Bridging the divide
It is no secret that there is a yawning chasm that separates the world’s two largest Jewish communities.
The most recent cause of friction is related to the Western Wall and the government’s reneging on its promise to create an egalitarian prayer space there for liberal-minded Jews.
But the divide separating American and Israeli Jews was not born yesterday. It can be traced back to Israel’s very inception. The very different circumstances of Jewish life in Israel and America have set the two communities on very different trajectories.
American Jews are a minority group that has thrived in the world’s most tolerant and democratic nation.
Unsurprisingly, they value the liberal ideals that have enabled them to thrive.
Israeli Jews, in contrast, live in a land resonant with Jewish history and tradition. They are surrounded by violent enemies who force them to remain vigilant and never allow them to forget why they live where they do. Consequently, Israelis value commitment to the Jewish people and a strong Jewish identity.
Yet, while the two Jewish centers experience very different realities and have developed in very different directions, members of both continue to feel a deep connection, like members of the same extended family.
The most recent Peace Index poll, released earlier this month by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, found that 47.5% of Israeli Jews think that what unites them with American Jews is stronger than what separates them. Only a small minority (12.5%) said the opposite was true.
Unfortunately, leaders on both sides of the divide, who are positioned to emphasize what Israelis and American Jews have in common, have instead exacerbated the situation by making careless statements.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, reportedly predicted recently that non-Orthodox Jewry in the US will disappear within two generations – apparently due to assimilation and intermarriage – and that Israel has to prepare accordingly. This write-off of liberal American Jewry is harmful at a time when relations need to be mended.
Meanwhile, the reaction of Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism in North America, to US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel drives these communities even further apart. Jacobs wrote that Trump’s declaration undermined efforts toward making peace between Israel and the Palestinians by “making unilateral decisions that are all but certain to exacerbate the conflict.”
This is strange coming from a leader of a religious movement for which Jerusalem serves as a core symbol.
It is even more peculiar considering that over the last few years, Jacobs and other liberal Jewish movements have fought hard to build a third prayer plaza at the Kotel that is in east Jerusalem, which, by the way, we wholeheartedly support.
These statements and others by leaders on both sides of the Israeli-American divide are counterproductive.
We wonder whether these leaders are doing more harm than good. It is difficult to escape the impression that left to their own devices, Israelis and American Jews would do a better job of healing the rift than their leaders have done.
Meetings face to face both in Israel and in America would foster understanding and a realization that Jews everywhere have more that brings them together than separates them.
Admittedly, American Jews and Israelis have real differences. But while much divides the two, even more unites them. Jews everywhere share a religion, history and culture. They are united by common ideals and by common enemies.
The leaders might do well to be silent for a while and allow grassroots initiatives that facilitate direct contact between Israelis and American Jews to take effect. These won’t solve the differences but they will help Jews on both sides navigate unavoidable differences.