U.S. Jews must shift funds to Israels pluralistic groups

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In the doom-and-gloom reviews of the outgoing Jewish year, the doomsayers missed one major development: the eruption of the worst crisis ever in relations between Israel and the mainstream Jewish communities in the diaspora, engendered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition government.

Southern California correspondent Tom Tugend quoted a leading Los Angeles rabbi as saying in his Rosh Hashanah sermon that those relations "were torn apart by a lethal combination of rising Orthodox fanaticism and a Netanyahu government's pandering to increasingly crude Orthodox political coercion."

That was only one small example of the wave of resentment against Israel's government that has been sweeping mainstream U.S. Jewry since the confrontation in Israel over the conversion bill, whose passage the National Religious and ultrareligious parties have demanded from Netanyahu.

The non-Orthodox American Jewish leadership has interpreted the issue — rightly or wrongly — as a crass attempt by the Orthodox parties not only to preserve the Orthodox monopoly on conversions to Judaism in Israel, but also to challenge the legitimacy of the Jewish identity of non-Orthodox converts in the diaspora. Meanwhile, the bill has been put in abeyance, pending attempts by a specially appointed committee to work out a compromise.

The committee, however, headed by Orthodox Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman, so far shows no signs of having made progress. We in Israel may be used to the cynical practice of hammering out compromises on religious-secular issues, which seem to say one thing but in practice are actually something else. The latest example is the "compromise" worked out several months ago that called for the partial closure of Bar-Ilan Street to traffic during specified hours of public prayer on Sabbath and religious holidays. In effect, Transport Minister Yitzhak Levy ordered the street closed round-the-clock for the entire three-day Rosh Hashanah-Shabbat weekend.

American Jews are not used to such underhanded practices, and rightly so. Admittedly, headlines such as the one above Tugend's Jerusalem Post report, "US rabbis use Rosh Hashana sermons to attack Israeli government," are a definite damper on what should be a joyous holiday. There are also those who claim that such broadside attacks are a vast overreaction to the normal "wars of the Jews" in Israel. They also charge, "What gives those American Jews whose lives are not on the line on Israel's borders and in its terrorist-infested streets" the right to interfere in her internal affairs?

If there is anything wrong in this latest outburst of American Jewish outrage, it is that it comes so belatedly. Following the 1988 elections, when the haredi, or ultrareligious, parties here tried to exploit their political power to change the definition of "Who is a Jew?" in the Law of Return, an outraged American Jewish leadership descended upon us en masse to foil that attempt.

They succeeded then but failed to persevere in the general struggle, unlike the local Orthodox and haredi leaders. The American Jewish leadership must internalize the perception that this is going to be a long, drawn-out struggle, and since the struggle is over the soul and identity of Israel and the Jewish people, it is a fight well worth waging.

American Jews and their leaders should be wary of becoming too involved in the intricacies of the Arab/Palestinian-Israel conflict issues, since in that context their "not having their lives on the line" argument does hold water. But on clearly Jewish issues, such as the Jewish nature of Israel, they are no less Jews than we Israelis.

Not only are they entitled to take part in the conflict over those issues, they are virtually commanded to if they care about the fate of the Jewish people worldwide, which happens to include Israel. Engaging in that struggle intelligently and effectively — and persisting in it — means learning to differ-entiate between Israel itself and the enemies of a modern, pluralistic Jewish people, who at present include Netanyahu and his government.

Making that essential differentiation should mean, for example, speeding up the process whereby the bulk of American Jewry shift their financial support from the UJA and Israel Bonds, which are controlled by the Israel political establishment, to the plethora of relatively new, liberal, pluralistic Israeli institutions that are fighting for the sort of Israel that diaspora Jewry should be proud of.

Sending this message loud and clear is important because the signs are that new Labor leader Ehud Barak is toying with the idea of attempting to outbid Netanyahu in cementing a future alliance with the haredi parties. The best place and time to start conveying this message, and in starkly unmistakable terms, should have been in last week's meeting in the United States between the American Jewish leadership and President Ezer Weizman