Photo: A member of the audience wears a United States-Israel themed custom suit during an AIPAC convention in Washington. Source: TOM BRENNER/REUTERS.
Published in the March 6, 2023 issue of the Jerusalem Report.
An article published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies stated, “Many American Jews have simply stopped caring about Israel and Judaism. According to a 2020 study, only 4% of American Jewish voters identify Israel as their first or second most important election issue,“ overwhelmingly prioritizing domestic concerns.
Most American Jews view Judaism through the prism of religion, whether they partake in the faith or not. Many American Jews intermarry, do not belong to a synagogue, and are minimally religious in any traditional sense. Many are not significantly different than American Jewry in the early 20th century, and are uncomfortable about or openly hostile toward Zionism, the nationalist dimension of Judaism. Before World War II, the reason was the fear of being accused of dual loyalty. Today, it is because contemporary Zionism lives in a modern democratic state and is particular in its identity, not the universalism of multi-ethnic America.
Those who graduated from universities after 1967, when Israel morphed from a victim into a victor, see Israel through a different lens than their parents’ generation. The post-’67 professors became overwhelmingly progressive and evolved from educators into activists. They convinced unsuspecting students that Israel was not a liberal cause because it was an imperialistic, racist, apartheid project that needed to be challenged, if not uprooted. The lack of knowledge of Jewish history and tradition that afflicts most of American Jewry contributed to this anti-Zionist approach being ineffectively challenged.
To those American Jews of yesteryear, before the rise of the Nazis and today’s politically liberal American Jews, Judaism is primarily a religion. Ironically, this gives succor to anti-Zionists who also claim Judaism is nothing more than a religion, in an attempt to erase the 3,000-year history of Jews in the Levant and delegitimize the national dimension of Judaism.
But ask yourself, if Judaism is only about religion, then how can you be an atheist and still be Jewish? You cannot if you are a Muslim or many other religions.
What is ignored, or at least under-appreciated by American Jewry, is that Judaism in the 21st century, and for millennia before, is not only a religion but a people, nationality, civilization, and tradition that encompasses many cultural elements because of their diverse diasporas. Religion was the glue that bonded disparate Jews, as was the hope for a return to Zion, Jerusalem.
In America today, Orthodox Jews and the ever-decreasing number of religiously liberal Jews who care about religion or belong to any denomination do see Judaism in its totality. I say this as a member of the Conservative movement which, to my regret, is diminishing in the US despite having so much to offer.
In Israel, Jews cross the whole spectrum. From secular Left and Right-wing Zionists to ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists to the largest group, traditional Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews who lean Right. Most American Jews are Ashkenazi and don’t appreciate the beautiful cross-section of Israelis who are part of the miracle of the ingathering of the exiles of the Jewish nation.
Most American Jews think they understand Israelis, yet may have never even visited Israel. American Jews tell me they know Israel because their cousin lives in Tel Aviv. Or they tell me their Israeli friend who left Israel 40 years ago really knows, even if he has no Jewish associations, belongs to no house of worship, and prays at the church of progressivism or capitalism.
What American Jewry does not understand or make an attempt to appreciate is that in Israel, the vast majority of the people feel very Jewish, whether they are a hi-tech person in Tel Aviv who abhors Orthodox Judaism or a Religious Zionist living anywhere in Israel or anything in between. They remain very Jewish because they live in a Jewish state, speak Hebrew, follow a Jewish calendar, fight in a Jewish army, and marry Jewish if for no other reason than four out of five citizens are Jewish. That is a prescription for Jewish survival.
American Jewry is becoming ever more hostile to Israel because it does not reflect the idealized image of what a Western style democracy implanted in the hostile Middle East should be. Their indifference, non-Zionism, and in the case of Peter Beinart and his progressive ilk who are anti-Zionists, have much more in common with the ultra-Orthodox communities they disparage in both Israel and the US, who also believe Israel shouldn’t exist. One for messianic reasons, the other for progressivism.
This brings us to the apocalyptic cries that Israel is becoming a fascist state from American liberal Jewry, the Israeli Left, and a good part of the Israeli center. Three people I highly respect – Yossi Klein Halevi, Matti Friedman, and Danny Gordis, all true Zionists– penned “An open letter to Israel’s friends in North America, to speak out against a government that is undermining our society’s cohesion and its democratic ethos.”
Much of what they say is true. However, they gave very short shrift to why changes are needed in Israel’s judiciary. What American Jews are unaware of is that Israel does not have a constitution but only Basic Laws. Israel’s court system was respected and apolitical until the mid-1990s when it profoundly changed under Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak. He turned the judiciary into an activist court despite not having a constitution and created the precedent to overrule the Knesset whenever the court felt a decision was “unreasonable.”
If the direction of Barak’s court were conservative, not liberal, the American Jewish Diaspora and the Israeli Left would have been in an uproar. The ends don’t justify the means. Because the activist Israeli court reflected the majority of American Jewish liberal political leanings, American Jewry put it on a pedestal. Most Israeli people felt estranged by the court’s direction, which did not reflect their values, and asked for judicial reforms for a quarter of a century but was ignored.
What Israel needs is a constitution, but that won’t happen. It requires an updated political system that raises the threshold for Knesset seats, stops parties from joining together to rig the system, and perhaps again votes directly for the PM. However, that is unlikely to happen any time soon.
But what can and should occur, but only with care, moderation, and consensus, is a change in how the parliament deals with laws the court deems unconstitutional or, as they say, unreasonable. That should be the goal, but it is up to Israelis to decide. Their proposal for a simple majority to overrule the Supreme Court is dangerous. But perhaps no different from what happened in the US when Democratic Senator Harry Reid laid the precedent of blowing up the “nuclear option,” allowing US Supreme Court justices to be confirmed with a simple majority. Again, this a wrong choice that has come back to bite liberals when there is a Republican Senate and president.
Israeli society, like the US, is divided and hears but does not listen. We Jews need to get out of our echo chambers and respect different points of view and compromise. The Second Temple was destroyed because of intra-Jewish acrimony.
From a Zionist who loves Israel but resides in America, the idea of a 70-vote majority in the Knesset to overturn Supreme Court decisions is something to be considered. Reforms to end the practice of allowing current judges to choose their successors aren’t unreasonable. In the US, our Supreme Court members are selected by politicians. Israel could do better by incorporating different groups in the decision process. This is not the end of democracy but a reasonable choice. Israel, like the US, is a beautiful, exceptional experiment in democracy that needs to be cherished, balancing precedent with new realities.
Former attorney-general and Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, writing for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, rightly cautions that the destruction of the judiciary is easy; but rebuilding a new one is hard. He urges Justice Minister Yariv Levin and, ultimately, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to “engage in a thorough discussion of his proposals with the president of the Supreme Court and public jurists and explore his proposal on ‘positions of trust’ with an open mind…. The weakening of the legal system that would result from the enactment of Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s (current) proposals would represent a weakening of the State of Israel.”
The decision to reform the courts is a strategic decision that will affect not only Israel’s internal workings but will have repercussions for the military, diplomacy, and economic outlook for Israel’s future. Changes should be deliberated and not taken purely for political considerations but for the good of the nation’s future.
For American liberal Jews who legitimately feel rejected by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox system, keep on fighting and lobbying the Israeli government to accept their conversions and their ability to marry Israelis under a more moderate Halachic law, the way Israel used to be under Rav Abraham Isaac Kook or chief rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog before the haredim were allowed to take over religious decisions.
The place to begin is for American and Israeli Jewry to look inward and reevaluate why we have succeeded and are now so argumentative, unwilling to see the humanity of the other. Israel’s large majority of secular and traditional Jews need to find a place for liberal American Jewry.
For American Jews, we must begin by educating ourselves about Judaism, not only as a religion but as a people with the absolute legitimacy of its national dimension, Israeli. We need Israel to be strong, Jewish, and democratic for our survival.