Over the past few years, the gap between American and Israeli Jews seems to have widened considerably. Debates have included religious conversion, access to the Western Wall, and the degree to which each party should be allowed to exert influence in the other’s political sphere. It’s given more than a few Jewish leaders headaches and heart break to see the world’s two largest Jewish communities at each other’s throats. And personally, I find it disturbing for the future of the Jewish people. Compromise and understanding, coupled with a healthy dose of empathy and intercultural understanding, could do a lot to repair this relationship.
While this deepening rift poses a threat to the Jewish people, I think the greatest difference between Israeli and American Jewry is systemic and structural more than (what I hope is) a temporary rift.
That difference is positioning.
To be a Diaspora Jew is always to be a minority. Even if you happen to live in one of the heavily Jewish areas of the world (Crown Heights, Boro Park, Williamsburg, and not a small number of suburbs and towns across France, the U.S., the U.K., and elsewhere), you are exceedingly aware of the fact that you are a minority. While you may feel more comfortable being visibly Jewish and have a great reservoir of community to call upon to foment your identity, not a single person would doubt their minority status. Jews form 2% of the American population and an even smaller percentage in other countries.
As I’ve written before, this creates a certain ethnic solidarity that often blurs or softens boundaries between different types of Jewish communities. I noticed this when traveling in Antwerp, where I found the local Hasidic community quite warm to me. I have traveled a lot in Haredi communities around the world, but there was something about doing it in the Diaspora that felt different. Despite our own differences, we have a certain sense of being in it “together”. Against a rising (or perhaps never disappearing) anti-Semitism, and for Jewish peoplehood. We know that ultimately someone seeking our destruction won’t ask whether we’re Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox. What they’ll care is whether we’re a Jew.
While that doesn’t mean to suggest there aren’t conflicts between different Jewish communities outside Israel, the conflicts tend to play second fiddle. Our first priority is Jewish survival- against prejudice, against violence, and for a stronger Jewish community which can navigate the complicated territory of assimilation. This has been more or less the modus operandi of Jewish communities for about 2,000 years since exile from Jerusalem.
On the other hand, Israel was built to ensure Jewish survival in a very different fashion. While Diaspora communities have to focus on building interfaith partnerships, innovative programming, and lobbying local governments, Israelis have a very different approach. As the only country in the world with a Jewish majority, Israelis have the right and responsibility to protect themselves with arms. And because Jews are the majority, the rifts which take a back seat in the Diaspora become the flame wars we see in the Knesset.
Because while Israel faces threats (ISIS, Hamas, the Iranian regime, Hezbollah, etc.), it has developed an astonishing military capacity to handle them. Therefore, in some ways (contrary to what you might see in the news), some of the most intense conflicts in Israel are between different types of Jews.
While some would argue these enemies of Israel are capable of exterminating it, I feel confident that the IDF and security apparatus of the state are in capable hands and able to deal with existential threats. Some might disagree, and certainly the greater the external threat, the less prominent the internal debate about the nature of Judaism becomes in Israel. In other words, a high degree of external threat (perhaps a reflex of 2,000 years of brutal anti-Semitism) can actually decrease Israeli internal societal debates. Our survival instinct, after all, is part of why we’re here and Akkadians only occupy chapters of history books.
When the external threats seem under control, the Israeli internal debate truly rages- among Jews. You can even see this in the most recent unprecedented call for second elections in Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu found himself unable to form a coalition not because of the Arab-Israeli conflict nor economic issues. He found himself unable to form a coalition because parliamentarian Avigdor Lieberman refused to agree to the demands of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) political parties. Despite having sat with those parties in multiple coalitions in prior times. Perhaps an indication of Israel’s position of relative strength vis-a-vis external threats relative to past elections. Otherwise, such internal debate would probably be less of a priority.
Which leads us to the original point. In Israel, socio-religious debates about public transit on Shabbat, religious family law, and the role of non-Orthodox Judaism in public life are only possible because Israel is a Jewish majority country. While various types of Jews certainly debate Jewish philosophy in the Diaspora, it doesn’t have the practical impact of necessitating a change in government policy. Not even the most strident Satmar Hasid in Kiryas Yoel, New York would propose the state close the subway on Shabbat. It’s a laughable suggestion because as a minority, we would never even think to ask such a thing. And our priorities are radically different given our positioning. The average Satmar Hasid in New York is more concerned with his or her family’s continuation of Jewish tradition and how the state interacts with their educational system. The idea of exerting control over other Jews’ behavior through government policy doesn’t even really figure into the agenda.
In Israel, Jews freed from the need to focus on Jewish continuity have the great responsibility of debating the future of Judaism itself in the only place on the planet where its existence is secure. And Jews in the Diaspora, freed from the need to debate the role of Judaism in public governance, are able to find greater common ground and develop a more pluralistic tradition. And have the great responsibility of finding ways to make sure such a community can continue to exist within the context of being a tiny minority.
One Judaism is not necessarily better or worse than the other, but they are most certainly different. And when we view today’s challenges through the prism of minority and majority status, perhaps it can give us the necessary context and empathy to resolve the rifts driving our people apart. Israeli and American Jews will never be the same, but perhaps we can use the tension of our different identities for the kind of creativity that has spurred our people’s success across generations. Instead of letting things degenerate.
May it be so.