Has the struggle over preserving Jewish unity led, ironically, to an irrevocable division between Israel and American Jewry? That’s the view of some observers who say that, regardless of the outcome of the deliberations of the Neeman Committee, charged with satisfying Orthodox, Conservative and Reform religious demands in Israel, the relationship between the Jewish state and American Jewry will never be the same. The fear is that this controversy has spilled over beyond intra-Jewish debate and may result in reduced political support from Washington for Israel.As for the Neeman Committee, most insiders believe it is doomed. They say that with less than a month to go before the committee’s Jan. 31 deadline, the focus of the internal discussion has shifted from finding solutions agreeable to both Orthodox and liberal rabbis, to who to blame for the committee’s failure.
The word is that if the Reform group makes certain concessions, they will be rewarded by having the onus shifted to the Israeli chief rabbis; otherwise, the Reform will bear the onus for the split.But Yaakov Neeman just laughs when presented with these scenarios. Israel’s finance minister, who has devoted a great deal of time over the last six months to resolving this major crisis in Israeli-diaspora relations, seems downright sanguine about the outcome of his seven-member group’s deliberations.During a 45-minute, one-on-one interview in his Knesset office in Jerusalem on Dec. 24, in the midst of intense debate on the government’s budget, Neeman expressed confidence that his committee will reach an agreement by the end of this month and that it will be adopted by the chief rabbis and the government.
If so, it would be a monumental breakthrough for Jewish unity, avoiding either a Knesset bill that would allow only Orthodox rabbis to officiate at conversions in Israel or court cases seeking to grant recognition to non-Orthodox rabbis in the Jewish state.“Don’t be impressed by all the stories you are hearing,” a smiling, relaxed Neeman told me. “Everyone is trying to put the pressure on me, but you can see that I am not falling off my chair. This is not about compromise, but about reaching an understanding, and I am confident in the unity of the Jewish nation.”Last October, when the committee’s guidelines for dealing with conversion and marriage procedures were revealed — calling for non-Orthodox participation and halachic officiation — the chief rabbinate dismissed the proposals out of hand.
A crisis ensued, and was resolved only by extending the committee’s deliberations for three more months. Now that the deadline is approaching, how will the outcome differ?Neeman said that “there is more tolerance” within the committee, and implied that the chief rabbis have been consulted and would consent to the solution this time. He added that, despite calls from Reform leaders for a narrower, technical solution that would focus on how converts in Israel are registered, he is adamant about pursuing his more sweeping plan. “Administrative solutions won’t bring unity,” he said, “and I’m not looking for technical formulas” which will only delay inevitable conflicts.Bobby Brown, the prime minister’s adviser on Israel-diaspora affairs, told me this week that he remains optimistic about the Neeman Committee achieving its goal, though he would not rule out a technical solution. “The intention is to find a solution all can accept, but no side will be overjoyed,” he said.Some leading Israeli players are concerned, though, that no matter the specific outcome here, the genie cannot be put back into the bottle.
They insist that American Jews, in pushing Israel so hard toward non-Orthodox recognition, have shown that their support for the Jewish state is conditional — and they are jeopardizing Washington’s support for Israel as well.David Landau, the editor of the English edition of the respected Israeli daily, Haaretz, says that the lesson Israeli leaders are learning from this traumatic episode is that American Jewry cannot be wholly trusted. He warned a conference of Jewish journalists not to tamper with “the basic nexus connecting us to the Jewish religion.”
In a dramatic confrontation several weeks ago, Dore Gold, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, told a group of American Jewish leaders that their pressure on Israel over religious pluralism could have a negative impact on the peace process. He said that members of Congress were following the religious controversy keenly, and could come away with confused signals, concluding that their support for Israel need not be unlimited.Participants at the conference angrily challenged Gold’s assertions, insisting that the issues they were raising about religious freedom in the Jewish state go to the heart of Israel’s definition of itself as a society and its relations with world Jewry.The ambassador, increasingly angry himself, replied that while American Jewish blood runs through his veins — he grew up as a Conservative Jew in Hartford, Conn. — he would never put the state of Israel at risk over a matter of personal status.
The stand-off persists, in part, because of the deep chasm that exists between American Jewry, where individual freedoms are paramount, and Israel, whose emphasis is on the collective. Are we, through the Neeman Committee, seeking a way for Israeli society to hold together, or a way for individual Jews to feel connected to Israel? And are these approaches mutually exclusive?Before we can reach solutions, we have to frame the debate in a way that highlights our differences, our expectations, and just how much is at stake here.