What Now? In the Aftermath of the Israeli Elections


Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch   April 29, 2019

What Now? In the Aftermath of the Israeli Elections



TO: Reform Movement Rabbis and Leaders 

SUBJECT: What Now? In the Aftermath of the Israeli Elections


Executive Summary

There are three long-term trends degrading the relationship between American Jews and Israel: The unsolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ultra-Orthodox control over religious life in Israel; and the dilution of American-Jewish identity.

This memorandum makes three central recommendations to improve the relationship between Israel and American Jews in the aftermath of the Israeli election:

  1. Look for ways to work with the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to support the growth of the Reform movement in Israel;
  2. Establish a high-level commission charged with submitting educational and programmatic proposals that will better integrate Zionist principles and love for the state of Israel into the lifeblood of our North American movement; and
  3. Mandate financial contributions to the underfunded Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), preferably through the Union for Reform Judaism’s congregational membership tax system. 

I. Analysis 

  1. The Challenge

Three long-term trends degrade the relationship between American Jews and Israel. The results of the Israeli election foretell increasing tension and further distancing in the years ahead:

i.) The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict 

Israelis perceive the Israeli-Palestinian conflict differently than American Jews. Most Israelis view the struggle primarily as a security challenge. Israelis are still traumatized by the Palestinian intifada, and in election after election support security-minded parties over those promising negotiation.

Overwhelmingly, Israelis do not consider the Palestinian Authority a partner for peace, and, in any case, Hamas remains implacably opposed to the very existence of the Jewish state.

On the other hand, Western liberals view the unresolved Palestinian conflict primarily as a moral crisis. Increasingly, they view the struggle as a stronger occupying power subjugating and oppressing a weak people. They view Israeli security concerns as secondary or illegitimate – an excuse to occupy Palestinian lands. Israel is a nuclear power with one of the strongest militaries in the world, they say – little consolation to Israeli citizens who rush to bomb shelters on a regular basis.

ii) Ultra-Orthodox Control

The Haredi monopolization of religious life in Israel, and its profound opposition to liberal Judaism, is taking its toll – as we warned it would for decades.

For most non-Orthodox and non-religious Israeli Jews, daily life in the Jewish state establishes and fortifies Jewish identity. Living in Israel is enough to ensure Jewish continuity even for irreligious Jews. Israel is the only country in the world where Jewish continuity is assured, even for those who describe themselves as secular. 

In contrast, American Jews identify with the Jewish people mostly through religion. Synagogue affiliation and ritual observance are the key ways to measure Jewish commitment and to sustain Jewish identity. Israeli governments that constantly disrespect, demonize, and disenfranchise non-Orthodox rabbis and institutions damage both the efforts to sustain Jewish continuity, as well as Israel’s relationship with diaspora Jews. If affiliation with, and education by, Reform and Conservative synagogues is the central way to build American Jewish identification with Israel, the last thing Israel should want to do is to undermine these institutions.

iii) Dilution of American Jewish Identity

We are in a monumental struggle for the soul of liberal Judaism. As measured by actual numbers of Jews, we are losing. While there are some creative, energetic, and sustained efforts throughout North America designed to stem the losses – and these might pay off over time – as of now we have not reversed the retreating tide. Our own budgets and memberships tell the story. There are substantially fewer Reform Jews affiliated with fewer Reform synagogues than there were 20 years ago. Liberal Jewish identity is weakening in America. As Jewish identity weakens, so too, American Jewish attachment to Israel weakens.

Israel is not the primary cause of the dilution of American Jewish identity. For sure, there are steps that it could take that would help us. In some cases, Israeli policies have even made it more difficult for us. But even if full religious pluralism and equal public funding for all religious streams in Israel were to materialize next week, and even if peace were to break out with the Palestinians and all of Israel’s neighbors next month, diaspora Jews would still be increasingly alienated from Israel.

The reason is that, fundamentally, a strong and positive relationship with Israel transcends politics or policies. It rests on Jewish commitment. Anyone who has spent any time with American Jews knows that the degree of their identification with Israel correlates with the degree of their identification with Judaism. Identification with Israel is the consequence of Jewish identity, not its cause – especially among younger Jews. American Jews identify with Israel if they identify with Judaism. If they do not identify with Judaism, they tend not to have strong feelings for Israel. 

All three of these trends are likely to intensify in the years ahead. In the short term, at least, it is difficult to imagine a successful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the Administration’s “deal of the century” notwithstanding. Similarly, it is likely that Haredi parties will continue to play key roles in future Israeli coalitions. And, in the short term at least, we are we unlikely to reverse the tide of the drip-drip dilution of American liberal Jewish identity, despite our sincere and energetic efforts, and despite some local successes.

Therefore, increasing tension between American Jews and Israel, increasing alienation, and further distancing are likely.

  1. Criticizing Israel

Of course, it is legitimate to criticize Israeli policies. Relationships of love, inter-dependency and support require tochacha– rebuke. It is as acceptable and as legitimate for American Jews to criticize Israeli policies as it is for Israelis to criticize American-Jewish policies. However, in our criticism of Israel we must take into account that we operate in a different context than our Israeli colleagues. They are Zionists. They are Israeli citizens. They are part of a domestic context that requires loyal democratic opposition.

Here, in the United States and throughout the West, we interact with a progressive world that is often hostile to Israel. Some support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Some in the BDS movement are anti-Semitic. This does not mean that we should not be critical of Israeli policies. It does, however, bestow upon us the obligation to know how our criticism is received. Whether it is our intention or not, our words are often taken out of context to support a narrative promoted by Israel’s enemies, that describes Israel as uniquely unjust or immoral.

With respect to the recent Israeli election:

As a movement, of course we are entitled to take formal positions and issue statements on this or that policy. It is legitimate to lobby both in the United States and in Israel for our views.

That said, Israel’s recent elections were open, free, and fair. The turnout rate was higher than in the United States and other Western democracies. The results represent and constitute the will of the people. Israelis know everything we know. The majority voted for right-wing parties. Most Israelis want Benjamin Netanyahu to continue to lead Israel.

Therefore, a dose of self-reflection would be good for our relationship with Israel. It is worth considering why Israelis voted by a substantial majority for right-wing parties. Where you stand on issues often depends on where you sit. Perhaps proximity to Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran influences Israelis – even liberal Israelis – more than these influence liberal Americans. It is one thing to lament rocket fire from afar, from time to time issuing a press release of concern. It is quite another thing to grab your kids and run to a shelter in the middle of the night.

Most importantly, we cannot allow the nature and volume of our criticism to overwhelm our basic worldview. The American Reform movement is a Zionist movement.The Union for Reform Judaism board recently adopted the Jerusalem Program– the most comprehensive communal expression of Zionism in our times. We are committed to Israel, woven together by covenantal bonds of history and destiny. Love of Israel, admiration for her astonishing successes in so many areas of human endeavor, appreciation of the miracle of Jewish self-determination – these are among our central ideals. We have an obligation to convey these values to the Jewish and non-Jewish world. These are the principles we must instill in younger generations. We cannot allow the peripheral to drown out the essence.

II. Recommendations

  1. Partner with the Government

Look for ways to work with Prime Minister Netanyahu on projects of overlapping interests, standing firm in opposition when necessary, but willing to be flexible where possible.

Our mindset should be less confrontational and more collaborative. For example, the Kotel issue is relatively minor. Even if we receive everything we want – which is difficult to imagine – still, it will make little difference to our long-term goals in Israel. Netanyahu is the duly elected leader of Israel, and, early in his next tenure, will become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. When I met the prime minister in October 2018, he openly conceded the limitations placed upon him by the nature of coalition politics, but emphasized that he wants all Jews to feel embraced in Israel, and would like to see our presence grow. We should test him on this, proposing to his government detailed ways it can support the growth of the Israel Reform movement.  

  1. Recommit to the Reform Zionist Enterprise Educationally and Programmatically

Establish a high-level commission under the auspices of one of our national organizations, and charge it with submitting educational and programmatic proposals in the briefest time possible. We should evaluate everything – from curricula we use in our synagogues, schools and camps to our programs in Israel.

This is the time to recommit to the Zionist enterprise. We are in a crisis of historic proportions.Recently, members of the Birthright Israel professional staff visited me to lament the low number of participants from the Reform movement. They could not understand how “the largest movement of Jews in the United States” – as we describe ourselves – could no longer recruit enough young people to participate in the Birthright experience. How is it possible, they wondered, that we cannot encourage Reform college students and young adults to embark on a free trip to Israel!?

It is an ominous sign of weakening attachment to Israel. But not only that: It reflects the dilution of American-Jewish identity. 

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion should also conduct a thorough self-evaluation of all of its programs, with special emphasis on the year-in-Israel. If the central objective of the year-in-Israel is to foster a closer, richer, and longer-lasting relationship with the Jewish state, this objective should guide every element of the curriculum and every day of the year-in-Israel experience. If first year students devote much of their time in Israel to curricula and activities that they could be doing anywhere else in the world, why spend a year in Israel?

  1. Recommit to the Reform Zionist Enterprise Financially

Mandate financial contributions to the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) preferably through the URJ congregational membership tax system, the Reform Movement Affiliation Commitment (RMAC).

Our Israel movement is woefully underfunded and underdeveloped. “The largest movement of Jews in the United States” raises such meager amounts to build our Israel movement that even our friends and allies – those who are eager to see us succeed in Israel – are dumbfounded that as a movement we are unable to raise more money. It is noteworthy – and embarrassing - that we are much more willing to pressure federations and the Jewish Agency for Israel to fund our movement in Israel than we are to persuade URJ trustees, Reform rabbis, and synagogue boards.

It is inconsistent with our many public statements, resolutions, and platforms on Zionism. If we were to articulate three central principles of Reform Judaism, would not Israel be among them? If so, what are the responsibilities, including financial, on our constituents flowing therefrom? 

If we act collectively as a movement, each individual contribution need not be large. Consider this: If every household affiliated with a Reform congregation were to be taxed $36 a year – a dime a day – in our movement of 300,000 family units, we would be collecting over $10 million a year. We would look back a decade from now having raised and invested $100 million! If we were to halve that amount – a nickel a day – we would collect over $5 million a year.

If the URJ is unwilling or unable to tax every household affiliated with a URJ synagogue, every synagogue that considers Israel to be among its central ideological commitments should do so on its own by adding a line to synagogue dues for one of the projects of the IMPJ.

If even several dozen URJ-affiliated congregations were to embark upon this type of effort, the sum total amount collected would be a game-changer in Israel.

The politics of Reform rights predominates our internal discussions, our interactions with Israelis, and our messages to the movement. It is strategically wrong and implies weakness, not strength. We will never get what we want from abroad. Politics is local. The Haredi population has the votes, and on these issues, we do not. We have it backwards. It is not Reform rights first that will lead to a strong movement; it is the opposite: Build a movement first that will eventually lead to full religious pluralism. This is where we should spending most of our institutional time and organizational energies.

We cannot respond only – or primarily – through words. We need to focus on deeds – the hard, detailed, gritty, at-times unglamorous work of building institutions.

III. Final Thoughts

 None of us can predict the future. We do not know what will be the nature or quality of Israel-diaspora relations in the decades to come. We can surmise, however, that a combination of many different and historically unprecedented factors will contribute to the distancing of non-Orthodox American Judaism from Israel.

In light of this, the stakes are exceedingly high. We need a strong nationwide Reform presence in Israel for our own viability in North America. Israeli Progressive synagogues could be a model of liberal Zionism – an increasingly endangered species in North America. Israeli Progressive rabbis and communities can demonstrate to us, by word and by deed, that, contrary to the Western liberal ethos of the day, Zionism and liberalism are compatible.

Our North American movement began in the 20th century as anti-Zionist. I fear that the very trends that caused us to be antagonistic to the Zionist movement are reemerging in these early years of the 21st century. Like then, there is increasing discomfort amongst liberal Jews with the ideology of Jewish peoplehood. There is a tendency today to promote universalism as a more advanced stage of moral evolution than Jewish particularism, often viewed as narrow and chauvinistic. Increasingly, when we refer to “prophetic values,” we mean universal concerns, not as a function of Jewish peoplehood, but its negation. 

The irony is that while the Hebrew prophets were, of course, deeply concerned about peace, justice, righteousness, mercy, law and compassion, at no time did they abandon the Jewish particular in favor of the universal. To the contrary, the universal was a product of the particular. Universal aspirations emerged from, and were a result of, Jewish particularism. The impetus and urgency of prophetic morality were an outcome of the centrality of the Jewish people, not its negation.

The growing inclination of the Reform movement to de-emphasize Jewish particularism is the gravest threat to the future of Reform Judaism in North America. For what are the prospects of the continuity of the people if the people is not committed to its own distinctive continuity, and does not even agree philosophically that it is a legitimate objective and a social good? Is it possible to sustain the Jewish people without being committed to the Jewish people? Can Judaism exist without Jews?