I read in last Friday’s Jerusalem Post that liberal Jews in the United States are concerned at the gains right-wing parties made in the recent national elections in Israel.
I can understand this. Some of the interests of Diaspora Jews lie in making conversion easier, relaxing the standard of “Who is a Jew?” in Israel, gaining recognition for their movements, and expanding their presence in typically Orthodox Jewish territory. In most cases, the right-wing parties (that are in some—but not all—cases more traditionally Orthodox in identity) do not represent those interests.
I remember the first time I came to Israel as a Reform-identified Jew (and not a halachic one) how annoying it was to have less identified (but born-) Jews whispering behind my back, obsessed with my non-halachic status, and to know that I could not marry here, be buried Jewishly here, and that my children (IY”H) couldn’t either. When I would speak about the importance of making Israel accessible to all Jews (even ones like me), I was usually told by others that if liberal Jews want to change Israel’s laws and make things more accessible for themselves, they should make aliyah and change things from within rather than try to do so from without. I found this attitude unfair and annoying, not least because the people who would say such things did not themselves make aliyah. Israel, I thought, was supposed to be here for me and for all Jews, no matter how secular or liberal.
I’ve spent more than a decade thinking about this issue, trying to sort it out, and I have come up with the following: While I find it regrettable that so many Jews feel shut out of Israel’s inner workings, I have come to see another side of the issue from living here. Here are some of the points that have become clearer to me over the years:
1) Americans and, in many cases, American Jews, do not always understand the complex nature of Middle Eastern society, and as such, often overlook the painful reality that the vast majority of Arabs (inside and outside Israel) do not want Jews living here. Period. This misunderstanding of the reality of life here can lead to liberal Jews in America (and other places) taking a left-wing position in Israeli politics that is completely contrary to Israel’s security requirements, which are much better represented by the right-wing parties here.
2) Israel represents many things to Jews around the world: it is our long-awaited return to our land, our triumph over those who would like to destroy us, and a wellspring of Jewish inspiration with its revival of Hebrew, its learning institutions, and its archeological discoveries of our past. Being all of these things, though, I fear sometimes that Israel is viewed by liberal Jews as a gigantic Museum of Judaism, to be funded and visited at intervals, but not to be lived in. But those of us who live here feel differently. We have renounced our residence in other lands, and have thrown in our lot with the fate of this tiny country. For us it’s a real place we’ve made our home, not a museum. As such, it makes sense to us that those who would like to influence the country to meet their own needs should commit themselves wholeheartedly to the country by making aliyah.
I am disturbed to find myself adopting the attitude of people I found so insensitive and hypocritical all those years ago. I do not mean to suggest that Jews in the Diaspora have no business here or should not concern themselves with what happens here. On the other hand, when all is said and done, protecting the lives of Israelis is more important than chipping away at the rabbinate’s power over conversions or trading land for peace (things which many Israelis would also like to see achieved). When liberal attitudes motivated by self-interest lead to calls for divestment from companies that do business with Israel, accusations of war crimes as a result of defensive wars, and calls for arms embargoes to Israel (while Israel’s enemies continue to be outfitted by Russia), I have to wonder whose side such people are really taking. In the end, I still believe that the people best qualified to decide what is best for Israel and Israelis are Israelis.
Our lunch host yesterday told us that he had read Rav Hershel Schachter’s criteria for voting in Israel: a) those who live here; b) those who keep Shabbat; and c) those who are married to Jews. While one can take issue with any of these for a variety of reasons, the overall message is that only those who are truly committed to Israel and the Jewish people are in a position to steer its fate.
I don’t blame Diaspora Jews for being concerned about decisions made in Israel that affect them; that is certainly their right. But they should also recognize that the power to influence Israeli politics is in their hands, if they want to seize it.