Suddenly, it’s open season on diaspora Jews.
Jewish leaders had hardly recovered from a recent speech by Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua dismissing them as irrelevant when they learned that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate had put new hurdles in front of conversions performed by many American rabbis.
Now, this week comes word that Israel’s president, Moshe Katsav, is refusing to refer to the head of American Judaism’s largest religious movement as "rabbi."
The confluence of the three recent incidents, which reflect what many observers see as a growing divide between Israel and American Jewry, and which seemed to widen the gap, also worked to bring certain segments of the Jewish communities in this country and Israel closer to each other. Following Yehoshua’s recent remarks that Jews in the diaspora are "just playing at Jewishness," a public opinion poll found that 59 percent of Jews interviewed disagree with Yehoshua’s criticism. The respondents were Israelis.Following a recent decision by Israel’s chief rabbinate that it would no longer automatically accept the conversions conducted by the leading rabbinical group in the United States, a group of Orthodox rabbis held behind-the-scenes meeting with representatives of the Chief Rabbinate that led to an easing of the original decision. The rabbis were Israelis.
Following the recent controversy over Katsav’s refusal to refer to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the head of the Reform movement in the U.S., as "rabbi," a few dozen demonstrators held a protest rally outside Katsav’s residence in Jerusalem. The demonstrators were Israelis.
"The show of support [of Israelis for American Jews] would not have occurred without these incidents," said Seymour Reich, a veteran leader of the American Jewish community who has dealt with past disagreements between Israel and American Jewry. The recent events "bring out the support … that is [already] there" of Israelis for American Jews, says Reich, who has served as president of the American Zionist Movement and chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations.
"When you hit the hot button, then people stand up and shout," he said, calling Katsav’s action "a slander against all American Jewry."
According to a B’nai B’rith World Center poll, released on Monday, which showed little support in Israel for Yehoshua’s comments, nearly 90 percent of Israeli Jews believe that their country still needs the support of American Jews. In response to the brouhaha regarding conversions, the Rabbinical Council of America, the country’s largest Orthodox rabbinical organization, and the Chief Rabbinate established a joint commission to determine uniform conversion standard. "As Samson said in the Bible, ‘Sometimes from bitter comes forth sweet,’" said Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the RCA.
Rabbi Herring dismissed claims that the Chief Rabbinate had criticized the standards of rabbinical courts in the diaspora in order to curry favor with right-wing religious circles in Israel. "I don’t think that it’s the case," he said.
"Essentially, there was a lack of communication, a failure to consult," Rabbi Herring said. "We believe the impetus was a positive one: to strengthen and to initiate widely accepted standards.
"The Jewish attitude is now that bad things have happened, how can we make the best possible consequences come from it?" Rabbi Herring said, alluding to the joint commission.
Steven Bayme, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations, said the latest public disagreements between Israeli and American Jewry are part of a historical pattern.
"The distancing that is taking place," he said, "is a function … of distancing Jewishly" between the two communities.
American Jews already committed to support of Israel are unlikely to be dissuaded by the latest controversies, Bayme said. Those with looser ties to Israel may reduce their support, especially their financial support, he said. "As a general rule of thumb, people don’t need many excuses not to give."
Yehoshua’s comments, offered last month at an American Jewish Committee conference in Washington, are seen as having the least resonance among American Jews: a long line of Israeli leaders and representatives have downplayed the significance and vitality of Jewish life outside of Israel.
The recent controversies, and the subsequent reactions in Israel, demonstrate that many Israelis (despite claims of a widening rift) appreciate the efforts of American Jews on behalf of Israeli interests, Reich said. "Israel needs American Jewry as a bulwark, as a first line of [political] defense. If we weren’t here, Israel would probably not be [considered] in the forefront of American interests.
"The fact that the three incidents happened within weeks of each other is "a coincidence," Reich says. "I don’t think there’s any coordinated effort. These incidents have happened before."
Reich and other Jewish leaders contacted by The Jewish Week agreed that the recent incidents are unlikely to erode American Jews’ financial or political support for Israel.
"None of that will affect our support or our giving," Reich said."The three things are not tied to each other," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "These are symptoms of the issue, but they don’t go to the essence of the issue," which is differing histories and perspectives of Jews in the two countries, Foxman said.
The common interests of the two communities will prevent a permanent estrangement of Israel and American Jewry, as long as Israel is existentially threatened by hostile Arab and Muslim countries, he said.
"It hasn’t happened, even during the height of the debate over ‘Who is a Jew,’ which would have split the communities apart," Foxman said, referring to rancorous disagreements that developed in the U.S. and Israel when the Knesset considered changes in the last few decades in legislation about Jewish status in Israel. Relations between Israel and American Jewry are "not at a critical state," Foxman said. "It’s not a crisis."
Rabbi Daniel Syme, a pulpit rabbi at a major Reform temple near Detroit and a former executive with the Reform movement’s congregational arm, said Reform Jews in the U.S. aim their criticism at "the Orthodox establishment in Israel," which they see responsible for Katsav’s offensive act, rather than at Israel as a whole. "I see this [controversy] having no impact on support for Israel, giving to Israel.
"What I hear is disappointment in the Orthodox rigidity that leads them to turn their backs on the reality of Judaism today," Rabbi Syme said.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, called Katsav’s refusal to call him by his rabbinical title "an ongoing incident in a long story" which will not diminish the support of Reform Jews in this country for Israel.
"Our movement is committed to the State of Israel," said Rabbi Yoffie, who is in Israel for two weeks to meet with Israeli leaders and attend this week’s World Zionist Congress. "We have no intention of being deferred from that. We intend to build a movement [within Israel] and fight for legitimacy."
Rabbi Yoffie said he has regularly scheduled meetings with Katsav during his annual visits to Israel. "He’s been very gracious. He’s been very forthcoming." The rabbi said he had not realized that Katsav, from an Orthodox Sephardic background, had declined to call him "rabbi" until a member of the Reform movement in Israel challenged the president during a radio talk show earlier this year.
In response to Katsav’s declaration that he would only call representatives of "traditional … authentic" branches of Judaism (in other words, Orthodox) "rabbi," Rabbi Yoffie decided to take a symbolic stand by not requesting a meeting with Katsav during the rabbi’s current trip to Israel, he said.
"Of course it bothered me," Rabbi Yoffie said. "I decided to raise the issue. Most American Reform and American Jews want their rabbis to be addressed as rabbis."
After Rabbi Yoffie’s stance was reported in the Israeli press, a group of about four dozen demonstrators, members of the Reform movement’s youth movement in Israel and of the youth wing of the secular-oriented Meretz Party, held a protest rally Monday outside Katsav’s residence.
"We are one movement. We act as one movement," said Galit Eliassy, a spokesman for the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism, referring to Reform Jews in Israel and the U.S. "We have many common problems."