the United Nations. Who’s going to tell him not to? Who’s going to tell him to veto the resolution? American Jews?

“You will have nobody,” he said, responding to his own question. “And what will that do to your economy? And what will that do to your high-tech? And what will that do to your military? Is that what you want? Is that what your rabbis are for?”

Zakheim said Israel was sending a message to 85 percent of American Jews – “Those who are not Orthodox or not Orthodox enough” – that they are unwanted in the country. “It destroys the essence of what Zionism is about – of what Israel is about,” he lamented.

Zakheim described recent attempts by the Rabbinate to expand its authority to Jewish communities outside of Israel as a dangerous “power grab” that would divide the Jewish people.

“They undermine the entire nature of what the Jewish people are, which is one people,” he said. “Must we wait for Hitler to put us in the gas chambers to remember that we’re one people?”

Zakheim also expressed outrage at the recent decision of the Interior Ministry, first reported in Haaretz, to deny recognition to the Abayudaya community in Uganda, whose members were converted to Judaism by Conservative rabbis. “It sends a clear message: We only want certain kinds of people to make aliyah and nobody else,” he said.

The AJC, Zakheim noted, had advocated for the rights of ultra-Orthodox Jews in France to dress as they wish. “We are fighting for the Haredim, while the Haredim treat our members like dirt – think about that,” he said.

No members of the ultra-Orthodox political parties were present at the Knesset committee to respond. Representatives of the Rabbinate’s office were also absent, although they had been invited.

Polls show there are sharp divisions between American and Israeli Jews, and not just on matters of religion. The two communities have widely divergent views on the handling of the Palestinian conflict and the Mideast policies of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Steven Bayme, director of the AJC’s Contemporary Jewish Life department, described recent divisions between Israel and the American-Jewish community as “unprecedented.”

He expressed particular concern about young American Jews visiting Israel for the first time on Birthright – the program that provides free, 10-day trips to the country – who were suddenly discovering they weren’t considered Jewish enough.

“All these efforts are being made to bring young people to Israel. And then when you come to Israel, you’re told that you wouldn’t be able to marry as you wish in the country, and that your Jewishness wouldn’t be recognized by the Rabbinate,” he said. “That’s what’s happening, and we need to combat it.”

AJC Board of Governors Chairwoman Harriet Schleifer warned that with young Jews increasingly distancing themselves from Israel, her organization might not have the means to continue advocating for Israel in the future.

“We go around the world to speak on behalf of normalizing Israel among the nations of the world, and we have access like almost no other Jewish organization to world leaders,” she said. “We have Israel in our kishkes [guts in Yiddish] already. But if you don’t have the succeeding generations willing to devote their time and personal money to speak on behalf of Israel and Jews worldwide, you’re going to lose not only the U.S. Diaspora but our voice around the world.”

Dr. Shonni Silverberg, an AJC delegate, said her great concern was not so much assimilation, but the fact that Jews who felt strongly about their religious identity were disconnecting from Israel.

“What is happening – and what I despair about – is that their definition of their Jewishness does not include Israel,” she said. “They aren’t saying that they don’t want to be Jewish – they are proudly Jewish. But they don’t feel that Israel is essential to their definition of Judaism, and that scares me tremendously,” she said.