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Israel’s one-religion state creating riffs among American Jews

Written By | Jul 10, 2017

WASHINGTON, July 10, 2017 — Israel calls itself a “Jewish” state. Yet for non-Orthodox Jews, who represent the vast majority of the American Jewish community, there is less religious freedom in Israel than anyplace in the Western world.

While American Jews believe in separation of church and state, Israel is a theocracy.  Orthodox Judaism is the state religion and is supported by the Israeli government.  Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis cannot perform weddings and funerals in Israel and their conversions are not recognized. There is no such thing in Israel as civil marriage. Jews and non-Jews who wish to marry must leave the country to do so.

Even many Orthodox rabbis in the U.S. are considered less than . Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has compiled a list of overseas rabbis whose authority the body refuses to recognize when it comes to certifying as Jewish someone who wants to marry in Israel. The list includes prominent Orthodox rabbis, including a colleague of the rabbi who converted Ivanka Trump, a Canadian rabbi friendly with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and a rabbi in New York who has advocated for greater rights for women. The list names 160 rabbis in 24 countries.

Among those on the list is Rabbi Avi Weiss of New York, who advocates for a “more open and inclusive Orthodoxy.”

“The whole thing seems to be nonsensical on every level,” he declared.

Another person on the list, Rabbi Adam Scheier, who heads an Orthodox congregation in Montreal and has ties with Trudeau, called it “an affront to the hard work and devotion of so many of my colleagues—of all denominations.”

Rabbi Daniel Kraus of Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue in Manhattan also is on the list. He serves with Haskel Lookstein, the rabbi who converted Ivanka Trump.

In Israel, holy Jewish sites are managed by ultra-Orthodox groups. The area for prayer at the Kotel, or Western Wall, is divided according to gender. Women are not permitted to read aloud from the Torah, wear prayer shawls or sing there.

In June, the Israeli government backtracked on a decision to create a space at the Western Wall where men and women could pray together and non-Orthodox rituals could be practiced. The suspension of the plan by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under pressure from ultra-Orthodox Jews, has deepened the divide between Israel and a majority of American Jews, who are affiliated with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said, “We are not going to quietly accept this. it is so insulting. I know there will be a series of responses. The decision delegitimizes the overwhelming majority of Jews on the planet.”

Charles Bronfman, the Canadian-American billionaire and a major Jewish philanthropist, sent a letter to the Israeli prime minister taking him to task and noting that “To my knowledge, no other country in the world denied any Jew based on denomination.”

Writing in the Jewish newspaper The Forward, editor Jane Eisner declared:

“Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just gave the finger to a huge chunk of American Jews, and by doing so, dangerously upset the already precarious relationship between the Israeli government and the diaspora. Netanyahu showed his true colors by essentially dismissing non-Orthodox Jews the world over … Netanyahu has turned his back on pluralistic Jews and that fundamentally changes the relationship between Israelis and the Diaspora.”

Eisner notes that,

“Israel asked Diaspora Jews to ignore the half-century occupation of the Palestinians, to spend millions trying to defeat the Iran nuclear deal, to lobby for billions of dollars for Israel’s military and to send more billions of dollars its way to pay for every sort of charitable fund imaginable. And in return—the American Jewish leadership … asked that non-Orthodox Jews be recognized as Jews, too … We have to write new rules for this relationship because the old ones were just merely tossed away …”

The view of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community toward non-Orthodox Jews can be seen in an editorial published in an ultra-Orthodox news site which describes Reform Judaism as “perhaps a kind of religion, but a foreign religion, like Christianity and Islam.”

Some critics have noted that Jewish groups have been vocal in criticizing Israel for denying equal rights to non-Orthodox Jews, but have been silent when it comes to the rights being denied to Palestinians.

Rabbi Brant Rosen serves the Tedek Chicago Congregation, and also serves as Midwest Regional Director of the American Friends Service Committee. He wrote in The Forward under the headline, “The Real Wall Problem: When Will Diaspora Jews Fight for Palestinians?”:

“The North American Jewish establishment is furious with Israel and has just let loose an astonishing fusillade of collective protests … Has the Jewish institutional community finally broken their abject silence over Israel’s human rights abuses?  Are Jewish communal leaders finally finding the courage of their convictions on the issue of Israel/Palestine?”

Rabbi Rosen notes,

“While Israel’s oppressive occupation now marks its 50th year and the cause of a just peace remains more remote than ever, our Jewish leaders are still more concerned about the rights of Jews than the rights of all who live in the land … We will willingly violate our own values for you. Just give liberal Jews rights and we’ll remain silent on your unchecked militarism and oppression of the Palestinian people. The silence is all the more egregious given the humanitarian crisis Israel is currently inflicting on the people of Gaza. Now, 11 years into its crushing blockade, the government announced this past month that it will start cutting electricity to the Gaza Strip, a move that could cause 21-hour blackouts just as the heat of the summer is gearing up. Surgeries have already been canceled … Medical equipment is rapidly degrading due to constant fluctuations in electrical currents. The effect of the Israeli blockade upon children is particularly tragic. Almost 50% of Gaza’s population is 14 or younger. According to UNICEF, the 2014 war took ‘a heavy toll on children.’ More than 500 were killed, 3,374 were injured—nearly one-third of whom suffered permanent disability, and more than 1,500 were orphaned.  Hundreds of thousands were left in trauma.”

He concludes:

“I can’t help but ask: Where is the moral outrage in liberal Jewish establishments over these cruel human abuses? While I certainly believe in the cause of religious freedom, I find it stunning that so many liberal-minded members of the Jewish community are more concerned with Jewish rights in a Jewish state than the basic human rights of non-Jewish children who live under its control. Such are the sorrows of Jewish political nationalism—even the more ‘liberal’ among us seem only to be able to express their tolerance selectively.”

Many American Jews once believed that they shared common values with Israel. Now, more and more of them are becoming alienated from Israel, a society which repeatedly proclaims itself “Jewish,” but seems to be moving away from the Jewish moral and ethical tradition. Professor Dov Waxman of Northeastern University argues that the movement of Israel in an “increasingly illiberal” direction has forced American Jews to “turn away in despair, or even disgust.”

Clearly, Israel and American Jews are moving in quite different directions. Their worldviews are very much at odds and their concept of religious freedom, separation of church and state and living in multi-racial and multi-ethnic societies differ dramatically.

Notions of Jewish ethnicity, rather than the larger vision of Judaism being a universal, prophetic religion, is in retreat. Israel’s rejection of non-Orthodox Jews is making this reality increasingly clear.

Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.