While Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Push Diaspora Jews Away, Israel’s Arab Citizens Bring Them Back

First published in Ha’aretz July 14th 2016

The relationship between Israel and the majority of the American Jewish Diaspora hit a new low this past week. In a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the heads of the American Conservative and Reform movements warned of the potential for bloodshed between their members and the ultra-Orthodox given the incitement around the planned egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

Despite Netanyahu’s image as a political magician domestically, he has not been able to deliver the compromise that he repeatedly promised to Diaspora Jewry regarding their rights to pray in a fashion they see fit.

This crisis is not limited to U.S. Conservative and Reform Jews. The issue lends to continued angst for modern Orthodox Jews in America, as the Israeli rabbinical courts have refused to recognize the conversions performed by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a highly regarded Orthodox rabbi in New York.

More so than the inability to move forward on the peace process, the real strategic threat to Israel-Diaspora Jewry relations comes from the Ultra-Orthodox’s disrespect, denigration and outright rejection of the majority of American Jewry’s practices. For all the time, attention and money spent on the strategic threat of BDS, Israel risks losing mainstream Federation donors and synagogues if this continues.

The Ultra-Orthodox political parties of Shas and United Torah Judaism are the glue that sticks the religious right coalition together. They care about few things: money for their constituents, a protection of their way or life — away from the demands of a secular state — and the supremacy of their religious practice when it comes to matters of religious law.

For the ultra-Orthodox, there is no wiggle room on these issues. There is no compromise position. These are issues that, if push came to shove, would force the coalition to collapse. Bibi knows this and thus is powerless to fulfill his promises to the Jewish Diaspora who are treated like second-class Jews in the Jewish state.

As the politically powerful Ultra-Orthodox are pushing Diaspora Jewry further away from Israel, it is Israel’s most politically weak group, the Arab citizens of Israel, that is finding a way to bring them back in.

According to the Pew polling done in 2013, over 60% of American Jews think that coexistence and peace is possible. When asked about the greatest problem facing the Jewish state, the second highest response was “Peace and Coexistence.”

Given their traditional pro-Israel stance and suspicions of the Palestinian Authority as a partner for peace, the Jewish community, both as individuals and institutions, is not turning outward to the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Federation dollars and attention, however, are being paid toward the internal issues of the status of Israel’s Arab minority.

This year marks the 10th year of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, a coalition of Jewish Organizations learning and raising awareness about Israel’s Arab citizens. The coalition is one of the few places where the New Israel Fund, the Council of Jewish Presidents, ADL and the Federation movement sit together.

During my travels as part as my role at the Alliance for Middle East Peace, Federations and Jewish Community Relations Councils are constantly looking for “shared society” programming and ideas that they can get behind.

The Jews who are being alienated by the ultra-Orthodox, the Reform and the Conservative, are the individuals who are the most identified by polls as having liberal and Democratic politics. The Conservative and Reform movements see their heroes as Rabbi Stephen Wise, Justice Louis Brandeis and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, scions of the formulation of liberal values that form the core of much of their political and moral identity. The call for equality for all of Israel’s citizens in matters of public funding, legal treatment and place in society reflects Rabbi Heschel’s leadership in the civil rights movement that still inspires American Jews today.

While the current Israeli government coalition is pushing the majority of American Diaspora Jews away, the desire to help build an Israel that reflects the values of a shared society is pulling Diaspora Jews back in.

This inverse power dynamic is in its early stages, but it will be interesting to see how it adapts as the push from the ultra-Orthodox worsens.

The situation on the ground definitely needs more support. Given the heightened tensions this year, there has been a push to remove Arab citizens from the public space and even a case where passengers demanded an Israeli Arab removed from an airplanes. Bolstering support for Israel’s minority could help begin to deal with the deep societal gaps that enable the Ultra-Orthodox to be the only kingmakers in the coalition.

The unfolding crisis of Reform and Conservative rights has led to the need of a new intellectual framework concerning Jewish connection to Israel. The call to create a shared society offers a unique opportunity for connecting the Reform and Conservative moment to their values of social justice, in conjunction with their love of Israel as well.

 

Labour Party’s anti-Semitism Struggle: Recognizing Jews Are a People, Not Just a Religion

First Published in Ha’aretz 5/9/16

Picked up in Washington Post The Volokh Conspiracy

I left the U.K. Labour Party when I received my Green Card. I felt it was odd to continue to be part of a British political party when I had officially moved overseas for good. Yet, watching the party miserably fail to deal with anti-Semitism over the past ten days, and Ken Livingstone’s unending obsession with Hitler and the Jews, took me back to my days on the National Executive Committee of the National Union of Students, an organization that has been a feeder to the front lines of left-wing national politics in Britain for decades.

In 2008, I was elected as one of the 27 national executive members of the NUS. As Sam Lebens, a friend and mentor who served there two years before me, wrote in the Forward, the NUS was often a tense place for Jewish students, especially when they tried to get the majority to accept that anti-Semitism should be taken seriously.

During my own year on the NEC the first Gaza war, Operation Cast Lead, took place.We debated motions about whether NUS would march with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign or condemn the usage of anti-Semitic imagery at the rallies. At another point during that year, I had to confront the hard left on the National Executive Committee about a leaflet that was being handed out that claimed that the Holocaust killed thousands of trade unionists, disabled people, gays and communists. While these groups were indeed victims, the pamphlet omitted one key group: Jews. Here we had dedicated anti-racists educating about the Holocaust while airbrushing out its Jewish victims.

In-between votes on theses issues, I would engage those who were part of the hard left — those who saw themselves as belonging to the same leftist faction as Ken Livingstone — on how they could possibly justify their anti-racist credentials when they were doing things that were so offensive to the Jewish community.

It all came down to their inability to understand why Jews were anything more than a religious group.

They felt that assigning Jews a peoplehood status would be to agree with the eugenics of the Nazis that Jews were “different” or “other;” that only the far-right fascists could see Jews in this way, rather than as just normal white folk. By reducing the Jewish experience to a religious dogma, the hard-left concurred, they were doing Jews a favor.

Jews did not have a place in the traditional liberation campaigns of the NUS. Being Jewish was not the same as being black, LGBTQ, female or disabled. Jews were hated by fascists; the hard left just wanted them to assimilate. According to the hard left in the NUS, being particularist about your Jewish ethnic background was to buy into a racism that was forced upon you.

The hard left was simply incapable of learning the lessons of why Jews felt that the enlightenment did not go their way (read: the Dreyfus affair) and insisted on “flattening” what it means to be a Jew into a solely religious experience.

The utter refusal of the hard left in Britain to accept that anti-Semitism can morph from the traditional eugenics into parts of modern-day anti-Zionist discourse stems from its rejection of Jews as a people. It is an unfortunate fact that Judaism comes from a time before census surveys began separating the “religion” box from the “ethnicity” box. In their worldview, Jewish peoplehood is a categorical error.

The core problem will not be solved until the hard left in Britain recognizes that the Jewish people are more than just a religious community. But the hard left is finding it hard to see that modern anti-Semitism exists beyond the far right, and in fact extends into its own territory.

Therefore, their obsession with Israel — and their inability to distinguish anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism — is based in their rejection of the concept of the Jewish people. The nation state was never a construct that the hard left liked in the first place. When coupled with a people that the hard left denies exists outside a religious context, Zionism becomes for them the embodiment of everything they oppose. The Jewish state reminds them that a Utopian view where a leftist emancipation will heal all wounds fails the test of history, and that demography and territory is something that oppressed people do aspire to.

The personalities within Britain’s Labour Party who are being accused of having an anti-Semitism problem are of the same political bent as the hard left that I came into contact with during my time on the NEC of the NUS. It’s therefore clear that Labour’s anti-Semitism problem won’t go away until the hard-left elements within the party accept that Jews are more than a religious group. It won’t matter how many people are suspended from the party if its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, can’t bring himself to say “anti-Semitism” without qualifying it alongside other forms of racism.

Without recognizing the particular challenge of modern anti-Semitism, the new inquiry into anti-Semitism that the Labour Party has launched will — I fear — achieve nothing.

Poll Shows Israelis Don’t Resent the Diaspora as Much as We Thought

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz 

With 5,601 interviewees, and a report of more than 200 pages, the Pew Research Center survey on Israel that was released last week is a data mine of facts, tidbits and, in many cases, depressing realities. The internet has been awash with headlines describing the individual findings of this massive research project that quantifies Israel’s tribal reality into neat numbers.

Yet, buried in the report is a series of findings that can give someone who cares about Israel-Diaspora relations hope. On pages 160 to 166, it states:

– 69 percent of Israeli Jews say that a thriving Diaspora is necessary for the survival of the Jewish people;

– 68 percent of Israeli Jews say they have a lot or some things in common with Diaspora Jews;

– 75 percent of Israeli Jews say they share a common destiny with American Jews; and

– 59 percent of Israeli Jews feel that U.S. Jews have a good influence on Israel.

The data represent a remarkably positive view of the Diaspora among Israeli Jews. In particular, that most Israeli Jews say U.S. Jews have a “good influence” on their country is the capstone for the data that precede it. It is also contextualized by them.

The concept of shlilat ha’galut, negation of the Diaspora, has a long history in Zionist discourse and is one of the fault lines of the global Jewish conversation. A. B. Yehoshua has been the leading public Israeli intellectual in recent years to champion this cause, calling the authenticity of being a Jew in the Diaspora into question. With more than two thirds of Israeli Jews deeming a thriving Diaspora crucial for the survival of the Jewish people, A. B. Yehoshua’s logic is challenged; modern Israeli Jews would repudiate those looking to negate the Diaspora, for they see the fates of both communities as intrinsically linked.

Perhaps even more profound is that this finding challenges something that Matti Golan wrote in his seminal book, “With Friends Like You” (1992, Free Press). Golan describes what Israeli Jews really thought of their cousins in America: that their donations to Israel were immoral – Jews abroad were paying in cash while Israelis paid in blood. The data in the Pew poll suggests that Golan’s assertion is now outdated.

While most Israeli Jews feel they have a lot in common with American Jews, there is at least one area in which they differ: in their perceptions of the greatest challenges facing Israel today. Among Israeli Jews, an almost equal proportion see economic issues and security issues as the biggest long-term problems (39 percent and 38 percent, respectively), whereas among U.S. Jews cited in the same report (page 59), 66 percent see security issues as the biggest problem, with only 1 percent citing economic issues. The gulf between what Jews in each country sees as the most urgent issues facing Israel is unsurprising; domestic economic affairs don’t enter into the U.S. Jewish political discourse. Their worries are shaped by how Israel is portrayed in the media and how Israel treats American Jews.

The survey also shows that Jews in Israel and America share a sense of belonging to the same community. In the 2013 Pew survey of U.S. Jews (page 82), 69 percent said they feel attached to Israel and 87 percent said that caring about Israel is either essential or important to what being Jewish means to them personally. Now, we find that three quarters of Israeli Jews say they share a common destiny with American Jews, and almost two thirds say American Jews have a good influence on Israel. Clearly, these two communities feel deeply connected to one another.

How these communities utilize this connection to influence one another will continue to be a question that drives much of the passionate discourse in the Jewish world. Does the Diaspora have the power to influence Israelis to make compromises? Can Israeli Jews build programs to help U.S. Jewry fight assimilation? It’s unclear.

What is crystal clear, however, is that the two communities want to continue hugging and wrestling with one another. We are not sick of each other yet, and that, in its small way, is a source of hope for the future of the Jewish world.