Rabbi Rick Jacobs ( center), head of North America's Union for Reform Judaism, and other non-Orthodox Jews clashing with security guards at the entrance to the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem, Nov. 16, 2017. (Photo/JTA-Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash 90)
Rabbi Rick Jacobs ( center), head of North America's Union for Reform Judaism, and other non-Orthodox Jews clashing with security guards at the entrance to the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem, Nov. 16, 2017. (Photo/JTA-Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash 90)

Four ways Israeli and American Jews grew apart in 2017

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This hasn’t been a good year for Israel and American Jews.

The two poles of world Jewry, each boasting about half of the globe’s total Jews, have never quite seen eye to eye on everything from religion to politics. But this year — particularly the last six months — has seen those disagreements balloon into public spats over the future of the Jewish people and Jewish values.

Compromises have been scratched, meetings canceled, donations redirected. A leading American rabbi demanded that an Israeli Cabinet member be fired. One week later, in a separate incident, that rabbi was manhandled by Israeli police.

With the dust still clearing, fault lines have emerged. American Jewish leaders say Israel takes their support for granted, paying no heed to demands for recognition or religious pluralism. Israeli leaders, meanwhile, wish American Jews would defer to the political, military and diplomatic realities that constrain the country.

“American Jews believe in religious pluralism and the idea that multiple iterations of Judaism have legitimate place,” said Hasia Diner, a scholar of American Jewish history at New York University. “The State of Israel has given power to decide about access to religious places and religious legitimacy to the Orthodox. This is on a collision course. It’s hard for me to see how this is going to resolve itself to everyone’s happiness.”

Here are four questions that divided Israel and American Jews this year.

1. Donald Trump: Love him or hate him? 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu really likes President Trump. Most American Jews do not.

Perhaps more than anything else, that division has animated the ideological split between Israel and American Jews. Netanyahu likes Trump because of his rhetorical and diplomatic support of Israel’s hawkish positions on Iran, Jerusalem and the Palestinians. Trump also maintains high approval ratings among Israelis as a whole — certainly higher than his predecessor, Barack Obama, whom American Jews supported in droves. While American Jewish liberals say his comments about Muslims suggest prejudice, many Israelis see a leader who understands the threats they face.

Polls show most American Jews dislike Trump’s domestic policies and rhetoric — from his anti-immigrant statements to what they see as his failure to robustly condemn white supremacists. Even some reliably conservative Jewish commentators have questioned his temperament and fitness for office. The majority of American Jews also favor a Palestinian state, which neither Trump nor Netanyahu embraces wholeheartedly. Trump and Netanyahu also revile the Iran nuclear deal.

A September poll showed that 77 percent of American Jews viewed Trump unfavorably. A few months earlier, Netanyahu praised him for his “unrelenting support and a friendship that comes from the heart to the Jewish people and the Jewish state.” A June survey by the Pew Research Center on America’s image abroad found that some 81 percent of Israelis held a positive view of the United States under Trump.

That discrepancy was bared again after the far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump’s response — in which he blamed both sides for the weekend’s violence and only issued a specific condemnation of the far-right and white supremacist rally organizers following a weekend of negative media  — was widely panned. But Netanyahu, who previously had not hesitated to decry anti-Semitism worldwide, did not criticize Trump and even waited two days before issuing his own condemnation of the rally.

But American Jewish leaders and Netanyahu did mostly agree on one thing Trump did: recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Most major American Jewish groups praised the move, which Netanyahu called a “courageous and just decision.”

The major exception to the Diaspora-vs.-Israel dynamic is the minority of American Jews who identify as Orthodox. They tend to support Netanyahu and Trump, and share their hard-line views on domestic politics, world affairs and Israel.

2. Who counts at the Western Wall?

The biggest single spat between the Israeli government and American Jews came in June, when Netanyahu’s coalition voted to suspend an agreement regarding egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.

The agreement, which Netanyahu’s Cabinet approved last year, was hailed as an interdenominational compromise at one of Judaism’s holiest sites and a sign of Israeli-Diaspora reconciliation. The agreement would have expanded and upgraded a non-Orthodox worship space while enshrining Orthodox control of the main prayer plaza. But it was not implemented, and in June the Cabinet voted to freeze it indefinitely.

Non-Orthodox Jewish leaders were outraged. Diaspora leaders canceled meetings with the prime minister, and in the wake of the decision, some board members of the Union for Reform Judaism said they were rethinking how and how much they should support Israel financially.

“This decision screams out that when all is said and done, the State of Israel and government of Israel is willing to sell our rights and our well-being for coalition politics,” the URJ’s president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, said following the agreement’s suspension.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, pledged that while the agreement was suspended in order to mollify his haredi Orthodox coalition partners, the physical expansion of the prayer space would in fact continue apace.

American Jewish leaders have nonetheless continued to protest and gave the Israeli leader a cold reception when he appeared via satellite at the annual convention of the Jewish federation movement in November. The issue resurfaced last month when Jacobs attempted to enter the Western Wall plaza with a Torah scroll. Security guards blocked him and roughed him up, tearing his clothes and shoving a can of mace in his face.

Jacobs and his supporters again were outraged. The agreement remains suspended indefinitely.

3. Who is a Jew? Who is a rabbi?

On the same day the agreement was frozen, Israel’s Cabinet also advanced a bill that would have empowered the country’s haredi Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, making it the only body authorized in the country to perform conversions.

Supporters argued the bill would streamline the conversion process and create a high standard for conversion. But opponents feared it would further delegitimize non-Orthodox conversions while handing more authority to a haredi monopoly.

On that issue, Netanyahu quickly acceded to pressure from non-Orthodox American Jews, shelving the bill for six months. Previous similar measures had also been shelved or discarded.

But the Chief Rabbinate soon reignited controversy between Israel and American Jews after JTA reported on a list of 160 Diaspora rabbis whom the Rabbinate does not trust to confirm the Jewish identities of immigrants. The Rabbinate maintained that the so-called “blacklist” was merely a bureaucratic record of problematic conversion papers and was not meant to delegitimize rabbis.

But many of the rabbis on the list protested their inclusion in statements, sermons, articles and op-eds. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau apologized for its publication.

The “blacklist” was the latest episode in a long-running debate over who gets to establish the authority of rabbis, and the age-old question of who counts as Jewish and who gets to decide. While the controversy has faded, the questions remain unanswered.

4. Do American Jews have it easy?

Israeli politicians, particularly religious ones, have a history of offensive comments about non-Orthodox and Diaspora Jews. But few comments have sparked an uproar like Tzipi Hotovely, the deputy foreign minister, who said that unlike Israelis, American Jews lead cushy lives and don’t send their children to defend their country.

Her point was a familiar one: that Jews living abroad don’t have enough skin in the game to tell Israel how to run its affairs. But in her interview with i24, an Israeli TV channel, Hotovely went further in saying that American Jews “never send their children to fight for their country” and “Most of them are having quite convenient lives.” Some said her remarks played on anti-Semitic stereotypes of the weak and parasitic Diaspora Jew.

Hotovely’s remarks came after her scheduled talk at the Princeton University Hillel was canceled due in part to her opposition to a Palestinian state.

She later apologized for her remarks and expressed her affection for American Jews.

Despite the apology Jacobs, the Reform chief, called on Netanyahu to fire Hotovely, as her statements “serve to underscore how the Israeli government disdains the majority of North American Jews.”

Netanyahu didn’t take the advice. But he did release a statement condemning her comments and emphasizing that the “Jews of the Diaspora are dear to us and are an inseparable part of our people.”

Looking back over 2017, that wasn’t always obvious.

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

Ben Sales is news editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.