Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of education and diaspora affairs, is deeply worried about us.
He told the 2,400 delegates of the AJC Global Forum meeting in Jerusalem last week that “if there’s one thing that keeps me up at night, it’s not Iran but the future of the Jews in America, and we have to fix this together.”
Bennett said he sees the main goal of his diaspora Jewry portfolio as “saving the Jews,” asserting that “if we don’t act urgently, we’re going to be losing millions of Jews to assimilation.”
I appreciate Bennett’s concern and sincerity, and I share his deep anxiety about the future of an American Jewish community in which the majority of young liberal Jews are intermarrying, with many becoming more distant from Israel as well as from Jewish tradition. But I think Bennett and his fellow coalition members should take some responsibility for their own actions — on personal-status issues and other key policies — when assessing the growing rift between Israeli and U.S. Jews. And take a page out of the American Jewish playbook when it comes to values like religious pluralism and commitment to democratic principles.
Most directly, there is the matter of non-Orthodox Jews, who make up the great majority of American Jewry, feeling like second-class citizens in Israel. Since statehood in 1948, personal rites like marriage, divorce, conversion and burial are under the auspices of the increasingly fundamentalist Chief Rabbinate. It was the current government in Jerusalem, which Bennett serves, that reneged two years ago on a long-sought compromise on equal space for prayer at the Western Wall, a hugely symbolic issue to many Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist diaspora Jews. At the same time the Netanyahu coalition, swayed by its charedi (ultra-Orthodox parties), hardened its position on conversions.
I think Bennett and his fellow coalition members should take some responsibility for their own actions — on personal-status issues and other key policies… And take a page out of the American Jewish playbook when it comes to values like religious pluralism and commitment to democratic principles.
That double whammy convinced many in the liberal denominations that the Netanyahu government either didn’t understand or care about what those setbacks meant to the majority of Jews in the world.
Bennett, who has described himself, perhaps half-kiddingly, as “essentially Minister of the Jews,” does understand and care about diaspora Jewry more than most of his Knesset colleagues. He lived in Teaneck, N.J., as a youngster and often speaks of the profound impact the beginner’s minyan at Modern Orthodox Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side had on him and his wife years later when they lived in New York.
He has also noted that his parents led secular lives in the U.S. 50 years before making aliyah and becoming observant.
As a result of his experiences, Bennett has been outspoken in asserting that “after 70 years of the diaspora Jews helping Israel, it is time for Israel to help diaspora Jews.” He cited two reasons: the moral imperative of helping “maintain Jewish identity and as a “strategic investment” in shoring up support for the Jewish state.
In 2013, Bennett sought to resolve the dispute over equal prayer for all at the Western Wall by coming up with his own compromise plan. He ordered the hasty construction of a platform at Robinson’s Arch, technically part of the Western Wall but far removed from its main plaza, to be designated as an egalitarian prayer space. It still is today, though underutilized. Critics said the plan was too little, too late in the ongoing dispute, and they continue to call for fully equal rights of prayer at the main Kotel area.
After the government went back on its Kotel pledge in June 2017, Bennett noted that the move was seen as “a slap in the face” to American Jews and acknowledged that “mistakes were made regarding timing and the way things were done” in the decision. But he also blamed the American outcry on misunderstandings and “a campaign of misinformation” as well as a “false” claim that the Kotel was being closed to diaspora Jews. (None of the liberal religious groups here made such a claim.)
More troubling are the statements from some leading rabbis in Israel who maintain that Reform Jews are not really Jewish and don’t believe in the holiness of the Kotel. And Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau criticized Bennett in December 2015 for visiting the Conservative Solomon Schechter day school in Manhattan, asserting that “to speak deliberately with a specific community and to recognize it and its path, when this path distances Jews from the path of the Jewish people, this is forbidden.” Bennett’s office responded: “Minister Bennett is proud that he is concerned for all Jews because they are Jewish and will continue to meet Jews from all denominations.” (Incidentally, the Israeli press noted that Rabbi Lau visited a co-ed, community day school in Washington, D.C., six weeks before the Bennett visit.)
Too Orthodox An Approach?
Beyond religious issues, the deepening rift between Israeli and American Jews has much to do with Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians. Younger Jews in particular feel they must choose between their Western values affirming human rights and equality, and their commitment to Jerusalem, whose government is seen as prolonging the Israel-Palestinian standoff. Concerns about the future of the West Bank settlements, peace initiatives and treatment of Palestinians are an obstacle to full-throated support of Israel among many millennials.
Bennett leads the Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), an Orthodox party affiliated with the settler movement. It opposes a two-state solution, a position that may keep many liberal Jews up at night.
But even as the Israeli government continues to move rightward, Bennett has sought to promote initiatives to bolster Jewish life in the diaspora, though his record of accomplishment is mixed. Four years ago, he made headlines in announcing a World Jewry Initiative, with the cabinet designating about $50 million for diaspora programming. Despite all the hype, the project floundered. It was reincarnated in 2016 as Mosaic United, which receives funding from three partners: one-third from the Israeli government, through Bennett’s diaspora affairs ministry; one-third from private philanthropists; and one-third from Chabad, Olami (affiliated with Aish Hatorah) and Hillel International.
More than $60 million was spent on initial grants to 16 outreach centers on college campuses, mostly in the U.S., providing programs to “strengthen Jewish identity and connection to Israel,” according to the diaspora affairs office. A group of about 100 American rabbis and students issued a statement calling on Hillel to withdraw from Mosaic United. The critics were upset that most of the funds were for Orthodox programs and that they “impose” Bennett’s “anti-pluralistic agenda in Jewish communities” on campus, according to their statement.
Earlier this year, Bennett proposed a plan that would have the Israeli government help subsidize the expense of Jewish day schools and summer camps in the U.S. for families that cannot afford them. The idea was for the government to allocate 1 percent of the state budget annually — about $1 billion this year — for projects that promote “the future of the Jewish people,” according to Bennett. That’s about seven times more than Israel spends now on promoting Jewish life in the diaspora.
Knesset observers said the plan may take several years to receive approval.
Learn From Us, Too
I give credit to Bennett for focusing on the needs of diaspora Jewry, though his emphasis on Orthodox programs would have limited impact on the majority of his target audience.
As long as he and his coalition colleagues view American Jewry as dying — a patient that can only be saved by an infusion of Orthodox kiruv (outreach) — the disconnect between our two communities will continue, and increase.
It’s true that assimilation is taking a heavy toll, but there are plenty of signs in American Jewish life of passion and creativity, from start-up congregations to social-justice initiatives, which signal sparks of renewal as well.
“By predicting imminent doom,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former president of the Reform movement, wrote recently in a thoughtful essay in Haaretz, “Bennett is feeding into the Netanyahu tendency to dismiss American Jewry rather than engage it.”
Rather than just trying to revive what he sees as a vanishing American Jewish community, let him bring more of its values of equality and respect to a range of Israeli issues.
At least in private conversations, the prime minister has made clear that his strategy is to garner support from tens of millions of evangelical Christians, along with an increasingly muscular and growing Orthodox Jewish community. By that calculation, he doesn’t really need, and isn’t counting on, Jews in the liberal denominations. So why accommodate them on the Kotel or conversion issues and risk being toppled by a charedi-driven coalition?
The realpolitik-driven Netanyahu who seems ready to dismiss the demands of the majority of the diaspora doesn’t fit with the prime minister who sees himself as the leader of world Jewry.
Bennett has the diaspora Jewry portfolio and he takes it seriously, offering creative proposals and projects. But rather than just trying to revive what he sees as a vanishing American Jewish community, let him bring more of its values of equality and respect to a range of Israeli issues. That would include:
♦ challenging a Chief Rabbinate that is giving a bad name to Orthodox Judaism and should be engaging would-be converts rather than turning them away;
♦ speaking out against coalition members who damage Israel’s image as a caring society by seeking to demean and deport African immigrants rather than provide a safe haven for them;
♦ and taking a proactive position toward the Palestinians, actively seeking a reasonable and responsible solution rather than allowing the status quo to further erode the toxic relationship and endanger the prospect of a two-state solution.
Unless and until these changes come about, I, along with many other caring American Jews, will be having sleepless nights — along with Naftali Bennett, but not for the same reasons. It’s time we all woke up, here and in Israel, and dedicated ourselves to doing a better job of understanding and working with each other.