A Critical Moment in Israeli-American Jewish Relations

US_and_Israel_flagsBy Jay Ruderman

“If religious parties place demands on the governing coalition to adopt policies that de-legitimize the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations, they affront the very identities of numerous American Jews.”

The jury is still out on how the new Israeli government will approach Jewish pluralism and the country’s relationship with American Jews.

There’s almost no doubt that the strengthening of the religious parties’ role in the government will impact the religious status quo for mainstream Israelis.

But putting them in the driver’s seat on issues that directly affect American Jewry could potentially raise issues that impact a community which serves as a strategic asset for Israel’s security.

Israeli columnist Shmuel Rosner warns that the 61-seat government is “going to deal with a lot of the things that ignite Israel-Diaspora tensions – such as conversion and rabbinic rule.”

Haaretz columnist Judy Maltz sounded a more optimistic note in the immediate aftermath of the election, pointing out that a number of new Knesset members, including members of Likud and Kulanu, both of which are in the governing coalition, are known for being strongly pro-religious pluralism.

There have been some signs about the direction of the new government, which could be flash points for conflict with the American Jewish community. The agreement with United Torah Judaism provides that a UTJ party representative will now sit on a Committee for the Appointment of Rabbinic Judges. The previous government provided some power over conversion to modern Orthodox-controlled local rabbinates, which took a more liberal stance on conversion. In effect, the new agreement places all the control back in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate.

Considering the tensions between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama over the prime minister’s speech before Congress, as well as issues about the peace process with the Palestinians, American Jewish-Israeli relations can ill afford another crisis, this time one over pluralism. Members of the new government should take heed.

Unlike Israelis, many American Jews still possess a strong denominational identity. That is, their Jewish identity is inextricably linked to their membership in the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist movements. When asked to describe their Jewishness, many will, without hesitation, state “I’m a Reform Jew” or “I’m a Conservative Jew.”

If religious parties place demands on the governing coalition to adopt policies that de-legitimize the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations, they affront the very identities of numerous American Jews.

Past efforts to change the status of “Who is a Jew,” for example, would have rendered conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis as having no standing in Israel. Converts from these movements would not be eligible for immigration to Israel under the Law of Return.

Whenever the “Who is a Jew” question surfaces, the non-Orthodox movements become enraged, feeling that they could become disenfranchised from the Jewish state. Rabbis from these denominations become especially offended that their conversions could be nullified. They turn to their congregants, many of whom have never been to Israel, and rail against the anti-pluralist stance of the Israeli government.

For many Jews from non-Orthodox denominations, if Israel doesn’t recognize the authority of their rabbis, then it doesn’t recognize them as rabbis. Israel ceases to be their Jewish state.

Such a crisis would be bad enough in less tense and divisive times. It would be disastrous under current conditions, when many American Jews already feel that the emotional attachment many Jews have to the State of Israel has become more tenuous.

That’s why it’s incumbent on all parties of the Knesset, particularly those of the governing coalition, to hold firm on questions of Jewish pluralism. If leaders of the Likud and Kulanu – in the name of political expedience and survival – give in to anti-pluralistic demands of their religious coalition partners, it will be a dark, dark period in American-Jewish relations with Israel. What’s more, it may take a long time to repair the relationship that serves both Israel and American Jews so well. Now’s the time for thoughtful people to show some courage.

Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.