In his article in the current issue of Commentary Magazine, Daniel Gordis of the Shalem College in Jerusalem continues a theme he developed in the winter issue of the Jewish Review of Books in which he seeks to unravel what went wrong with the Conservative Movement, which has seen its place on the American scene reach its current nadir. Coming from a position where almost 50 percent of American Jews were affiliated with the Conservative movement in the 1950s, based on the data provided by last year’s Pew Study, it has now plummeted to 18 percent, and dropping fast.
Gordis’ new piece is very self-effacing and honest, particularly given his own deep-seated family background and personal involvement in the Conservative movement. As Gordis correctly asserts in his opening section: “…the Pew study’s results provoked broader and deeper soul-searching—on the degree to which American Jews now view Judaism more as a culture than a religion, on the extent to which Christian belief is making its way in Jewish life… and on the growing portion of American Jews who refuse to identify with any of the movements that have been the bedrock of American Jewish religious life.”
The seriousness of this problem, however, and with much of the writing that has emerged from the Pew database, is the urgent need to begin to recommend changes whereby diaspora Jewry can reconstitute itself in the future. While this is critically important, it gives Israel and Israelis and their Judaism almost a total pass in what has happened to their Judaism.
Israel today in the eyes of many is a country of citizens who would be, as President Shimon Peres always used to dream about, just like Singapore. The problem, of course, is that Israel is not like any other country and even if one accepts the correctness of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s assertion that Israel must be recognized as a Jewish State — a State for Jews — this is not the Jewishness that Pew found lacking in the belief systems of diaspora Jews. Secular Israelis, as Gordis mentions, are cultural citizens of an historical land but, for the majority, have little in the way of a religious life.
Secular Israelis are no more, and perhaps less, Jewish than affiliated Jews in the States. While they live in Israel, their Jewish education is acknowledged by most observers to be very weak. No one is speaking about secular Israelis needing to be Talmudic or rabbinic scholars, but their lack of knowledge of the history of the Jewish people prior to the establishment of the State, or at least prior to Herzl, is abysmal.
American Jews have a big problem with intermarriage, but Israel has one of its own because of the stranglehold that the haredi rabbinate has evolved on matters involving personal status. Marriage, birth, divorce, death, etc., all require the acquiescence of the institutionalized rabbinical authorities, many of whom barely speak to other rabbis, let alone non-haredi Jews.
Gordis is extremely effective in addressing American Jews’ failures which are well known, but it would clearly behoove him and his Israeli critics to do some major house-keeping at home. Ari Shavit, in “My Promised Land,” his impressive and painful analysis of the internal tensions and confrontations in Israel, knows what he forgot about his own people’s heritage and perhaps, as a child of Western olim, taught his children; but he never addresses the absence of a serious Jewish (not Israeli) education that Israeli children experience. For secular Israelis today, Passover is the time of year where the planes are full bringing diaspora Jews to Israel and taking Israeli Jews on vacation.
It is time for the astute Israeli analysts to stop pointing their fingers solely at American Jews, urging them to make Aliyah to solve all diaspora’s problems. They need to seriously examine what kind of Jewish State they are presenting to themselves, their children, and world Jewry.