Israel: Up Close and Far Away

Posted on Feb 15, 2018

From left, Chancellor Arnold Eisen, Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Masorti Movement in Israel, and MK Isaac “Bougie” Herzog

The story on the morning news show as I drove to Ben Gurion Airport last week had made headlines throughout my 12-day visit to Israel: the imminent deportation of some 30,000 migrants from Eritrea and Sudan.  To the Netanyahu government, they are “infiltrators” who entered the country illegally or have long overstayed the temporary welcome once afforded them. To a growing chorus from Israel and abroad who are opposed to their expulsion, many of the immigrants are “refugees” entitled to asylum. To me, the distinctive terms of the Israeli debate over immigrants furnished another example of longstanding differences between what Jewish identity and Judaism mean in the sovereign Jewish State of Israel and the very different meanings attached to Jewishness and Judaism in the North American Jewish community.  

On the radio that morning, a government official was calmly making the case for expulsion, his every argument countered afterward by a Hebrew University law professor who maintained that Israel could not carry out its plan without violating international law and a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court. A version of their dialogue could have taken place in many countries in recent years, and has. But a few days earlier, Chief Rabbi David Lau had given the debate a uniquely Jewish tenor, declaring in a front-page story that economic migrants could justifiably be expelled from Israel, because Jewish law allows for giving priority to one’s own poor over others, but refugees fleeing persecution, according to halakhah, had to be taken in. Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, leader of the Masorti congregation Kehilat Zion in Jerusalem, showed me a video sponsored by the Tag Meir organization in which rabbis from four different streams came together in unprecedented unity to denounce the expulsion on grounds of Jewish ethics, law, and history. She has helped organize a broad coalition of Jerusalemites—“religious” and “secular,” representing various points on the political spectrum—to sponsor several hundred refugee children in the capital. “They are fighting for their Judaism,” she said of the adopting families. “Holocaust survivors are saying, ‘We’ve been refugees and will take these people into our homes.’”

Jews in North America—myself included—have of course cited similar arguments in support of legislation that will provide the “Dreamers” living in the United States in the framework of the DACA program protection from deportation. But there is a big difference. We do so as members of a tiny minority of the American population. If our claims are to win wider support, they must be couched in universal or Judeo-Christian terms. We make our case in prophetic mode, as it were, attempting to “speak truth to power.” Jews in Israel have such power. They constitute the majority of their country’s population and regularly deploy the power of the state in support of the view of truth they hold. Jewish power alters the nature of Judaism every bit as much as it—far more demonstrably—determines what happens over the skies of Syria, a site of renewed conflict in recent days. Given that reality, the two Jewries, in North America and Israel, cannot help but understand Judaism, Jewish peoplehood, and the place of Jews in the world from different perspectives. Israelis pointed out this difference to me repeatedly and forcefully in the course of my visit.

Recent Jewish history loomed large in another story that dominated the news during my stay:  the Polish government’s decision to make it a crime to accuse Poles of complicity in Nazi genocide. “MKs back bill accusing Poland of Holocaust denial,” a headline in the Jerusalem Post reported. The proposed Israeli legislation enjoyed support from coalition and opposition lawmakers alike. One MK declared, “The historical truth of the Jewish people is not for sale . . . we will not allow the collaborators to hide behind the Nazis and deny their historic responsibility.” A cab driver noted that while the Trump administration had denounced the Polish move, European governments had been silent. “They are tired of feeling guilty for their treatment of the Jews,” he said. I told him I thought he was probably right—and noted to myself that no such discussion was likely in a New York City taxicab.   Nor would the issue be a major story in most American media. For all the influence and achievement that American Jews enjoy, concerns unique to Jews are often overshadowed by those of others. Judaism tends to be presented, even by Jews and to Jews, in personal, universal and ethical terms. Not so in Israel, where Jewish history stirs deep chords, collective Jewish concerns are paramount, and individual Jews do not choose whether or not to take on or slough off Jewish identity. For some 80 percent of the population, it simply comes with the territory. The MK quoted above, like my cabdriver, is part of a “we” with a clear sense of its immutable distinctiveness from the rest of the world.        

I felt this even while taking part with other Conservative/Masorti Jews from around the world in the day-long celebration marking 40 years since the founding of the Masorti Movement in Israel. (JTS, I am proud to report, played a crucial role in getting the movement off the ground.)  The anniversary events at a conference center near Tel Aviv drew over 600 participants to study sessions and a sold-out gala dinner. Honors were bestowed on Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky, and former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, among others, but the real excitement of the evening came when recognition was awarded to activists in the dozens of Masorti congregations that now stretch from Haifa in the north to Beersheba in the southSome of the European rabbiwho had traveled to Israel for the festivities joined me the day before in Jerusalem for a lively discussion, in Hebrew, of classic Zionist texts that seemed to reach fulfillment in the Masorti celebration. A thriving network of communities had arisen over the past four decades in the Jewish State about to celebrate its 70th anniversary.     

Masorti Jews in Israel of course resemble their Conservative counterparts in North America and other nations of the Diaspora in many respects: the prayers they utter, the religious views and practices they hold, and their devotion to pluralism and the welfare of klal Yisrael. I feel a profound connection to the Masorti congregations I visit each time I am in Israel, and am working hard as the chancellor of JTS to argue for the resources vital to the movement’s success, in the face of government spending lavished on Orthodox institutions and denied to other streams. It struck me, as the Masorti activists and congregations were recognized one by one, that it makes a huge difference to pray in the same language in which you play, think, celebrate, and dream. Israeli Masorti Jews do not leave Jewish time and space when they step out of their synagogues in Kfar Saba or Zikhron Ya’akov and onto the street. Their Jewish lives testify to a wholeness that is different than what most Jews experience in North America. They also have a strong sense that they are playing a part in Jewish history:  that their personal fortunes depend on their people’s story, and their family’s future is directly involved in their people’s future.  One does not often find this awareness in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles—though our communities too, in my view, are essential to Jews and Judaism now and in the future. It is fascinating to see the difference this makes to individuals, congregations, and communities otherwise very similar to their North American counterparts.

It was made clear to me again and again in the course of my visit that most Israelis are still unaware of what Conservative/Masorti Judaism, so precious to so many of us, stands for, in Israel or the Diaspora. They do not distinguish our kind of Judaism from Reform, and—whether they are Orthodox or “secular”—have little interest in its growth or thriving. That indifference or opposition was evident in the lack of public outrage over the government’s reneging on the Kotel agreement this past summer. “Secular Israeli Jews never go anywhere near the Kotel,” I was told many times, “and do not care what happens there.” Israelis across the board seem to view the matter as one affecting only non-Orthodox Jews from the Diaspora, rather than as a struggle for Jewish pluralism inside the state that directly impacts them.

Executive Vice Chancellor Marc Gary and I joined a Masorti delegation to the Knesset that was addressed in turn by MKs Yair Lapid, Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, Tzipi Livni, Yael Cohen Paran, and the speaker of the Knesset, former refusenik Yuli Edelstein. One by one, they told us what we already knew or feared: no progress will be made on issues of concern to Conservative and Reform Jews until we are able to exert greater political pressure on the Knesset and the prime minister. I was struck especially by Tzipi Livni’s suggestion that Masorti Jews mount a media campaign to help Israelis understand who we are and to persuade them that their own well-being is at stake in our success or failure. It was sobering to hear just how much work remains to be done.    

I believe—wearing the hats of a historian of Jews and Judaism in the modern period, and a student of the contemporary Jewish communities in North America and Israel—that substantial Masorti gains in recent years constitute the leading edge of growing interest in new forms of Judaism among Israelis. I would wager that thirty years from now, as Jews mark Israel’s 100th anniversary, and the Masorti Movement’s 70th, non-Orthodox forms of Judaism in Israel will be far larger than they are today—a counterweight to Haredi numbers and influence that are also likely to be far larger than they are today. This change will in turn enable non-Orthodox Jews in North America to identify more easily with Israeli peers, and foster the sort of in-depth acquaintance and conversation required to bridge the gap between the two Jewries. 

Several other events in which I participated increased my optimism about the chance for rapprochement. The kibbutz movement, a part of “secular” Israel that seems fertile ground for Masorti growth, has long been experimenting with new forms of Jewish thought and observance.  It has placed particular emphasis on new ways of celebrating Sabbaths and holidays. I spent the first Friday of my visit at Kibbutz Beit HaShita in the Jezreel Valley, a center of these initiatives, with several hundred kibbutznikim who had gathered despite the teeming rain for a Tu Bishvat seder featuring “secular” rituals. I insist on the quotation marks around the word “secular” because occasions such as this one connect the daily experience of life in and on the Land of Israel to transcendent themes of Jewish history and tradition. The “presiding presence” of the ceremony was A.D. Gordon, a pioneer in Palestine in the opening years of the 20th century whose thought is redolent with language and insights from Bible, Kabbalah, and Tolstoy. What is more, the “civil religion” on display in the songs and speeches at Beit HaShita was the same one found in synagogues and JCCs throughout the Jewish world:  Am Yisrael Chai. The Jewish people lives!

No one could have doubted that during the Ramah shabbaton in Jerusalem at which I spent my final Shabbat in Israel. Directors and staff from Ramah camps in North America were joined by dozens of the Israeli shlihim, emissaries, who had spent last summer at these camps.  My remarks to the group Friday evening were preceded by brief statements from an American Ramah alumna who has made aliyah and is now serving in the Israeli army as an instructor of tank battalions, and an Israeli shaliah, raised in a Modern Orthodox home, who talked about how much he had learned at Ramah about Jews and Judaism in North America, and about Conservative Judaism in particular. He pleaded with his fellow Israelis to join him in being personal emissaries who bring the two Jewries, and the various forms of Judaism, closer together.

There was little for me to add after that. The agenda seems exactly right to me, the bridge one that we had crossed earlier that week at the annual JTS ceremony, organized by our Schocken Institute in Jerusalem, at which recognition is awarded to JTS alumni who have chosen to live in Israel and are making signal contributions to Israeli society and culture. Our alumni invariably, and movingly, trace their commitment in part to the inspiration JTS provided. In their work, and in their lives, we see Judaism and Jewish history fulfilled.

The JTS rabbinical students to whom Marc and I spoke at the Schocken Institute, home to our  programs in Israel, were enthusiastic about their year in Israel so far, and especially enthused about having more in-depth conversation with Israeli counterparts. Cantorial students newly arrived for the spring semester agreed. We will make sure that happens. The best bridges between Israel and the Diaspora are personal, face-to-face, with shared accounts of Jewish journeys and shared visions of what it means to serve Judaism and Jews in the unprecedented conditions we confront in North America, as in Israel.

I was wearing my JTS baseball cap on the flight back to New York.  One of the flight attendants, after asking me if I had studied at JTS, proudly showed me her Torah Fund pin. It felt good to be leaving home, and coming home.