At an Impasse?

New polls show synergy between Diaspora, Israeli Jewish people on issues of religion and state, but growing divide between peoples and Israeli government

via Shutterstock
via Shutterstock

By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
eJewish Philanthropy

Over the past year, media headlines have reported a looming crisis between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry, but two new polls commissioned by The Jerusalem Post and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) reveal that when it comes to issues of religion and state, the majority of the Israeli and American people are aligned.

On Sept. 14, The Jerusalem Post released a Smith Research survey taken of 500 Israelis over the age of 18 on issues of religion and state. Simultaneously, AJC released its annual survey of American Jewish opinion, which this year included a series of questions on issues of religion and state in Israel. AJC polled 1,002 American Jews over the age of 18.

The polls found that 74% of American Jews and 62% of Israeli Jews believe Israel should officially recognize pluralistic streams of Judaism, including the Conservative and Reform movements, and allow them to conduct marriage ceremonies and conversions.

Among American Jews, 74% of Conservative, 94% of Reconstructionist, 80% of Reform and 82% of those who consider themselves “just Jewish” said they support Israel’s recognizing pluralistic Judaism. In Israel, 87% of secular Jews said they are also in favor. Among Orthodox Americans and Israelis the numbers were the opposite; 82% of Orthodox Americans and nearly all Orthodox Israelis are against allowing the Reform and Conservative movements to perform lifecycle events.

Similarly, a majority of American (70%) and Israeli (61%) Jews support creating a section for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall near Robinson’s Arch.

When it comes to the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on issues of religion and state in Israel, a plurality of American Jews (48%) believe that it weakens relations between Israel and the American Jewish community. Similarly, a majority (54%) of Israeli Jews said they oppose the monopoly.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said these latest surveys point to the fact that a clear majority of American and Israelis Jews “have a common goal” on issues of religion and state.

“We know the people of Israel and world Jewry want the same things,” Schonfeld told eJewish Philanthropy. “We want to be connected and strengthen each other’s connections as Jews. … A lot of these struggles are struggles with the government because of the political nature of religion in Israel.”

In the last year, issues of religion and state have ignited much controversy within Israeli society. Most recently, upset over repair work taking place at Tel Aviv and Haifa train stations led to political furor, threatening to topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government coalition and caused hundreds of Israeli demonstrators to take to the streets holding placards that read, “A country according to Jewish law means a country gone” and “I am waiting for a bus on Shabbat.”

According to Yaakov Katz, editor of The Jerusalem Post, the Israeli poll reflected that, “the recent crisis over train repairs carried out on Shabbat is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tension over maters over religion and state.” He said that there is a tremendous amount of negative feelings among Israeli Jews regarding the Orthodox hegemony in Israel.

The question is whether American Jews will be patient enough to wait for Israel to solve this internal struggle. Statics from previous polls, and this most recent survey released by AJC, show that Israel specifically, and Judaism in general, are becoming decreasingly less relevant to the lives of American Jews.

When American Jews were asked, “How important is being Jewish in your life?” less than half (44%) said Judaism is “very important.” When broken down by denomination, only 15% of Reconstructionist, 38% of Reform and 26% of those who consider themselves just Jewish said being Jewish is very important to their lives.

When asked whether caring about Israel is a very important part of their being Jewish, less than half (47%) of American Jews said it is. Despite an increase in the number of American visitors to Israel in recent years, in part from the Taglit Birthright Israel program which has brought more than 500,000 young adults to Israel over the last 15 years, the majority of American Jews (52%) have not been to Israel.

Nonetheless, The Post’s Katz said that even as North American Jews are increasingly assimilated and intermarried, “that does not mean Israel does not have a responsibility to try to bring the Jewish community closer to Israel. One of the ways to do that is to give all Jews a feeling that the Jewish state is their home.”

He continued, “A lot of Jews are moving away from Israel, but Israel needs to do all it can to bring these Jews closer.”

Katz noted that the impact of a rift between Israel and Diaspora Jews could post long-term challenges for the Jewish state. He said Israelis depend on Diaspora supporters to fight the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and to advocate for Israeli security.

“You cannot ask American Jews to fight for you, and then when they come here make them feel like they are not equal,” Katz said.

Rabbi Richard “Rick” Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, admitted that issues such as the Kotel or formal recognition of pluralistic lifecycle ceremonies are just symptoms or symbols of the pluralistic movements’ larger demand for equality in Israel. He said that if non-Orthodox Jews are regularly “discredited, unrecognized and actively inhibited” by the State, this will continue to affect whether or not the Jewish world draws closer to Israel.

The AJC’s Director of Media Relations, Kenneth Bandler, said AJC has already taken steps to achieve this equality through the Jewish Religious Equality Coalition (J-REC).

Schonfeld said if the Israeli government would be willing stand up to the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) monopoly on the issue of the Kotel, given that the creation of a mixed prayer area at the Western Wall in which both men and women can pray together was democratically approved by the government in January 2016, it would show good faith toward the Diaspora community and could serve as major turning point in relations.

Said Jacobs, “We are at a dramatic impasse.”