In the wake of last week’s between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to deny entry to two U.S. congresswomen who are openly hostile to Israel, much of the reaction in the Jewish community was predictable.
“It is hard to know who is acting more recklessly today — Prime Minister Netanyahu by sacrificing Israel’s commitment to democracy and openness, or President Trump by injecting himself into a highly political argument just weeks before the upcoming Israel election,” proclaimed Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who represents Reform Jews, by far the largest swath of American Jewry.
Representing many Jews who support President Trump, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, asserted, “The ZOA supports Israel’s decision to refuse entry of Israelophobic Jew-haters Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar into Israel.”
The two statements signal the deep schism in Jewish life today. Yet while AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, and the centrist American Jewish Committee crafted carefully worded criticisms of Netanyahu’s decision, one of the few arenas of debate about his fraught action — and its possible troubling implications for Israel’s support in Congress — was most in play in one pocket of the Jewish community: Modern Orthodoxy. (Even that categorization, however, can be fluid on the Orthodox spectrum. Generally, it is seen as seeking to combine halachic observance and secular values).
“I detect a real division of opinion within the Modern Orthodox world,” said Steven Bayme, director of Jewish Communal Affairs at the American Jewish Committee. (Though Modern Orthodoxy makes up only 3 percent of American Jewry, its members’ activism in Jewish life and ties to Israel have put the movement in a unique position in the current political moment; 33 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews describe themselves as Democrats, with 27 percent Republican and 22 percent independent, according to AJC.)
Bayme said that in a Shabbat meal discussion with 10 other Modern Orthodox Jews, all believed Israel “made a mistake.”
“We all believed that Israel should have let them in, especially after [Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron] Dermer [initially] promised they would be let in,” he said.
On the other hand, he said he has spoken with “members of other Modern Orthodox shuls who said they felt Israel did the right thing. [President] Trump is very popular and if he was saying it was not a good idea to let them in, they lined up behind him in going that route. … There is not a single Modern Orthodox opinion.”
Although the two Democratic congresswomen, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, said the purpose of their trip was a fact-finding mission and that they believed they had a “constructive role to play,” critics pointed out that a sponsor of their visit was Miftah, a group that has been described as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.
The division in the Modern Orthodox community was evident at a synagogue in Atlanta last Shabbat attended by Deborah Lipstadt, a professor at Emory University. She said she spoke with a number of people there who said they were Trump supporters but who believe that banning the women from visiting Israel was a “screw up of major proportions.” The synagogue was formerly associated with the Young Israel movement but recently left the organization over its support of a Kahanist party’s inclusion in an Israeli right wing coalition.
Noting that Trump was trying to paint the two congresswomen as the “face of the Democratic Party,” Lipstadt said she disagrees with that portrayal. “I think they have engaged in some overtly anti-Semitic things, but I think this was handled very poorly,” she said.
Rabbi Kenneth Hain, spiritual leader of Beth Shalom Congregation in Lawrence, L.I., acknowledged a split in the Modern Orthodox community over whether Israel should have allowed in the two legislators.
“I advocate for maintaining mutual respect on both sides, but the divide is deep” on issues dealing with Trump and Israel. He said that, like other rabbinic colleagues, he tends to address such issues “obliquely from the pulpit. I find that it’s not productive either to bash or to promote — to get too political. I try to frame political issues in moral, religious terms in my sermons.”
The debate appears particularly animated in the millennial generation, some of whose members are perceived to be distancing themselves from Israel.
Yoseph Ehrenkranz, 23, who grew up in a Modern Orthodox community in Boston and now lives in the city, said he was upset with the decision to bar the congresswomen. He said he believed the support for Israel’s decision by some in the Modern Orthodox community was part of a larger problem with the way they are taught about Israel in Modern Orthodox institutions.
“There’s a fatigue about the way we’re taught about issues like this,” he said. “The education is not exactly propagandistic. I just think that the stronger you push for something without giving the context, the more people are going to pull away from it when they learn the context.”
Dani Satlow, 23, a Modern Orthodox Jew from Providence, R.I., took exception to Trump getting involved in Israeli politics.
“I have a lot of friends who are in the IDF, who are on the border in very dangerous places, and seeing Trump make these explosive statements and trying to influence Israeli policy in ways that are not well thought out is a reckless way of endangering my friends’ lives,” he said. “Israel has become something that’s a litmus test more than mitzvot. As someone who is very much on the left, that makes me feel increasingly excluded.”
Many elected Democrats came to the defense of the two congresswomen, and Rabbi Arthur Schneier, spiritual leader of Park East Synagogue in Manhattan, said he is concerned that Israel’s decision to bar the congresswomen “may create a divisive partisan issue on Capitol Hill.” But he said he is confident “the strong bond, shared values and friendship between the United States and Israel will overcome this incident.”
Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot of Teaneck, N.J., president of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a Modern Orthodox group, said that his organization has not taken a position on the issue but that he personally believes Israel erred in barring them.
“My thoughts are in line with many of the major Jewish organizations like AIPAC and others who find many of the congresswomen’s positions against Israel offensive and bordering on anti-Semitism, but who believe excluding them was not tactically the best move. … These congresswomen are very much in the minority and we should not do things that undermine the ability of Republican and Democratic elected officials to support the State of Israel and its elected government. I think most people in my congregation would probably support the views I articulated.”
On the other hand, Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, said he spoke briefly about the issue last Shabbat and asked congregants what would have happened had David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, won a congressional election and sought to visit South Africa.
“Would anybody in the world have questioned that country’s right to block that racist from entry?” he asked. “Would the Republicans have rallied behind Duke? Would bipartisan support for South Africa have been brought into question?”
He said in an email that only one congregant told him he disagreed with him.
“I believe that that individual, who is highly intelligent, is in the minority in our shul,” he wrote. “I [also] do not believe there will be a lasting impact on the Democratic Party. Like all political organizations they will choose to move ahead based on current political calculations. Unfortunately, many in that party, including our own Senator [Kirstein] Gillibrand, have already chosen to oppose Israel in general . The impact may be upon the Democratic Party as increasingly Jews are seeing that we can no longer rely on that party to be a loyal friend of the Jewish State.”
One of his congregants, Rebecca Wittert of Kew Gardens Hills, who serves as co-president of the congregation’s Women’s League, agreed that “a lot of people are saying Israel was right to do what it did and that the congresswomen are using this as a photo op and an opportunity to present their views. But I also hear people saying that Israel changed its decision because President Trump asked it to, giving the impression that Israel is a puppet of the United States and that Netanyahu is more interested in keeping on the good side of President Trump than he is in being an independent person.”
Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel, told The Jewish Week that his organization’s 16-member board voted overwhelmingly to support Israel’s decision because “the only purpose of their trip was to damage Israel.”
“Modern Orthodox Jews agree that these people are anti-Semites, the only disagreement is over whether politically it was the right decision,” he said.
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Congregation B’nai Yeshurun in Teaneck, N.J., also agreed with Israel’s decision and questioned what Democrats are “doing to eliminate the growing influence of Jew haters in their party. … Not a single person has expressed to me opposition to Israel’s decision.”
Rabbi Avi Weiss, founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, said he initially believed Israel “had every right to bar them but shouldn’t exercise that right.” He said Tlaib’s refusal to go to Israel after she was granted a humanitarian exception to visit her 90-year-old grandmother changed his mind.
“She used language that was so painful,” Rabbi Weiss said, referring to Tlaib’s Tweet that Israel was using her “love” for her grandmother to force her to “bow down to their oppressive & racist policies.”
Rabbi Weiss, noting that the congresswomen had planned to visit the Temple Mount, said it “could have turned into something so violent – who knows. Maybe that would have resulted in a powder keg and a third intifada [Palestinian uprising]. … The most fundamental responsibility of a political leader is to protect its citizens. If they used that language, it reinforces extremism among Palestinians and it could have inspired greater terrorism and resulted in the murder of many innocent people.”
Staff writer Shira Hanau and editor and publisher Gary Rosenblatt contributed to this report.