U.S. Jews game plan for pluralism in Israel in danger of backfiring

JERUSALEM — Why is there no Jewish pluralism in Israel, the second-largest and soon to become the largest Jewish community in the world?

The answer most people give, almost instinctively, is: because of the Orthodox monopoly, exercised through the political process. But then, why does Israel have an Orthodox monopoly when the majority of Israelis are — and always were — secular?

The real answer, which American Jews are loath to accept, is that Israelis aren't interested in pluralism per se. Many are deeply interested in fighting and removing the Orthodox establishment's powers over key aspects of public and private life. And to that end, some find a common political cause with the Reform and Conservative movements.

But, as these two movements' tiny followings in Israel prove, non-Orthodox Israelis are not drawn to the American-based non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism.

Of course it can be argued, and always is by Reform and Conservative rabbis, that these two movements don't get a fair shake in Israel. They are discriminated against, legally and politically — which is why their decades of effort have failed to bring in more than a handful of adherents.

But a dispassionate look at modern Jewish history and geography shows a more realistic reason for the deep difference between Israeli Jewry and American Jewry.

Whereas most American Jews, like most American Christians, are religious to some degree, most Israeli Jews, like most European Christians, are not. Their lives, however — and here is a paradoxical product of Zionism and Jewish statehood — are suffused with Jewish, originally religious, symbols and ceremony.

On Sept. 1, 1939, the day when a thousand years of Jewish life ended, how many Reform and Conservative synagogues were there in Poland, home to three-and-a-half million Jews? None. How many in Russia? Morocco? Iraq? None. Many, probably most, pre-Holocaust Eastern European Jews were nonobservant. But they were not Reform. They were secular.

These were the Jewish communities from which Israeli Jewry is drawn.

To which tradition of political democracy did Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion and the other Zionist founding fathers look when they sought to fashion a constitution for the Jewish state? Did they look to America, founded in the spirit of religious dissidence? Or to the modern European nation-state, where the church has been an integral part of the national ethos for centuries?

Herzl, a totally secular Jew, wrote a chief rabbi into his blueprint for the Jewish state — though he cautioned that the rabbinate must stay out of statecraft.

Israel, like so many European-style nation-state democracies, has an established religion — Orthodox Judaism — embedded in its political culture. This spells problems, as it does in countries like Italy and Spain — and even England, where the queen's divorced daughter, Princess Anne, had to cross into Scotland to marry again in a church.

Israel and its established religion need to grapple with those problems in their own way. Importing an alien and quintessentially Western-diasporic religious culture is not merely a failure to find a solution. It is a selfish and short-sighted step, a deliberate extension of the war between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy in America, heedless of Israel's needs and its future.

Let's be honest: The battle for pluralism will not stop with conversion. It will go on endlessly, over marriage, over divorce, over recognition and funding. And quite understandably so, in Reform and Conservative rabbis' view. They want full equality in Israel, and they will not settle for less.

Their battlefield tactics are:

*To apply oblique economic leverage, through the United Jewish Appeal-federation fund-raising system. This follows the advice of the infamous British General Barker, who advised the pre-state Mandatory government to "hit the Jews where it hurts — in their pocket."

*To apply direct economic pressure by encouraging or discouraging congregants to support individual Israeli politicians. This is reminiscent of the tactics of certain Chinese and Korean men in their dealings with the Clinton-Gore campaign.

*To depict Israel as a fundamentalist and benighted backwater. This is already discernibly catalyzing the process of alienation from Israel affecting younger American Jews.

The outcome, however, may well be different — and infinitely more traumatic — than these rabbis understand.

Israel is not just another shul, another federation. It is a sovereign state. It cannot, for instance, define "Jewish" solely as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist. What about Jews for Jesus? What about the Black Hebrews? What about any group or tribe that professes to be "Jewish?"

Israel's reaction, eventually, may be: A plague on both your houses, Orthodox and Reform alike. Israelis of all persuasions may tire of being used as a battlefield in U.S. Jewry's internecine war. That war, after all, is unwinnable as long as Israel defines itself as a Jewish state — if only because 1.8 million American Reform Jews subscribe to patrilinealism whereas Israel's Law of Return defines a Jew as one born of a Jewish mother.

In time, the credo of Israel for the Israelis, currently advocated by only a small stream among the Jewish and Arab intelligentsia, may sweep the political stage, offering an authentically Israeli solution to the incessant pressure from outside. This movement calls for the abrogation, at a set date, of the Law of Return. All persons living in Israel at that date would be Israelis. All others, Jewish or not, would henceforth have to go through naturalization procedures if they wished to immigrate here.

This is a post-Zionist approach. But post-Zionism is gaining strength in Israel. Under assault from American non-Orthodoxy, Israel's large ultra-religious community may join the post-Zionists to strip Israel of its statutory Jewishness. (The ultra-religious are already creating their own rolls of "real Jews" and urging secular Israelis to register.) Religion and the state would suddenly be separated, but not in the way American Jews intended.

American Jews, having tried to force Israel to mold itself in their diasporic image, may suddenly find themselves waiting in the same figurative line as Thai workers seeking to join the Jewish state.

America by the end of the 20th century is mature enough to know that it cannot export or impose its precise brand of political culture on foreign countries. The international policies of the world's one superpower are more sophisticated, more tolerant, more pluralistic now.

Can there be no pluralism between American Jewry and Israeli Jewry? Are the Reform and Conservative rabbis the last redoubt of anachronistic American imperialism?