WASHINGTON – While Israel is rightfully concerned by deep breach in trust between the Obama administration and Netanyahu's government, many ignore the growing crisis between the State of Israel and US Jewry. A source familiar with the goings-on told Ynet that the situation "is like a ship heading towards and iceberg."
It is in this context that Jewish leaders warn against incurring damage to Israel's security.
Avigdor Lieberman and Eli Yishai have recently brought the age-old question of who is a Jew to public consciousness once again, plotting what seems to be a legislative deal that includes Yisrael Beiteinu's civil marriage bill in exchange for granting exclusive control over conversion to Shas and Orthodox rabbis.
In Israel, a vast majority of religious people are Orthodox. However, in the US, 85% to 90% of Jews are Reform, Conservative, or some other denomination and are furious with Israel over its said religious policies.
The legislation is meant to solve genuine hardship, and Lieberman would like to uphold his campaign promise. However, it seems that Shas has pinpointed a golden opportunity. For US Jewry, this is a tie-breaker in a game that has gone on for years over defining who is a Jew and joins other events happening in Israel that keep the younger generation of US Jews away from Israel.
Many believe that if Israel were to lose the support of these Jews, it would ultimately lose White House support, regardless of the current diplomatic squabble between Netanyahu and Obama.
Breaking the silence
Executive President and CEO of United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Steven Wernick explained in a conversation with Ynet, "If Israel wants to be the country of the Jews, it needs to start being a country for all the Jews."
Conservative Rabbi Julie Schonfeld went a step farther, and said that passing such law will damage Israel's security. Rabbi Schonfeld is among the most important Jewish leaders in the US, and currently serves as the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis worldwide.
The RA has existed since 1901 and represents a group of pro-Israel Jews who contribute political and financial support the country needs.
"What is happening is damaging to Israel's security, and I am not saying this as a metaphor," said Schonfeld to Ynet. "Most of the representatives in AIPAC are Conservative and Reform who work day and night for Israel in the US. But when these people arrive in Israel, they are treated as non-Jews. Chairs are thrown at them at the Kotel. The police arrest them. You need to understand that a threat to our relations with Israel is a threat to the resilience and security of the country."
An article written by Rabbi Schonfeld in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which was published in nearly every Jewish newspaper throughout the US, has caused quite a stir. She wrote that Israel is being conquered by small, extremist ultra-Orthodox parties, but American Jewry has kept quiet on the assumption that "silence on religious coercion equals unity and thus also equals Israel's security."
Now, Schonfeld warned, "The young generation sees Israel as a society with growing religious zealotry and oppression. We must change the growing alienation of young Jews in the Diaspora, who are unwilling to accept a society that allows a religious minority to contemptibly threaten their religious values."
The Jewish Federation in the US sent letters to Netanyahu and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky warning that passing the conversion law will push them away and will affect conversion. Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren received more emails in the past few days than all letters received at the embassy in the past decade on any issue, including the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead.
Time has come for opposition
Rabbi Wernick wished to make it clear to Ynet readers: "We are Zionists. Fifty percent of the participants in the last AIPAC conference at which PM Netanyahu spoke are Conservative. We are pro-Israel. For us, Jerusalem is our capital, not a settlement. Everything we do stems from a love of Israel."
Following this disclaimer, he charged, "It is about time that the state and Israeli society deal with the question of Jewish pluralism."
Though the conversion law is a death blow for them, even without it, US Jews are crushed by the country's conduct on issues of law, justice, and democracy in general, and by the country's treatment of them in particular, the rabbi says. They are angered that it turns out the Western Wall apparently does not belong to all Jews, but to ultra-Orthodox who have taken over the Western Wall pavilion and are awarded police support.
They are outraged when a Reform rabbi is arrested at the Kotel for donning a prayer shawl or when women seeking to pray there are gruffly pushed aside. Reform and Conservative Jews find it hard to understand why a sovereign democracy does not protect their right to pray at the Western Wall, Wernick explains.
Netanyahu is too busy
PM Netanyahu said in his speech to the Jewish Federation conference held last November in Washington that Israel is the country of all Jews. However, in the throes of the oncoming crisis with the US, he has yet to find time to meet with Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the leader of the largest denomination in Judaism, with some 40% of US Jewry affiliated with it.
Rabbi Yoffie says he does not have any gripes towards the prime minister on this matter. He understands he is a busy man. Instead, Rabbi Yoffie spent his time in the Knesset speaking with 15 Knesset members who he says had no idea what he was talking about. For US Jewry, Yoffie explained to them, the Law of Return is the main and most vital connection between Jewsn and the State of Israel.
In a conversation with Ynet, Rabbi Yoffie explained, "The State of Israel is not the country of Israelis. If so, then I have no connection with the country. What connects me is the fact that this is the country of the Jews. This is the essential point. Zionism is a movement for Jews. Whoever doesn't understand this has no idea what the State of Israel is."
"We are a force in both parties, and they know it. The moment Israel becomes less important to Jews and it is felt in Washington, this will affect relations between the US and Israel," Yoffie explained.
He admitted that his generation is committed to Israel, but warned that we do not have the young Jewish generation in our back pocket. "Whoever thinks that he can pass a law that my Judaism is not Judaism is risking a harsh response," he said.