Strengthening Jewish cohesion

Israel and American Jewry – Pause a moment before the abyss

Restoring relations with the Jewish community in the United States is critical

The Jewish People Policy Institute’s 2021 Annual Assessment of the Situation and Dynamics of the Jewish People reveals that the past year has been dismal and has brought about a multidimensional erosion in Jewish resilience. One of the significant catalysts for this erosion is the strained relations between the State of Israel and most of the Jews in the United States. The Bennett-Lapid government has a duty to do everything possible so that by the end of its tenure, Israel will not be a bad word in many U.S. Jewish communities. During his brief visit to the United States, Bennett didn’t meet with Jewish community leaders, but he must also devote significant political attention to this issue.

A Pew survey of American Jews published three months ago reveals a growing erosion in support for Israel among American Jews and an even greater erosion among the young generation. Additional surveys, including those showing that quite a few Jews consider Israel an apartheid state, illustrate that American Jews are drifting away from the State of Israel. In many communities Israel is no longer mentioned in Sabbath or holiday sermons, in some the Israeli flag is no longer waved, and at the edges there is a real anti-Zionism that includes the denial of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

Most Jews in the United States, about 75 percent, belong to the progressive-left wing of American politics. In recent years, especially the younger members of this camp have become more and more extremist. During these same years, Israel became more right-wing and traditional. It is therefore not surprising that the two issues at the heart of the controversy between Israel and most U.S. Jews are Israeli control over Judea and Samaria and religion and state relations in Israel.

It is clear that the issue that weighs most heavily on these relations is Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians. While for most American Jews the two-state solution is the minimum required of Israel, and some of them already support a bi-national state, in Israel political progress vis-à-vis the Palestinians is absent from the agenda. This chasm which in itself leads to the maximalism of some American Jews and further distances them from Israel, is very difficult to bridge. For Israel this is a core national security issue, a real existential threat, but for some American Jews it is a one-dimensional human rights issue that must be resolved. The impact on them and their lives in this regard is small.

But with respect to the other contentious issue, religion-state relations in Israel, the current government has an opportunity for a breakthrough. The main criticism of American Jews, most of whom belong to the non-Orthodox streams, concerns the unwillingness of Israel’s religious establishment, and the state itself, to recognize them. This disregard is expressed in issues such as conversion, marriage and divorce, egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall and more. As long as the ultra-Orthodox were in government, they vetoed any change on these issues. In order to preserve his government, Netanyahu actually gave up on American Jews and sought to mobilize steadfast support for Israel among the evangelicals. The current government is different, and this is a historic opportunity.

The unique composition of this governing coalition, and the willingness of most of its partners to advance reforms that have been stuck for years, makes it possible to enact change in religion-state relations as well. Such change does not have to be dramatic. It is enough to resolve the Western Wall issue, to promote reforms in Israel’s religious services apparatus, and to leave untouched the High Court’s recognition of Reform conversion, in order to convey to American Jews that Israel counts them in, sees them, and is willing to take their beliefs and worldviews into consideration.

Those U.S. Jews who are still interested in Israel and what is happening there have high hopes for the new government. Their hope is that after years of contempt and disregard on the part of the Israeli government, they will be better understood or at least find a sympathetic ear and a serious willingness to hear them. The government and the prime minister shoulder a heavy responsibility in this matter. Restoring relations with the Jewish community in the United States is critical. There is an urgent Israeli interest at stake, but also a values-based interest in strengthening Jewish cohesion and brotherhood between the two largest Jewish communities in the world.

Dr. Shuki Friedman is the vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a lecturer in law at the Peres Academic Center.