Screaming headlines pronouncing a complete rupture in Diaspora-Israel relations.
Threats to sever relations with the Israeli government by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky.
The controversy over Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's decision to "freeze" implementation of a 2016 Kotel compromise sure has the class of professional Jews hopping mad.
But what is the controversy actually about? Let us first clarify what it is not about. It is not about the fervent desire of Reform and Conservative American Jews to pray at the Western Wall as they wish. They can already do that. Since 2000 a site has been set aside at Robinson's Arch for egalitarian prayer, and the Conservative movement has used the area for the occasional family bar mitzvah celebration and summer youth group. And in 2013, Religion Minister Naftali Bennet announced plans to dramatically expand and spiff up the area. All this passed without protest.
The Western Wall holds no particular religious significance for the heterodox movements. They would be horrified at the thought of the Third Temple being rebuilt or descending from Heaven at the site of the first two Temples, and the "sacrificial cult," (as they are pleased to call korbonos) being reinstituted. From its inception, German Reform designated its places of worship as "temples." That was a statement that Reform Jews harbored no national aspirations and did not long for a long destroyed Temple in Jerusalem. For the same reason, Reform Jews described themselves as Germans of the "Mosaic faith," as a statement that Judaism is purely a religion and not a national identity.
WHAT THE DISPUTE is about, short and simple, is the desire of the heterodox movements to receive the official imprimatur of the Israeli government for the idea that Judaism has no objective meaning but is rather whatever any group of Jews says it is. The compromise plan would have officially provided for the area set aside for non-traditional prayer to be governed by a body including two representatives each of the Conservative and Reform movements and six non-Orthodox women. Moreover, it would have had a common entrance for all prayer areas, with the implicit message that Judaism is an ala carte menu -- choose the version that suits you; all are equal as far as the Israeli government is concerned.
That is precisely the message against which Rabbi Moshe Sherer organized the historic 1997 Am Echad mission, his last public endeavor. He sought to prevent the notion of Judaism as comprised of multiple streams, whether they be three or 49, gaining a foothold in Israel. And that is what the chareidi parties are fighting against today.
TO HEAR THE LEADERS of Diaspora Jewry tell it, Prime Minister Netanyahu has struck a fatal blow to a flourishing Diaspora-Israel relationship. That has not been true for a quarter century, and much of the reason has to do with the failures of the heterodox movements. American Jewish leaders warning of a break in Diaspora-Israel relations do not come into court with "clean hands."
More than a decade ago, sociologist Stephen Cohen and Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative) provost Jack Wertheimer asked in Commentary; "Whatever happened to the Jewish people?" In a single decade between 1990 and 2000, Jewish membership organizations had declined 20 percent and Jewish federation donations by one-third.
Less than half of Jews under 35 affirmed that Jews worldwide bear any responsibility for one another. And both younger and older Jews were already proving sensitive to the charge that Jewish involvement and giving to Jewish causes reflects "narrow tribalism." Only 6 percent of the donations by Jewish mega-philanthropists could be described as Jewishly connected in any way.
A separate study by Cohen and fellow sociologist Ari Kelman on attitudes toward Israel proved even more depressing. Among Jews under 35, apathy was giving way to outright resentment. Only 54 percent of Jews in that category were comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state at all.
And things have only gotten worse. Fern Oppenheim, an advertising executive who has been involved in efforts to rebrand Israel since 9/11, told the Herzilya Conference last week that Jewish college students are the only group among whom support for the Palestinians has shown a sharp increase – 18 percent between 2010-2016. Jewish students appear to be suffering from a form of Stockholm Syndrome. One-third have experienced anti-Semitism on campus, most of it connected to anti-Israel activity. Those attacks have not strengthened their resolve, but weakened it.
Being anti-Israel has become the favored form of virtue-signaling among heavily left-wing Jewish college students. They have bought into the fashionable concept of "intersectionality," which gives Muslims pride of place as victims, and places Jews at the top of the totem poll of "white privilege." James Kirchik recently chronicled in Tablet how many of the leading supporters of Muslim feminist Linda Sarsour are Jewish, despite her undisguised hatred of Israel and desire to see it disappear.
Already a decade ago, less than half of American Jews under 35 said they would view the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy. And they have demonstrated as much with their actions. President Obama concluded a nuclear deal with Iran that leaves it free of all restrictions on its nuclear program less than ten years from now, and thereby places seven million Jews in Israel under the permanent cloud of a nuclear threat. And Obama did so while barely moving the needle of American Jewish support for him.
American Jews, in the main, cannot even be bothered to learn why their fellow Jews in Israel went from messianic enthusiasm for the Oslo Process in 1993 to an overwhelming consensus that there is no chance of a viable peace deal with the Palestinians today. They just go on with their condemnations of the "occupation" and readily accept portrayals of Israel as a uniquely brutal colonialist power oppressing the poor Palestinians.
The majority of American Jews, to put in bluntly, have repeatedly shown themselves more concerned about transgendered bathrooms than about the lives and safety of the Jews of Israel.
THE LOSS OF ANY sense of peoplehood among American Jews and the corresponding decline in support for Israel is not inexplicable. Over four out of five marriages in America today involving a non-Orthodox Jew are intermarriages. And the offspring of those marriages are necessarily far more tenuously connected to the Jewish people than their grandparents and great-grandparents were.
Worse, American Jewry has thrown in the towel. In response to a 2014 Pew "Portrait of Jewish Americans," which showed non-Orthodox American Jewry headed rapidly towards extinction, a group of Jewish writers and scholars gathered to consider antidotes. But their suggestions – e.g., increased support of Jewish education and the formation of Jewish families -- fell on deaf ears.
Jonathan Tobin, one of the participants, writes: "Any effort to encourage in-marriage . . . is now treated as not only out of touch with reality, but also bad manners. It has become mainstream thinking to reject any policy that might somehow offend those who marry out of the religion or even those who don't wish to raise their children as Jews."
Far from being part of the solution, the heterodox movements have proven part of the problem. And they have reaped what they have sown. "Unaffiliated" is now the largest group among younger Jews, and even many of those who describe themselves as Reform use the term primarily as a synonym for the most minimal religious commitment.
Above all, the heterodox have failed to provide any answer to the question: Why does it make any difference whether the Jewish people continue to exist collectively or not? And without an answer to that question there is no basis for Jewish peoplehood or concern for the safety and well-being of fellow Jews in Israel.
The failure to answer the question of why the Jewish people matter is not a historical accident, but inherent in the heterodox message that Judaism is no more than what any given group of Jews decide it to be on any given day. One of the founders of Women of the Wall once confessed to me that she could find no basis for denying Jews for J. access to the Kotel as well. I was not surprised.
In the wake of Donald Trump's surprise defeat of Hillary Clinton, Reform temples experienced a brief upsurge in attendance, as they turned themselves into mourning tents. But in doing so, they only reinforced their own irrelevance. For if Judaism is fully congruent with modern progressive thought, who needs Judaism? Doesn't it make more sense to seek one's spouse from among the larger pool of those who share one's politics?
Michael Steinhardt's plan to instill a sense of pride among secular Jews in their superior gene pool will prove no more fruitful.. If gene pools are the key, why not welcome as many qualified gentiles as possible?
SADLY, HOWEVER, THE CHAREIDI PARTIES will likely pay a heavy price for our determination to deny a symbolic victory to those proclaiming that Judaism is whatever you want it to be. From a practical standpoint, the primary Orthodox goal over the last thirty years was to remove the provocations of the Women of the Wall from the women's section of the Kotel. The compromise achieved that; its end could cost that victory.
And last week's apparent victory may prove short-lived. An embattled prime minister Netanyahu is perfectly capable of unfreezing the compromise next week. And if he does not, the Israeli Supreme Court is a good bet to step in and reverse his decision.
Moreover, a victory may prove pyrrhic. For approximately five years, the issue of chareidi political power has not been at the forefront. It has now returned with a vengeance. And that could provide the opening to becoming prime minister that Yair Lapid has been waiting for.
But most important of all, there is a trade-off from the point of view of the Torah itself. The less discussion there is in Israel of the chareidi community as a political force the easier it is to engage Israeli Jews in learning Torah itself.
In recent years, there has been a growing interest of non-observant Israeli Jews in Torah learning, as they seek the answer to the question inevitably posed by the sacrifices that must be made to live in Israel: What is so important about our collective existence as Jews that can possibly justify those sacrifices?
Let us pray that that discussion does not abate.