Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the delegates at the recent General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), meeting in Tel Aviv, that his No. 1 concern about the Jewish future is not Israel’s security but rather “loss of identity” among diaspora Jews.
He is not alone. Numerous surveys in recent years show a decline in synagogue and communal affiliation among younger American Jews as well as a distancing from Israel and an increase in intermarriage.
But while Netanyahu has sought to assure American Jewish leaders that he and his coalition care deeply about all Jews, including those of the liberal denominations who make up the great majority of American Jewry, the Israeli government has alienated many among that majority in recent years by reneging on a compromise on equal prayer space at the Western Wall and a more welcoming conversion process.
Now, in the wake of the tragic murder of 11 Jews at a Conservative synagogue in Pittsburgh, six Knesset members — including Michael Oren and Rachel Azaria of Netanyahu’s Likud Party — are calling for legislation that would give recognition to the non-Orthodox movements.
Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., asserted in a tweet that “liberal Jews are Jewish enough to be murdered, but their stream is not Jewish enough to be recognized by the Jewish state.” And in an op-ed in The New York Times, entitled “What Israel Owes American Jews,” he wrote that “if Israelis expect Reform and Conservative Jews to consider Israel as their spiritual homeland, then the recognition must be reciprocal. It fulfills our raison d’être.”
The lack of such recognition over Israel’s 70-year history has much to do with the political clout of the Orthodox and charedi (or ultra-Orthodox) parties, which view the liberal denominations as inauthentic. But for a list of reasons — including financial and political support from American Jewry and a moral obligation — Israeli leaders would do well to reconsider their position. And now it’s a matter of law. The new nation-state law passed this summer calls on Israel to strengthen its ties with the diaspora. Refusing to recognize the Conservative and Reform movements “is incompatible with both the intent and spirit of the law,” Oren notes.
If Prime Minister Netanyahu truly believes that diaspora Jewry is a strategic asset to Israel and to the continuity of the Jewish people, he should be willing to stand up to those in his coalition who oppose recognition. Such a move would strengthen the diaspora and increase its connection to Israel. It would also show moral leadership from the prime minister and send a message from Jerusalem that all Jews are equal and welcome.