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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

A FRACTURED JEWISH WORLD GREETS ISRAEL AT 75

Tonight and tomorrow Jews in Israel and throughout the world will celebrate the 75th anniversary of Israel's independence. There was a time in my life and career when celebrating Israeli independence was very high on my agenda. On the 50th anniversary I participated in planning an event that took over the entire Miami Beach Convention Center, filling it with Israel-related activities that attracted over 20,000 people. On the 60th I planned a regional celebration at my JCC that also brought in thousands.


Those of you who have heard me talk about Israel in recent years know that my enthusiasm for these celebrations has drastically waned. Polls of American Jews indicate that I'm far from alone. As Israeli policies have drifted further and further from much that we have called "shared democratic values" it's become more and more difficult to rejoice in what's going on there.


Many Israelis, too, are less enthusiastic about celebrating this landmark anniversary. Prompted by the severely un-democratic proposals for judicial "reform" by the current far-right ultra-religious and nationalist government, pro-democratic forces have taken to the streets in the hundreds of thousands every week for the past several months. (If you would like a briefing about these outrageous proposals—temporarily on hold since just before Passover—check out my February presentation).


While these and many others are not feeling so festive about where Israel is headed after 75 years, mainstream American Jewish leadership made a determined attempt to rejoice. As I write this, the N. American Council of Jewish Federations (CJF) is holding their General Assembly (GA) in Israel timed to this anniversary. It's happening in conjunction with what has been billed as the largest ever collective American Jewish mission under the banner of "One past. One future. One people."*


The unity projected by these kinds of slogans has often served to cover up the many divisions and downright schisms in the Jewish world. This event is no different. According to reports from the GA, the CJF has tried valiantly (desperately?) to paper over divisiveness from view. It has not been working. There are simply too many flash points among Jews and too little mutual understanding between American and Israeli Jews, even those who see themselves as essentially liberal or progressive. Decades of diverging cultural evolution have led to the existence of two extraordinarily different Jewish world views.


A look at two significant differing priorities might help us better understand this. 


Jews who live outside of Israel, for example, have for many years been frantically urging the Israeli government (and average Israeli) to care about Jewish pluralism the way that N. American Jews do. In Israel their demands include broader Jewish access for liberal religious movements to Israel's "holy" sites. While religion vs. secularism may be a hot topic for Israeli Jews, few of them frame it as a problem of Jewish religious pluralism. For a country that has little in the way of non-Orthodox Judaism, this is a distinctly N. American Jewish issue. Most Israelis could not care any less than they do now about whether a Reform rabbi from Scarsdale should have her own space at the Western Wall for egalitarian B'nei Mitzvah services. It's virtually never discussed among Israelis. Yet, according to reports from the Jewish Forward, this was a super hot topic at the GA, rousing the emotions of the visitors.


While North American Jews were getting heated up about the Wall, many Israelis outside the convention center were vying to rile up the visitors about what they see as key threats to Israeli democracy. And yet, as reported by Haaretz, the North American Jews in attendance seem by and large disinterested in helping the millions of Israelis trying to halt the fast-growing authoritarianism represented by their government attack on the judiciary. Haaretz notes that many of the CJF mission participants "cannot understand why the rowdy protesters expect them to take sides in an internal political debate" and how "they cringe in discomfort when they hear the protesters call their government 'fascist' and their prime minister a 'dictator.'" Some of them even believe that Israeli opposition to their own government is what's "fueling antisemitism."


In an ironic situation that only Jews could create, both of these groups share a common adversary in the Orthodox religious and ultra-nationalists who are running Israel today. Their failure to unite on each other's behalf strongly underscores the lack of unity among world Jewry, even those who share similar world views! If we cannot even stand in opposition against an intolerant Jewish religious and supremacist government, there is little else that can make us feel that we are "One People."


Jews, it can be argued, have always been an internally fractured group (or collection of groups). As we greet Israel at 75, we see that even our most similar groups—liberal and progressive North American and Israeli Jews—seem either unwilling or unable to raise their voices for each other's causes. This does not bode well for platitudes about Jewish unity.


Where it's all heading is anyone's guess. Modern Jewish history has little to teach us about what happens when part of our people acquires the power to repress democracy in our historic homeland and reject Jewish pluralism there and everywhere else. **


One thing is certain. On this 75th anniversary of Israel's independence, none of this is headed in a good direction.


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* For those of you unfamiliar with the CJF, it is no less than the largest single Jewish umbrella organization in the world. Almost every Jewish organization is in some ways related to it. Even our congregation receives assistance from its philanthropic efforts. It's impossible to understate its centrality to N. American Jewish life.


** I am acutely aware that democracy in Israel is and always has been a mostly Jewish right. However, as a proponent of Palestinian rights I submit that eliminating what democracy there will make matters infinitely worse for Palestinians, be they citizens of Israel or residents of the Occupation.

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