The schism between Israel and American Jews is at a “crisis point” with a growing number of Jews coming to realise that the dream of a Jewish and democratic state respecting liberal values has been shattered. In remarks that reveal extreme disillusion at the direction that the country is taking, Jewish-Americans have described their “horror” at watching Israel under the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu. They fear that Israel in its current manifestation has turned its back on Jewish values and Jewish communities outside the country.
At the heart of the schism is the tension between Israel’s move towards the far-right and its open display of “fascistic” tendencies, as one Jewish professor put it while exploring the reasons why the two communities are growing apart. “The history of Jews as promoters of enlightenment and universalist values… is drawing to a close,” wrote Professor Eva Illouz in Haaretz. Her article pits “the state of Israel” against “the Jewish people”. Illouz, from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said that she was “stunned” by the new alliances between Israel and populist politicians characterised by ethno-nationalism and racism.
She believes that Israel’s alliance with the likes of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban — who the sociology professor denounced for legitimising anti-Semitism — and its affinity with populist right-wing figures across the world, is driving a deep wedge between diaspora Jews with the state that claims to represent them. Illouz predicts that Israel will cease to be the “centre of gravity of the Jewish world” and suggests that a handful of Jewish billionaires and ultra-Orthodox Jews will be the only ones left supporting the state, while the vast majority of Jews worldwide will abandon the country that was once viewed so fondly.
Echoing Illouz, Rabbi Danny Zemel, who is described as “Zionist royalty” in the Washington Post, cited the nationalism and the growth of an ultra-Orthodox brand of Judaism — which he says is alien to the historical Jewish experience — for the growing split between Israel and American Jews.
Listing his grievances against Israel, Zemel, whose grandfather led the Zionist Organisation of America in the late 1930s, told his congregation last week that “the ongoing merger of this vehement nationalism wed to this biblical Orthodoxy, the growth in the boisterous ideology and violence of some of the settlers and the settler movement attacks on Palestinian Arabs and their property” were reasons to believe that Netanyahu is an enemy of Zionism. Indeed, Zemel believes that Netanyahu is dissolving America’s bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in favour of an unstable alliance of Christian and Jewish extremists and wealthy conservatives such as Sheldon Adelson. The traditional enlightened progressive values that glued Israel with diaspora Jewish communities is collapsing.
While many critics of Israel would describe its lurch to the far-right as a natural evolution of Zionism, Zemel tried to defend Zionist ideals by making a clear distinction between his version of Zionism and the state of Israel under Netanyahu which he claims is “anti- Zionist”. Explaining what many would say is a puzzling opinion of the Israeli Prime Minister, Zemel said that the Israeli government was no longer Zionist because it has aligned itself with “unacceptable” nations and movements. “It has separated itself from the bulk of world Jewry and rejected our Judaism and our moral posture,” he explained. “The current government in Jerusalem has made common cause with the leaders of other countries including those who are Holocaust deniers, stir anti-Semitic sentiments in their own countries and made public statements in admiration of Adolf Hitler. These governmental actions are so outrageous no one could make them up.”
Rabbi Zemel called on fellow Jews to “embark on a struggle to save Israel from itself.” In his estimation, the current state of Israel is “humiliating the large minority living in it” and is not a Jewish and a democratic state.
The strength of anti-Israel feelings amongst some American Jews has convinced normally loyal Jewish communities to abandon their annual fundraising for the state. Speaking about the widening fissure between Israel and Jews in America, veteran journalist Thomas L Friedman said that Israel does not recognise the Jewish community of which he is part. In his remarks, which were reported by Haaretz last week, the New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist added, “If Israel doesn’t respect what we do in the diaspora, and our way of life, why should we raise money for it?” He claimed that similar questions were being asked in synagogues across the US.
The rift described by Friedman grabbed international attention in the summer when a conservative rabbi was detained by Israeli police for presiding over a non-Orthodox Jewish wedding. The incident, Haaretz said, was the first time that Israeli police had attempted to enforce a 2013 law forbidding the performance of weddings outside the Rabbinate, carrying a sentence of up to two years in prison. The rabbi’s detention took Jews living outside Israel by surprise. In the US, they are overwhelmingly non-Orthodox; they were outraged by the incident, which prompted much soul-searching and some to call for the dismantling of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel.
While Friedman’s specific gripe was with the Orthodox Jewish community in Israel, which seems to have more sway over the interpretation of Judaism than he would like, the crisis is much deeper. It has been described as “the greatest threat to the future of the Jewish people” by none other than the President of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald S Lauder.
Lauder deplored the manner in which progressive values have been jettisoned by the Netanyahu government, which he accused of “crush[ing] contemporary Jewish existence”. He expressed concerns over the “destructive actions” of the Israeli government. “For over 200 years, modern Judaism has aligned itself with enlightenment,” he pointed out. “The Jews of the new era have fused our national pride and religious affiliation with a dedication to human progress, worldly culture and morality. Conservatives and liberals, we all believe in a just Zionism and a pluralistic Judaism that respects every human being. So when members of Israel’s current government unintentionally undermine the covenant between Judaism and enlightenment, they crush the core of contemporary Jewish existence.”
In her assessment of the reasons for the chasm between Israel and American Jews, Professor Eva Illouz said, “For the majority of Jews outside Israel, human rights and the struggle against anti-Semitism are core values.” She believes that Netanyahu has deviated from this core value by offering enthusiastic support for authoritarian, anti-Semitic leaders. Illouz believes this to be a “profound shift in the state’s identity as a representative of the Jewish people.” Instead, it has become a country “that aims to advance its own expansion through seizure of land, violation of international law, exclusion and discrimination.” While this is not fascism per se, she insists that it is “certainly one of its most distinctive features.”