On the High Holy Days, members of the Jewish nation stand before God to be judged both collectively and as individuals, with the nation’s chances of being deemed worthy of a good life for the coming year contingent on its capacity to stand before God as a united people. A peek at the Jewish people’s distant and recent history, as well as at what has happened over the past year, clearly demonstrates that unity among us is conspicuously absent. Since controversy, divisiveness and rifts seem to be inherent in the Jewish people’s religious, cultural and sociological DNA, the challenge of creating unity among the various segments of our people is a formidable one and of crucial importance.
Of all the disputes that the Jewish people have dealt with over the past year, the controversy between Israel and diaspora Jewry — primarily the U.S. Jewish community — stands out. At the root of the rift lie several issues. The most prominent relate to questions of religion and state, such as conversion, the Western Wall compromise, the State of Israel’s refusal to recognize the non-Orthodox religious streams and, most recently, the nation-state law; that law charges the state with the responsibility for strengthening Israel’s connection to the Jewish people “in the diaspora” — but significantly — not within Israel.
The dynamics underlying these disagreements are both institutional and political. Israel’s official policies on issues of religion and state, the monopoly granted to the Chief Rabbinate and the refusal to compromise on matters of critical importance to diaspora Jewry are rooted in the Israeli government’s parliamentary structure and the disproportionate pressure thatthat smaller parties (i.e. ultra-Orthodox) can exert on the other players in the political arena.
Although the Israeli political establishment is democratically elected, it does not represent the viewpoints of the majority of Israel’s population on these issues. For example, although Israel does not recognize marriages performed outside the Orthodox establishment, 59 percent of Israeli Jews believe that these marriages should be recognized. And although the government does not grant equality to same-sex couples, a significant majority (68 percent) of Jews in Israel believes that it should. And finally, the nation-state law that was recently passed in the Knesset does not mention the principle of equality, but 61 percent of Jews believe that it should (Peace Index, July 2018).
What these statistics clearly demonstrate is that the rift between the Israeli Jewish community (as opposed to the Israeli government) and the U.S. Jewish community is not as deep as it is portrayed in the media, in the statements issued by American Jewish leaders and in the hearts of many Jews who hold Israel dear. The image of two separate and estranged communities is misleading. The real question is how to build the connecting bridge — even over the Israeli government’s head.
Ideally, the bridge between Israel and diaspora Jewry should be built by exerting influence and putting pressure on the political establishment. But given the current state of affairs, an alternative must be found. And so, I propose investing in direct people-to-people dialogue between the Israeli Jewish community and the Jewish community in the diaspora. Where such programs exist, they should be expanded and diversified.
Direct dialogue between community and spiritual leaders and members of Jewish community organizations in the U.S. and Israel should be expanded. Such dialogue, which both traditional methods and technological means could turn into a multi-channel and fruitful conversation, could significantly benefit both communities. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of ignorance in Israel as to what is happening in the greater Jewish world. Many Israelis are completely unaware of the size of the Jewish communities that live in the diaspora, their characteristics and their close and caring relationship with the State of Israel. At the same time, such dialogue will lead to a much-needed and deeper familiarity among diaspora Jews with Israel and Israelis. Their perspective on Israel will no longer be exclusively focused on Israel as a government to be criticized, but will take into account a broader spectrum of opinions and perspectives, many of them compatible with their own.
In Jewish tradition, the High Holy Days season is an opportunity for individual and national soul-searching, and for taking on a commitment to being better in the New Year. The overall vision that I propose here is far-reaching, and it will take longer than a year to realize it. That said, we must recognize that the time has come to act at the grassroots, peer-to-peer level, to bridge disagreements and enhance unity, and begin to put this vision into practice.
Shuki Friedman is the director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute, and a lecturer in law at the Peres Academic Center.