The Bullies of Liberal Judaism

Surprise!  Liberal American Jewry feels “betrayed” by the Bennett-Lapid government.

Here they had such high hopes that if Israel would just get rid of “hard-line right-winger” Netanyahu, then the Jewish state would behave herself. After all, not only is Netanyahu out, but the new government under Naftali Bennett includes left-wing parties Meretz and Labor, and even an Arab Islamist party. And yet, we are still acting like a sovereign state, and a democratic one that must respond to the demands of an electorate, at that! Israel still fails to understand, it seems, that Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism in the USA knows what’s good for us better than we do.

So what are they “outraged” about? One thing is the government’s perceived lack of action against “ongoing settler violence” against Arabs and foreign and Israeli left-wing provocateurs (sorry, “activists”). The first thing to know is that there isn’t an “epidemic of settler violence” as the campaign being waged by several foreign-funded anti-state NGOs like B’Tselem is alleging. Actually there have been fewer arrests in recent months for such things as “price-tag” attacks, in which Jews damage Arab property as a response to terrorism – and this is not because the government has decided to go easy on them.

While unprovoked attacks by Jews on Arabs or their property do occur, some of the more recent high-profile incidents have turned out to be selectively reported cases in which Jewish residents were initially attacked by Arabs, and then defended themselves. There have also been situations in which Jews did go out and throw stones at Arabs in an attempt to retaliate for the continuous, sometimes deadly, Arab terrorism directed against them. Taking the law into one’s own hands is a crime in a well-organized, adequately policed, society; but these Jews complain that the authorities do not protect them and do not go after the perpetrators. They say that they have no other way to deter them.

Anyway, the situation is more complicated than it seems to those like Rick Jacobs and friends in America, who give total credibility to reports in anti-Israel media, which in turn have accepted without question the biased and even manufactured accounts of anti-Israel NGOs. They vilify “settlers” as part of their obsession with “the occupation” as the root of the conflict between Israel and the Arabs; as if an Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria would bring peace! Just like it did in Gaza, right?

Most Jewish Israelis, who have considerably better understanding of their adversaries than Rick Jacobs, do not believe this, and since the Oslo debacle, have elected politicians that do not believe it. Even center-left Foreign Minister Yair Lapid admits that a “two-state solution” is impossible with our present Palestinian counterparts (I would go farther and say that geographical considerations guarantee that it will never be possible for Israel to be secure without control of Judea, Samaria, and the Jordan Valley). What is strange to me is that Jacobs and others believe that they a) know better and b) have a right to make demands on Israel, when Israelis themselves democratically (and overwhelmingly) express an opposite view.

Then there is another issue that infuriates the liberal Jewish denominations: the fact that the government has not kept its word about advancing the compromise agreement to develop an “egalitarian area” at the Kotel (Western Wall) where it would be possible for men and women to worship together without a separation barrier. There is already an egalitarian plaza south of the main Kotel, which is divided into men’s and women’s areas. But it is in bad repair, the entrance is hard to find and is separate from the main entrance. A compromise was reached during Binyamin Netanyahu’s PM-ship which called for a new egalitarian area to be created, and a committee established to govern the operation of the Kotel that would include representatives of Israeli non-Orthodox movements. Although the Haredi parties in Netanyahu’s government initially agreed to it, Haredi media raised a hue and cry which resulted in the parties refusing to go along, and Netanyahu understandably chose not to let his government fall over this issue.

The new government promised to implement the compromise, but even though the Haredi parties are no longer in the government, the implied recognition of non-Orthodox strains of Judaism was too much for some of the members of his coalition. In order to understand why, we need to look at the sociology of Judaism in Israel.

More than half of Israelis do not define themselves as “religious.” But only some of these are anti-religious. Many of them don’t regularly go to synagogue, and are lax in their observance of Shabbat and kashrut; but they feel strongly about their Jewishness. And while they are not themselves Orthodox, they see Judaism as Orthodoxy. For them, “the synagogue that they do not go to can only be Orthodox.” The non-Orthodox movements in Israel represent only a few percent of Israelis, and many of them are English-speaking immigrants. Reform and Conservative Judaism have flourished in North America, to a great extent because they don’t require a knowledge of Hebrew and basic literacy in Jewish texts. In Israel, where Hebrew is spoken, the Bible is taught even in secular schools, and most of the state’s holidays are Jewish holidays, many do not see the point of “Judaism lite.” There is also the fact that the non-Orthodox movements are associated with the political Left, which turns off the non-leftist majority.

Enough members of Bennett’s coalition did not want to be associated with what is presented as giving in to pressure from the tiny minority of reformim that Bennett decided that it was not worth going into battle over. There are far more important issues for the coalition to fight over, even if this is hard for Rick Jacobs to understand.

Although it seems obvious from here, Israel is not in North America. Holocaust survivors used to be common here, and the majority of our population are either former refugees from Arab countries, Eastern Europe, and Africa, or their children. The Reform and Conservative movements came out of the dialectic between traditional Judaism and the Enlightenment in Western Europe; this is not the background of most Israelis.

Israelis did not grow up in a country with vast oceans to the east and west and friendly nations to the north and south. Americans and Canadians haven’t seen war on their continent for around 150 years, and their children are no longer drafted into the military. Israelis have been “mugged by reality” as a result of several “big” wars, post-Oslo terror, the Second Intifada, the Hamas takeover of Gaza and subsequent rocket attacks, the Knife Intifada, and so on.

The liberal Jewish movements of North America think they can bully Israel into compliance with their political and religious dictates without understanding the source of our politics or our religious traditions. That can’t succeed. All it can do is create ill-feelings, and play into the hands of our deadly enemies.

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4 Responses to The Bullies of Liberal Judaism

  1. ScottR says:

    Once again a spot on concise analysis of the issues that reformed Synagogues here in America completely miss. We are nominal members of a reformed synagogue in Scottsdale Arizona and we’re quite saddened by our temple’s response to the most recent amnesty international slander against Israel. Our Rabbi practically apologized for condemning amnesty international and felt compelled to speak out against the “settlements“ during her critique of AI.

  2. Cassandra says:

    I am a product of the Reform Movement, though I’m not currently a member of any synagogue. I’ve been floating between a Reform shul and the local Chabad. I was disgusted upon hearing about the letter from American rabbis about recent violence by Jews against Arabs. THIS is what they felt compelled to organize around and write about???? As if Israelis think such incidents are all ok, and need lessons in morality from their American cousins! Virtue signalling, at best. More like cowardly, anti-Israel mischief by Jewish “leaders” living very safe, comfortable lives here in the U.S. My apologies to you and all Israelis for the rudeness and ignorance of our “leaders.”

  3. Moshe Ben Shimon says:

    As is usual, your concise explanation of Israeli Jewish religious sociology is nearly perfectly described.What a gift you have , to consistently be able to explain important and highly complex core issues , with clarity, verve, and understanding. Be assured, that few of us can even approach your gift of meaningful and truthful explication, while maintaining readability and avid interest.

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