Last Friday, CNN ran a piece on the new Israeli government. In one segment, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was talking to Rick Jacobs, head of the American Reform movement. He told Jacobs that there is a great thirst for Reform Judaism in Israel, and that it might well become the dominant form of Judaism in Israel one day.
If Bennett truly believes that, he is a fool. And if he does not, he is a shameless panderer. And what lies behind that pandering are several illusions about the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.
Let us consider the first possibility – i.e., that Bennett actually believes what he said. Those who advance the thesis that the heterodox denominations have an important contribution to make to Israel usually cite the fact most Israelis define themselves as "secular," whereas the majority of American Jews – at least those over 50 – would probably still would call themselves Reform or Conservative. Thus, it appears that the latter movements have something to offer religiously.
But what is absent from this line of reasoning, as the Guttman study revealed nearly three decades ago, is that the average Israeli who defines himself as secular is far more religiously observant than the average American Reform Jew, with respect to basic rituals – Friday night Kiddush and candle lighting, fasting on Yom Kippur, refraining from eating chametz on Pesach, kashrut, and brit milah, etc.
On what evidence does Bennett base the claim that there is a "thirst" for heterodox Judaism? Sure, there might be those who would put their kids in a subsidized Reform nursery school or use a Reform hall for their bar mitzvah parties. But thirst?
One thirsts religiously for answers to particular questions about the meaning of life. About why the continued existence of the Jewish people makes a difference. About the nature and source of the responsibility Jews bear to one another. Do the heterodox denominations have something to offer on this score beyond liberal to progressive politics? Not based on the statistics from America on the rapid implosion of those movements and demographic death cycle of American Jewry – low rates of marriage, fecundity, and skyrocketing rates of intermarriage (over four out of five marriages involving non-Orthodox Jews are intermarriages.)
As social philosopher Yuval Levin points out, all over the world, the fastest growing religions are those that make the most demands on their adherents, not those that seek to reconcile to the prevailing zeitgeist and adopt the social justice gospel. That great observer of American life, Alexis de Tocqueville, pointed out early on that in free societies religious institutions that hold firm to orthodoxy have shown the greatest pull, not those that seek to accommodate modernity by relaxing strictures on personal behavior.
Where is Bennett's evidence of that thirst? Surely not in the proliferation of heterodox institutions in Israel. And the problem cannot be attributed to a lack of funding. Within the budgets of the Jewish Agency, WZO, KKL, there are tens of millions of dollars for "pluralism." And yet, according to a survey by Panim, a pluralistic institution, only .4 percent of parents of children in the secular Israeli school system identify with one of the heterodox movements.
MY GUESS is that Bennett was merely pandering. Yet even that pandering is based on a number of misconceptions. The new government has made improving relations with the Jewish Diaspora a high priority. And, though its constituent parts agree on little, they appear united in believing that dramatic changes in the religious status quo and weakening of the authority of the Chief Rabbinate are the key to those improved relations. That supposition, in turn, is premised on the presumption that the heterodox movements indeed represent the majority of American Jews.
That latter presumption is no longer true, if it ever was. The most recent Pew Survey of American Jewry showed that among those under 35 identifying as Jewish, the plurality describe themselves as "unaffiliated" or having "no religion." Even those, who identify as Reform rarely attend religious services. "Reform" is often used as nothing more than a synonym for minimal observance. The same Rick Jacobs with whom Bennett spoke admitted in 2013 that the movement loses 80% of its youth by the time they graduate high school.
While it is true that American Jews, particularly the young, are increasingly less supportive of Israel, that is not a function of too few places to pray at the Kotel – why should egalitarian prayer at the Kotel matter to those who do not otherwise pray -- but rather of the trivial place that Judaism and the Jewish people play in their lives. In the 2013 Pew Survey of American Jewry, a certain sense of humor, a taste for particular foods, commitment to social justice – occupied a larger position in terms of Jewish identity than religion. But neither a sense of humor, certain culinary tastes, oo a passion for "social justice," are limited to Jews, or provide a reason for the continuation of the Jewish people.
Already by 2006, less than half of Jews under 35 responded affirmatively to the question: Do Jews worldwide bear responsibility for one another? A couple years earlier, over half of the same cohort said that the end of Israel would not be a "personal tragedy" for them.
A recent surveys suggest, in the words of Douglas Altabef, that American Jewry is not only in flight from their brethren but from reality itself. According to a poll conducted by the Jewish Electorate Institute, led by prominent Jewish Democrats, in the aftermath of the recent 11 days of fighting between Hamas and Israel, one-quarter of those Jews polled consider Israel an apartheid state, and another 22% are not sure. Over one-fifth think that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians and 16% are not sure.
Even the most rudimentary investigation – five minutes at most – would expose the absurdity of those accusations. But taking that five minutes was apparently too much for a large percentage of American Jewry.
Let's take the genocide charge. Between 1967 and 1992, when Israel was in full control of the West Bank – life expectancy among the Palestinian residents increased fifty percent, from 48 to 72, and infant mortality declined 75%. If that is genocide – a deliberate attempt to eliminate a people – it was certainly genocide of a most peculiar kind, one in which the putative victims prospered.
Over that same period, Israel built seven universities in the West Bank, where none had previously existed, and by 1992, the West Bank economy was the fourth fastest growing in the world.
My mother has just returned home after a nearly three-week stay in Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital. Over half the nurses who attended to her, and the doctor most closely involved with supervising her case, were Arabs. How many whites under South African apartheid do American Jews think were treated in hospital by black doctors and nurses?
Arabs are represented in Israeli universities in exact accord with their percentage of the population -- a degree of "equity" not achieved by racial minorities in the United States. And an Arab party is a member of the current governing coalition. Again, if this be apartheid, it is apartheid of a most peculiar kind.
Yet a quarter to a half of American Jews could not be bothered to make the most minimal investigation of the charges being directed at Israel from the progressive Left in the Democratic Party, from BLM, and the founders of the Women's March, and in ever growing numbers in resolutions of student governments and academic departments at some of America's most elite universities.
That lack of concern and interest with the fate of half the world's Jews living in Israel must also be accounted among the failures of the heterodox movements in America.
FINALLY, the pandering of Bennett-Lapid government and its efforts to upend the religious status quo represent strategic folly. As America becomes an ever more challenging environment for Jews, with more brutal attacks on identifiable Jews and escalating levels of hostility to Jewish students on university campuses, more and more Jews will contemplate aliyah. And the vast majority of Jews who do – certainly in the first stages – will be the Orthodox, who have comprised the majority of American Jews making aliyah for decades.
That being the case, the last thing the Israeli government should want to do is to be seen as hostile to religious observance. And if that is true with respect to American Jews, it is even more so for those leaving South Africa, in the face of growing instability, or those fleeing widespread anti-Semitism in Western Europe. In those places, the heterodox movements are very small, and majority of Jews are affiliated with Orthodox synagogues.
Within Israel itself, government policymakers have long emphasized integration of the chareidi population in the economy as a leading desideratum. And that has been taking place. But again, if the government is perceived as hostile to Jewish religion and chareidim, the chareidi community will return to the isolationism of the 1950s.
It is time for Bennett and Lapid to reconsider the misbegotten path on which they have embarked for strengthening relations with the Diaspora.