America's Jews are worried
Op-ed: Israel's Orthodox monopoly has changed from unpleasant annoyance to strategic threat
Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Masorti Movement
Last week, a contingent of leaders from the North American Conservative movement returned to the US. All the members of this mission, rabbis, congregation leaders and philanthropists, had already been to Israel dozens of times. They are major activists in Jewish Federations, AIPAC, Hadassah, you name it. They didn't come as tourists; they came to ask what has happened, but mainly, what will be?
The Jewish population of North America is worried. In recent years Israel, the Jewish state, has put on a large mask with blinders; a mask adorned with a long thick beard, showing the face of creeping fundamentalism. These North American leaders continue to receive emotional requests from organizations in Israel seeking to enlist their political support, or their capital, but they, too, cannot help but ask: where is the money going?
How can it be that a soldier receives NIS 360-700 a month, while a yeshiva student gets NIS 900? How can a country whose civil bodies are constantly raising funds for the education system allow regular state school classrooms to have an average of 28 students (if only my daughter Mika's class of 39 students would be reduced to this average, but an average is an average); whereas an ultra-Orthodox pupil has an average of 20 children in his class?
And in general, why did funding for the ultra-Orthodox education system rise so sharply, by almost 50%, in a three-year period (2006-2009), way-way more than their natural growth in the population?
These Jewish community leaders are also asking, with ever-increasing determination, what the State of Israel thinks about them, the Jews of North America.
They met with ministers, Knesset members, mayors, with the outgoing head of the Mossad, and with the US Ambassador to Israel. One of the heads of this mission, the former chairperson of a Conservative congregation of 1,400 families, spoke of the way she teaches her children to love Israel, about the prayer for the welfare of the state of Israel recited every Shabbat in her synagogue, about the Israeli songs, and the Hebrew slang that they use whenever they can.
2nd class Jews?She also talked about her deep fear that her son, who will shortly be coming for an entire year on one of the programs for Jewish youth, will fall in love with an Israeli. She knows that they will not be able to marry here. "I'm a Jew By Choice; I was converted in a Conservative conversion many years ago," she said her eyes wet with tears. "The practices and policies of the Jewish state turn me and my children into second class Jews."
Some of the people they met admitted unequivocally – although they did not want to be quoted – that the Orthodox monopoly in Israel has long since changed from an unpleasant annoyance to a strategic threat to the strength of the State of Israel, both because of its growing impact on relations between the Jews of the Diaspora and Israel, and because of the alienation of hundreds of thousands of Israelis, including many who are not halakhically Jewish, and for whom the Orthodox establishment, in all of its variations, has managed to make Judaism odious.
Those who hold Israel dear to their hearts, who check the news several times a day on the leading English language sites, and who anxiously follow the changes taking place in Israeli society, are extremely disturbed by the Jewish fundamentalism, chauvinism, and legislation that exudes an anti-democratic spirit, unprecedented in any previous Knesset.
"The Jews of America must courageously rethink the way in which they invest in Israel," one of the heads of this mission concluded.
A Conservative rabbi, one of the most influential in North America today, said "we must create a new kashrut certificate, a kashrut certification for social projects. Projects that do not reinforce democracy in Israel should be crossed off our list. Those programs that contribute to democracy should remain. They will receive a "kashrut" certificate. The projects and programs that directly encourage democratic values, and emphasize Jewish pluralism, will be placed at the head of our list. They will receive a mehadrin kashrut certificate. Israel is too precious for us to remain indifferent."
Yizhar Hess is the Executive Director & CEO of the Masorti Movement in Israel