Even as New York Jews mark Israel’s 70th birthday on Sunday with the annual Celebrate Israel parade up Fifth Avenue, the divide between Israeli and American Jews has grown so wide that philanthropist Charles Bronfman warned recently that “action must be taken to prevent the breaking apart of the Jewish people.”
Rabbi Uri Regev said it is “high time the Jewish community in America looks into the relationship.” Regev, president and CEO of Hiddush — For Freedom of Religion and Equality, said that for too long American Jews sent money to Israel “and trusted the Israeli side to use it best.”
But after a series of Israeli actions that Jewish leaders here perceived as dissing the American Jewish community — including putting on hold the development of an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel that had taken years to plan — relations have now hit a crisis. And the depth of the divide has been measured for the first time by a recent poll that found 55 percent of Israeli Jews reject U.S. Jewish leaders’ views on matters of religious pluralism — conversion, the Kotel and the status of the Conservative and Reform movements.
In addition, by a margin of about 70 percent to 25 percent, Israeli Jews don’t believe U.S. Jewish leaders should have much say in matters regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including building settlements, peace negotiations and the treatment of Israeli Arabs. A majority of all Israelis answered “hardly at all” or “not much” when asked how much American Jews’ views should be considered. Those answers were twice as frequent among those who voted for Israel’s right-wing governing coalition and nearly three times as frequent for those who identified themselves as charedi (chasidic and black-hat Orthodox) and dati (Modern Orthodox).
The online survey of 2,050 Israeli Jews was commissioned by UJA-Federation of New York and conducted in Hebrew last November, the same month Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely claimed in a television interview that American Jewry is out of touch with the realities of Israeli life. She suggested that American Jews do not understand “the complexity of the region,” have not experienced being “attacked by rockets,” have not sent “their children to fight for their country” and have “quite convenient lives.”
Nearly one-third of those polled by a research team led by sociologist Steven M. Cohen were between the ages of 30 and 44, one-third had a bachelor’s degree, 15 percent a master’s degree and above, 14 percent were charedi, 11 percent dati, 10 percent Masorti-dati (traditional), 22 percent Masorti-not so dati, 39 percent chiloni (secular) and 4 percent Just Jewish and other.
Invitations to participate in the online survey were sent to 9,787 Israeli Jews who were randomly selected by a sampling generator as matching the required sample outlines according to gender, age and religious level. All are part of the Panels Politics Internet Panel, a group of 40,000 Israelis who agree to participate in surveys of all kinds in return for a monetary reward. In total, 20.9 percent replied, yielding 2,050 eligible respondents.
But Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the study was flawed because it did not offer Israelis the option of identifying as Reform or Conservative Jews.
“Our Israeli Reform movement’s survey from October 2017 found that over 7 percent of Jewish Israelis self-identified as Reform [and] another 3 percent as Conservative, which together amounts to 10 percent,” he said in an email to The Jewish Week. “That’s roughly the same size as the ultra-Orthodox population of Israel. That’s a dramatic change that is not at all reflected in Cohen’s survey. If you only ask people if they want chicken or beef, you’ll never learn that they prefer fish.”
Asked about that, Cohen, who is a research professor of Jewish Social Policy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said the Conservative and Reform “terminology is ‘less native’ to Israelis’ lexicon,” but that he did ask two questions using those names and found that three-quarters of Reform Jews identify as chiloni and “much of the rest” (21 percent) as “Masorti, not so religious.”
Among Conservative Jews, 19 percent identify Masorti-dati, 49 percent as Masorti-no so dati and 28 percent as chiloni.
According to the survey, virtually all Israeli Jews affirm that they have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people and about 75 percent say that a strong and thriving American Jewry is important for the future of Israel and that they share a common destiny.
Hindy Poupko, deputy chief planning officer at UJA-Federation of New York, said the organization was pleased “to see that a vast majority of Israelis believe that a relationship with world and American Jewry is important and that our fates are inextricably linked.”
Those findings mean that “we don’t need to convince Israelis that we are part of the Jewish family,” Poupko said. “What we do know is that for Israelis who have an intentional immersive experience [with American Jews], those experiences have a transformative impact on their knowledge and appreciation for American Jewry.”
She added that UJA-Federation is “actively pursuing ways to expose Israelis [to world Jewry] through youth movements and student unions [and] to create engaging curricular materials about world Jewry. We’re helping to develop a framework whereby they can understand in a deeper, more profound way that they are part of a global Jewish family.”
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, agreed that “a strong and thriving American Jewry is important to Israelis.” But he said their attitude towards religious pluralism shows “there is a disconnect between feeling that our destinies are tied and actually paying attention and being respectful of what that means.”
“Politically, socially, religiously and economically we’re becoming more and more polarized — and that is really dangerous,” Rabbi Wernick added. “This is what we say to the Israeli government all the time. You can’t tell us on the one hand that American Jewry is a strategic asset for Israel, and then not pay attention to it or delegitimize it. And what we see here is the outcome of that — a chasm between what they profess to believe and actually do — and that is a result of poor leadership. When a society starts caring more about its own political interests rather than the implementation of its values, you see this polarization.”
Some Israelis with close ties to American Jewry note that “religious pluralism” is not a phrase that resonates with Israelis. Jerusalem-based journalist and author Yossi Klein Halevi believes that in advocating for equality among denominations, it would be more effective for liberal U.S. Jewish groups in the U.S. to speak to Israelis of the importance of Jewish identity.
Rabbi Maurice Harris, associate director of affiliate support at Reconstructing Judaism: the central organization of the Reconstructionist movement, said he found it “encouraging that close to half of Jewish Israelis think it would be a good idea for their government to listen to American-Jewish leaders of liberal movements on a range of issues. A substantial portion of Jewish Israelis are saying that they care what American Jews have to say, and that means there is ample room for dialogue between these two centers of Jewish life. As with any relationship, the most important aspect is not agreement, but a willingness to listen and explore issues.”
Asked how the study might be used to improve the relationship between both communities, Rabbi Harris replied in an email: “Through our movement’s missions to Israel, Camp Havaya annual high school month-in-Israel program, and [our] seminary’s Israel study component, we work with organizations that are strengthening the nascent spaces of Jewish pluralism in Israel … .”
Rabbi Wernick, asked what he believes UJA-Federation of New York should do based on these results, replied in an email: “I think UJA can be even more strategic in its funding in Israel to address the gaps that this data shows are growing. For example, we should increase opportunities for ordinary Israelis and North Americans (not just leadership) to meet and discuss and debate the issues that are the substance of the shared values of mutual importance … . Further, we should insist that our funding go to organizations and causes that promote a stronger relationship between our communities and reduce or eliminate funding to those that do not.”
Poupko pointed out that UJA-Federation of New York spends $35 million in Israel annually “to assure Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. … We are investing in enhancing and elevating trips for Israelis to come to the U.S. You could call it reverse Taglit [Birthright Israel] because we believe meaningful encounters are critical just like [Birthright Israel].”
Cohen told The Jewish Week that “reverse Birthright might impact those participating, but it will not change the policy positions of the Israeli government. Decision-makers are beholden to their voters, and the survey showed they are not sympathetic to the same agenda.”
And although many Israelis have friends and family who live in America and whom they visit, “it does not mean they will change the minds of what non-Orthodox American Jews care about.”