The Strange Reality of Israel-Diaspora Relations

Despite their reported high levels of assimilation, some of the most creative spiritual Jewish expressions have been developed in Diaspora communities.

by Stephen Donshik

On Thursday, May 29th, I read an opinion piece in Ha’aretz,American Jews Are Running Out of Patience With Israel” by Ori Nir. I was struck by his putting the responsibility on Israel to change its policies in order not to further alienate the American Jewish community from Israel. Two days later the executive and judicial branches took actions that seemed to indicate Israel is bending over backward to draw the American Jewish community closer to its heart and soul: the government approved the spending of billions of shekels to help strengthen American Jewry and bring them closer to Israel (see this post on this website: “Israel Cabinet Approves Joint Initiative of the Government of Israel and World Jewry“).

Thus, the same government whose policies Nir claims are eroding any support American Jews have for Israel is now going to make every effort to save them from the dreaded outcome of assimilation. The situation gets even more absurd when we realize that this same government refuses to accept the legitimacy of pluralistic Judaism and rejects non-Orthodox converts, denying them citizenship. I suggest you read this article from the June 1st edition of The Jerusalem Post, “Israeli Court Question State’s Stance on Lack of Citizenship for Non-Orthodox Converts.”

How do we reconcile these issues coming before us within the span of a few days? We have three hands here. On the one hand, the claim is being made that Israel has embarked on a path that will only result in diminishing American Jewish support for the country. According to a study by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, American Jews experience a dissonance when their “Jewish values” clash with official Israeli policies. Apparently more and more American Jews are questioning whether Israel is really a democratic Jewish state. Nir focuses his comments on the perception that Israeli leaders “have ceased to actively pursue peace as a critical national security objective and that many Israelis have ceased to cherish it as a value.” He further states, “Many American Jews who are uncomfortable with some of Israel’s policies and practices are willing to accept them as long as Israel pursues peace.” It is clear that Nir sees the peace process as the “deal breaker” in terms of the decision of American Jews to support Israel. Knowing that he now works for Americans for Peace Now it is understandable that this is the most important single issue for him.

I could not disagree with him more. Although I think it is Israel’s responsibility to do a better job of explaining its policies and practices even as the peace process moves forward at a slower pace than most Israelis would like to see happen, to accuse Israel of losing support from Diaspora Jewry on the basis of its politics is very sad. Perhaps American Jews have to learn more about the reality of Israel and that it is not the “Jewish Disneyland” they have accustomed themselves to see when they are on missions and group visits as adults or on teen tours when they are younger.

On the second hand, it is not easy to accept the meaning of the Jewish state as being a sovereign political state and all that it means – both as seen over its short 66 years and all that it will confront in the future. Perhaps it is easier to criticize what is viewed through Diaspora lenses than attempting to see Israel through its own reality. I trust that more authenticity is achieved when people spend longer than a week to ten days touring the Holy Land and feeling the “miracles” beneath their feet.

This leads me to the “Joint Initiative” that is going to bring the true meaning of Jewish identity from Israel to the waning (and shrinking Diaspora). Please forgive my cynicism, but when you read about the State of Israel not accepting non-Orthodox conversions you cannot but feel that Israel’s religious establishment has not the least idea what Jewish identity is like in the Diaspora. Despite their reported high levels of assimilation, some of the most creative spiritual Jewish expressions have been developed in Diaspora communities. Instead of seeking a deeper understanding of some of these creative formulations and expressions, the religious establishment in Israel seeks to alienate more of the Diaspora community by not recognizing the non-Orthodox expressions of Jewish identity.

On the third hand, given Israel’s lack of success in both formulating and implementing a creative form of Jewish identity, it tends to project either Halackic observance or secular nonobservance. The lone voices of creative Jewish identity get drummed out by the 1948 consensus on the “status quo” that was agreed to in order to bring both religious and secular together to create the first government when the state was created. This original agreement has been strangling the creative expression of Jewish identity for 66 years and continues to attempt to bury those who believe in pluralistic Judaism.

This week we are celebrating Shavuot and commemorating the acceptance of the Torah and the creation of the Jewish people. The same innovative approach that Moshe and Joshua used to keep the nation together in ancient times should be a guidepost or us to follow and shed light on the wave of the future. Instead of Israel exporting its distorted religious establishment to the Diaspora and using an obscene amount of money to do so, we should be sitting down and celebrating the creativity in Torah learning through the myriad of pluralistic groups that also own our tradition and heritage and are committed to the future of our people. The texts we study are not the sole property of the religious establishment, and until this is fully understood we will continue to see the developments as reported this past week.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.