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March 28, 2018 2:03 pm

How (and Why) Israel Must Bridge Its Gap with American Jewry

avatar by Shraga Bar-On /


A Torah scroll. Photo: – Israeli society takes pride in high-achieving Jews, whether they live in Israel or in the Diaspora. We are even proud of émigrés who have success abroad. Nevertheless, it is difficult for Israelis to give up Zionist presumptions that Eretz Yisrael is the only place where Jews should live.

US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said that as Jews became American, they would also become more Zionist, and vice versa: the more Zionist they became, the more American they would be.

According to Brandeis, America is a nation of many nations. For America to realize its purpose as an open home for those with different national identities, it is important that Jews too preserve their unique national identity.

Most American Jews, and especially AIPAC, predicate their actions on this synthesis. Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel articulated this in a largely forgotten article that said: “In my view, it is self-evident that a Jew today can love both Israel and Diaspora Jews; he need not choose one camp over the other. … One who sets Israel in opposition to the Diaspora, or the Diaspora in opposition to Israel, will ultimately demolish both.”

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The synthesis of Brandeis and Wiesel is alive and well in the United States.

The time has come to articulate a corresponding synthesis in Israel, based on the same premise — that the nation can and must develop on local, Israeli foundations, as well as on an international foundation.

The two Jewish centers must fully recognize one another. Just as American Jews become more loyal to their Americanness when they are also Zionist, so must Israelis espouse the notion that they can be more Jewish and more Zionist if they grant full recognition to American Judaism.

Full recognition of American Judaism means a return to full identification with the entire Jewish people, as it is. The next step is to celebrate the diverse ways in which the Jewish people are developing and flourishing. However, even if we do not identify with the liberal American Jewish majority, we have much to learn from its moral emphasis on a humanist Judaism and its effort to attract more Jews to Judaism voluntarily — from its enlistment on behalf of international human-rights causes, Jewish causes, and the State of Israel.

We have much to learn from the Jewish intellectuals who lead American neoconservatism, who combine liberal excellence with conservatism. There is even something to learn from the openness and high achievement of Modern Orthodoxy, and from the sustaining of a network of yeshivot without government support and the integration into the workplace of American haredim.

The next stage is to learn how to host invited guests. If the call by many Israeli leaders for American Jews to move to Israel — as Deputy Minister Tzipi Hotovely declared — is sincere, then it is necessary to create a welcoming environment. Immigrant absorption means creating a space in Israel where liberal Jews can feel comfortable.

If we believe in this and more — that the state of Israel is really the Jewish state and not just a state for Israelis — then the Western Wall (Kotel) compromise must be adopted, the issue of conversion must be considered, equal status must be granted to the liberal streams, and more steps must be taken.

Even in the case of piercing and occasionally vitriolic criticism of Israel, we need to differentiate between someone who criticizes Israel and one who negates it. It is easy to break off contact and retaliate, but even if this approach is justified, it is unwise. We must create a barrier between the two sides — engaging in dialogue and trying to persuade our critics, while isolating those who negate us. One who criticizes us and declares himself a supporter of Israel should be pushed away by the left hand, but brought closer by the right.

In moments of weakness, it is difficult for us to open our hearts and act sympathetically and generously. The ability to develop an open, inclusive, ungrudging approach does not relinquish belief in the justice of Zionism; rather, it is another sign of our self-confidence as Israelis and another wonderful example of Zionism’s success.

The time has come to articulate a new Zionist position that grants full recognition to the half of the Jewish people that lives in North America. This will help not only to mend the rift between Israel and US Jewry, but will create a new structure that can contribute to both.

Rabbi Dr. Shraga Bar-On is director of the David Hartman Center for Intellectual Excellence and a director of the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

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