The Jews are a people based on fears. Give them a reason and a proper stage, and the fears will burst out on their own. This week I visited the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America . The fears, as always, are big, and the stages are respectable too.
On the sidelines of one of the auditoriums I sat down for a conversation with Michael Siegel and Jerry Silverman. The first is the Jewish Federations chairman and the second is the president. Titles are important in such events. A private person has his names and deeds. An organization has an arranged hierarchy and its ties with important Jews around the world. Success is measured by the names appearing on stage.
The relations between the US Jewry and Israel are one-way relations. The Americans donate, Israel receives. Siegel and Silverman represent the Israeli dream from the austerity period. The rich uncle from America sends socks, donates money to the Zionist enterprise and convinces Congress members and presidents to support the small Israel from the Middle East. Israel is no longer small, but philanthropy still exists. Money is the most convincing means to express love. When there's enough of it, everyone is satisfied.
The idyll is disrupted upon reaching the question of the State of Israel's Jewish character. Nobleness obliges them to say that it's an internal matter, but the anger exists above and below the surface. The haredi monopoly on religious institutions affects them too.
Michael Siegel tells me about a niece of his, who wanted to marry an Israeli. The clarification of her Jewishness at the Chief Rabbinate took two years. The attitude is offensive, humiliating. It touches upon the fear over the general religious direction of the State of Israel. According to a recent report, there is a black list of Orthodox rabbis. The Rabbinate doesn’t trust the American rabbis on conversion and marriage issues. It sees some of them as too moderate.
Who affects who?The argument is halachic – not to separate between kosher Jews and half Jews. What seems right for the Orthodox Jewry there is not right here. Most Israelis have learned to live with the haredi monopoly over religious institutions. They are busy with the question of an equal share of the burden and the labor market, not with halachic debates. The Israelis get angry every now and then, occasionally vote for a party that promises change, protest from time to time – but are busy with other things. Their Jewishness is natural. For the American Jews, on the other hand, identity requires an effort.
There are fewer and fewer people like Michael Siegel and Jerry Silverman in America. Demography is against them; assimilation takes a heavy toll. They are a captive audience, Jewish leaders of the old generation. Like in the story about the giving tree, they are in favor of giving, at any price, even when there are mishaps. The young generation, on the other hand, is in a different place already. Surveys show that its connection to Israel is diminishing. They will turn into a tree, not necessarily a giving one.
The numbers determine who affects who. The majority of Jews in the world today live in the State of Israel. There are those who see it as proof of the victory of the Zionist movement. In practice, there are mainly losses behind this figure. The reduction in US Jewry does not add to Israel. The demographic change taking place in Israel does not strengthen the Jewish Diaspora in America.
After seven decades, American Jewry needs a donation from the State of Israel to preserve its Jewish identity. The argument over halachic details while half of American Jews are disappearing is stupidity under a religious guise. There are enough solutions that will allow the State of Israel to contain all streams and all approaches.
The state-sponsored religious institutions' inflexibility towards other Jews is a tragedy which only history will judge. We cannot expect the religious establishment to change its ways, as its problems are fundamental. It is rotten to the core. But one can and should expect the Jewish state to come to its senses. If the religious institutions impose difficulties, a way must be found around them. Judaism is more important than its institutions.