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.
Have a listen to me on Russian News from minute 33.
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.
On Monday, January 25, Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz, one of the big philanthropists in the Jewish world, stood before the top rabbis in Lakewood, New Jersey at a fundraising dinner for the largest yeshiva in America, and delivered a speech that shook the ultra-Orthodox community to its core.
In a passionate and thoughtful way, he railed against the elitism in the community that, in his words, “bordered on bloodshed” toward its youth: Young children have been left without elementary schools to attend, more than five weeks into the term. Parents have gone begging, crying to administrators and donors to get their kids into any school so as to avoid facing the shame of being excluded. Yet the schools are caving to the pressure of certain parents who urge them not to accept the children of certain members of the community, lest it lower the quality of education for their own children.
Rechnitz condemned the Lakewood community, stating: “No other out-of-town community would ever allow a child to be left without a school. In Los Angeles, if a child wouldn’t have a school the first day, the whole community would be all over it. The same thing would happen in Baltimore, Chicago and Toronto or anywhere else.”
As his speech goes on, Rechnitz moves from the theme of schools to the paralyzing nature of judgment within the community. Here, Rechnitz accused the ultra-Orthodox in Lakewood of twisting religiosity and the minutia of religious practice into an idol, forgetting that there is value in every single Jew.
I find it hard to concentrate on any online video that is over 4 minutes (the destruction of my attention span – and that of my young adult peers – is particularly worrying), but I was so riveted by Rechnitz’s speech that I sat through all 52 minutes of it.
As someone who works in and around the field of philanthropy, I have never seen such truth being told to such power. In popular thought, it is those with the money who are the powerful, and the grantees who must follow their lead. Yet, in American ultra-Orthodox communities, while the donor is honored, it is the rabbinical authorities that are the centers of power. Yet here was a donor respectfully challenging a dais full of the leaders of the most prominent ultra-Orthodox community in America about the detriment they have caused to their community.
Watching the speech again, I am still stunned.
In Jewish and Israeli newspapers, mega-philanthropists are often accused of twisting Jewish communal discourse to their political world view; whether it’s the right pointing to George Soros or the left pointing to Sheldon Adelson. Rechnitz’s speech shows the best of what a committed, dedicated and brave philanthropist can do when motivated. Indeed, he did not just moan, but committed another $1.5 million to building inclusive schools.
Rachnitz’s speech sent shockwaves through the ultra-Orthodox community in Lakewood, but that did not deter him. He sent a letter apologizing for the harsh nature of his speech, yet emphasizing the theme of elitism, saying that those who hold themselves and their children above others and push communal institutions to exclude those who they perceive as less “frum” (religious) are destroying a beautiful community.
The passion, commitment and urgency of Rechnitz’s intervention are something that the rest of the Jewish community would do well to remember, and emulate, as we look at the crisis of the affordability of Jewish day schools.
As Jewish Americans continue to struggle with the issues surrounding philanthropists’ role within our structures, Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz stands as an example of Jewish giving at its best.