Why Israeli Voters Are Sounding Like American Jews
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Editorial

Why Israeli Voters Are Sounding Like American Jews

The American Jewish community has a stake, but not a say, in Israeli elections.

Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman is trying to break Orthodox control of lifecycle events. Getty Images
Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman is trying to break Orthodox control of lifecycle events. Getty Images

Israeli politics, as electrifying and complex as the country itself, can be vexing for American Jews. As we are so often reminded, we have a stake in a modern Israel, a touchstone in our communal and religious lives. The decisions Israeli voters make affect our own community in myriad ways.

And yet, we are also reminded, sometimes in undiplomatic language, that we are not Israelis: We don’t vote in their elections, serve in their military or pay their taxes. Our input, especially when it includes criticism, can be seen as meddling by a distant community that doesn’t live and die by the decisions made in Jerusalem.

This argument is sometimes made disingenuously: Politicians who reject the voice of the diaspora grassroots class are happy to accept financial and logistical support from powerful American Jewish philanthropists — and those American leaders are happy to give it.

When the issues include the safety and security of Israelis, the argument for restraint is well taken. There are issues, however, where we have every right — indeed, an obligation — to speak out forcefully, clearly and respectfully about the issues that surround and shape our connection to the Jewish state. Pluralism and respect for the broad religious and political spectrum defining American Jewry is one such issue.

After two indecisive elections this year and a third on the way, those issues are deeply in play. As Stewart Ain reports in this issue, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, poised to play a kingmaker role in the current maneuvering, sees the electoral turmoil as an opportunity to advance his efforts to loosen Orthodox control over religious life in the Jewish state. That’s an emotional issue for the American Jewish community, especially for the liberal movements that increasingly feel written out of the very fabric of the Israeli miracle. Some Modern Orthodox rabbis have also bristled at the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s monopolistic and sometimes capricious hold over issues like conversion.

Israeli opinion polls show that a majority has come to see pluralism as an important issue. These are Jews who want to get married on their own terms, or resent religious coercion in the public space, or, like Lieberman, want to reduce military exemptions for charedi Orthodox Jews.

Considering the politics typical of the diaspora Jews who support the push for pluralism, Lieberman is an unlikely champion: His hawkish views and record of inflammatory comments about Israeli Arabs put him at odds with an American Jewish majority that remains hopeful, if not optimistic, about finding an eventual route to a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians.

Nevertheless, support for Lieberman’s pluralism platform demonstrates the healthy and useful ways American Jews have engaged with Israel, and not just as tourists and fundraisers. It is not for us to weigh in on the complex maneuvering taking place in the frustrating quest for stable, effective leadership. But we certainly deserve a say on decisions that will have a major impact on how new generations of American Jews view their connection to the Jewish state.

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