In the beginning, there was a dinner party. It was July 1996, and Ronald Lauder, an impassioned advocate for a broad sweep of Jewish concerns, was hosting a small gathering at his Upper East Side apartment in honor of newly elected Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu had come to the U.S., after his victory in an ugly, turbulent campaign conducted in the shadow of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, to reassure Congress and the American Jewish community that he was committed to the peace process.
Netanyahu had also come to personally thank his inner circle of American friends and supporters – people like political consultant Arthur Finkelstein (source of the Willie Horton-esque campaign slogan “Bibi is good for the Jews”), real-estate and media titan Mort Zuckerman, and entertainment-business moguls Marvin Josephson and Merv Adelson.
Like most of the guests at Lauder’s party, Josephson and Adelson are members of an elite class of power rangers, men who move comfortably in a triaxial world of business, politics, and Hollywood. They also share an intense passion for Judaism and Jewishness that is perhaps more cultural than religious, more about camaraderie and a kind of robust ethnic pride in their peer group, than it is about spirituality or a divine revelation on Mount Sinai.
Josephson, a longtime supporter of Jewish causes (he’s chairman of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces), is the founder of International Creative Management, one of the most influential talent and literary agencies in the world. Adelson, who also has a lengthy, energetic history on behalf of Jewish causes, is a co-founder and former CEO of Lorimar-Telepictures and one of Netanyahu’s best friends. They have taken vacations together and had Passover Seders together, and Adelson has, over the years, squired Netanyahu around Los Angeles – dinner with Streisand, an evening honoring Kirk Douglas, and the like – introducing him to the key people in Hollywood.
“When I talked to Bibi at dinner,” says Josephson, a small, gracious man, sitting in his office overlooking Central Park, “I mentioned to him that I knew he had many more important things to worry about. But Israel’s fiftieth anniversary, in terms of preparing for it, was not that far away. And he said to me, ‘You’re absolutely right. Why don’t you handle it.’ And then he turned to Merv, who’s much closer to Bibi than I am, and said, ‘Merv, you have to work with him.’”
As so it was done.
Perhaps Josephson and Adelson should have been a little more skeptical when they agreed to become international co-chairmen of Israel’s Fiftieth-Anniversary Committee. Even in the best of times, putting together a plan to celebrate Israel’s first half-century with a meticulously orchestrated series of events around the world would be fraught with logistic difficulties. And with Israel riven by internal conflicts and American Jews struggling with assimilation and indifference, these are far from the best of times.
On the other hand, why shouldn’t Adelson and Josephson have been optimistic? The basic mission was so straightforward, its importance so indisputable, that they simply believed that the Jewish community in America and the one in Israel, which have lately been at each other’s throats over a host of religious and secular issues, would jointly rise to the occasion – just as they have always done in times of crisis.
That things didn’t exactly work out that way is hardly Adelson and Josephson’s fault. In fact, it’s hard to imagine two men more ideally suited for the job. But even their accumulated skill as dealmakers and their experience in the fractious world of Jewish philanthropy could do little to overcome Israeli ambivalence toward them and the entire project.
Political squabbling, lack of leadership, lack of funding, as well as almost inexplicable mismanagement all played major roles in turning what should have been a moment of triumph into a public embarrassment. Nearly all of the major symbolic events had to be canceled. There will, of course, still be celebrations, but they will take place on a much smaller scale and will be administered, for the most part, locally. To understand just how inept the Israeli handling of the anniversary effort has been, it is necessary only to know that in less than two years, there have been five different anniversary-committee chairmen, one of them lasting only three days.
And while David Bar-Illan, Netanyahu’s top aide, told me that the anniversary became a problem “simply because everything in Israel becomes a problem,” the anniversary effort has been plagued by a far more fundamental problem: the widening gulf between Israeli and American Jews.
“There’s no question that there is a deep cultural gap between the two communities,” says Gideon Meir, who is in charge of Israeli-Diaspora relations in Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “We need a new kind of dialogue and new ways to communicate.”
Given the widely held belief that there is an airtight closeness between the two communities, the lack of communication can at times be stunning. While the Americans were enthusiastically racing against the clock, trying to organize star-studded stadium shows, worldwide satellite telecasts, and erudite symposia that would include some of the world’s best minds, they had no idea that the Israelis, struggling through a recession, had little interest in spending money on the anniversary.
With more urgent issues on their agenda – things like health care and unemployment – money to party seemed frivolous. The Americans never sensed this, and the Israelis never said it. Budgets were verbally approved at every step along the way, but very little money was actually released. For months, Josephson and Adelson paid whatever expenses they incurred out of their own pockets.
The Americans could have saved themselves a lot of grief if they had realized – regardless of what they were being told by a few high-level government people – that the Israelis are simply not in the mood to celebrate. Despite 50 years of extraordinary achievements, Israel is, in this year of its anniversary, a country preoccupied by its internecine disputes: Orthodox vs. secular; left vs. right; Eastern vs. Western culture; theocracy vs. democracy.
This is a difficult time in Israel, a time when the economy, the motionless peace process, and the raging debate over what the national character of a Jewish state should be have left Israelis with, at best, an obstructed view of the bigger picture. “Sometimes I don’t think we Israelis know how to put aside the strains of daily life and celebrate,” says Gad Ben-Ari, chairman of the Jewish Agency delegation to North America and former press secretary to Yitzhak Rabin.
For their part, the Israelis failed to recognize that American Jews have an almost visceral need to celebrate: more than anything else, to validate their self-image as Jews and to congratulate themselves for their role in building the state of Israel. “The fiftieth ought to have been an occasion in which American Jews and Jews the world over could celebrate the most remarkable development in 2,000 years of Jewish history,” says Dr. Steven Bayme, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Institute on American Jewish-Israeli relations. “Yet the problems of the day – the peace process and pluralism – are overshadowing the meaning of the anniversary.”
Ronald Lauder, president of the Jewish National Fund, thinks the mistake that’s been made has been looking backward and trying to celebrate the past. “We should have used this as a moment to look at where Israel is going over the next 50 years,” says Lauder, the former ambassador to Austria.
“The issues affecting Israel are not issues of how they’re going to live with their Arab neighbors. I believe that time will solve this problem. The key issue now is, will Israel be another country in the Middle East that happens to be made up predominantly of Jewish people? Or will it be a true Jewish state, the way it was envisioned by its founders?”
The disputes that emerged around the fiftieth anniversary are indicative of the changing nature of the relationship between the two communities. Israel has matured. It is no longer the poor, unsophisticated relation, happy to accept American charity and the paternalistic – if not patronizing – attitude that comes with it.
At the same time, the comfort level for American Jews is such that they look less and less toward Israel – especially now, when the Orthodox Establishment that controls religious life in Israel seems intent on demeaning the religious practices of most American Jews. The refusal by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to recognize the validity of Conservative and Reform Judaism – the 90 percent of affiliated American Jews – has opened a wound that may never be healed.
The anger felt by American Jews has already resulted in less money being sent to Israel. “We used to to ask how you could run a program that’s more sensitive to local needs, and people would say you can’t. Israel is the only thing that will get people in the gut, the only thing that will motivate them,” says Leonard Fein, a Jewish activist and the director of the Commission on Social Action of the Reform movement. “But now it’s happening. General allocations from UJA Federations to Israel are sliding. Right now they’re at about 40 percent of the money raised, down from 50 percent. And they’ll probably level off at around 25 percent. And the campaigns overall are doing fine.”
Despite the deft use of political power by American Jews on behalf of Israel and despite years of an enormously successful American fund-raising effort – both of which have long been the envy of other ethnic groups – it appears that on a human level, the two communities actually know very little about one another.
“Both societies have changed tremendously over the years, but what’s changed in the relationship? Practically nothing,” says Dr. Gary Tobin, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. “American Jews continue to relate to Israel primarily by sending money. It’s not healthy. If the relationship between American Jews and Israel were a romance, one would not want money to be the primary expression of love.”
In the wake of the holocaust, Jewish unity has been forged around external threats and uncertainties. But as those threats have receded, the question resonating through the Jewish community with the piercing clarity of the shofar (ram’s horn) on Rosh Hashanah is, What will replace them?
How do you capture a generation of American Jews with no memory of the Holocaust, Israel’s war of independence, or even the war in 1967? A generation for whom Israel is not a miracle but a fact of life? And, as Fein points out, an often troublesome fact at that? As Israel begins its next 50 years, what will be the basis for a strong relationship with the Diaspora? Will American Jews still care passionately about Israel? Indeed, should they?
“You can certainly see the specter of disengagement,” says the American Jewish Committee’s Dr. Steven Bayme. “American Jews feel our primary issue is Jewish continuity, and Israel is to some extent damaging that. Because by delegitimizing the Reform and Conservative movements, it’s delegitimizing the primary avenues by which we can get Jews to remain Jewish and to raise their children as Jews.
“The question that must be asked,” he says, “is: To what extent can American Jews sustain an interest in Israel when the real things that bother Jews today are not external but internal? The meaning of Israel has been that in a pinch, Jews can rely only on themselves. We have not sufficiently explored what we share in common as Jews. Are we heirs to a common tradition of Judaism? Do we share a set of beliefs and a value system? Or are we so radically different now that we share nothing more than the fact that a common fate may await us?”
Several weeks after the dinner at Lauder’s apartment, Adelson traveled to Israel. Doing the project right would require prodigious amounts of time – and, of course, prodigious amounts of money – and he wanted to gauge the level of commitment. After meeting with Netanyahu and other top officials in Jerusalem, his fears were allayed. “I left feeling much more comfortable,” Adelson told me from his ranch in Aspen. “The prime minister said to me that he believed the project was important and he was behind us on it.”
With Netanyahu’s backing, Adelson returned to Los Angeles and went to work. He didn’t wait for any money to come from Israel. He didn’t even wait for a formal written confirmation. He couldn’t afford to. Time was critical. They had only eighteen months, and he and Josephson had already begun developing American-style megaplans for the celebration.
There would be a huge stadium show featuring lots of A-list celebrities televised live by satellite from Ramat Gan stadium, just outside Tel Aviv, to countries around the world. Corporate sponsorships would be sold, just as they are at the Olympics. And the show would be produced by David Wolper and Gary Smith, Hollywood veterans whose experience with extravaganzas included the opening ceremonies at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Elie Wiesel, named a co-chairman of the anniversary effort, would head a Nobel-laureate committee and help organize a gathering of Jewish Nobel Prize winners in Israel. NBA commissioner David Stern was enlisted to head up a sports committee. Donna Karan would handle participation in the fashion community; Ronald Lauder, in the art world. Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, would preside over the gathering of Jewish parliamentarians from around the world. In London, Lord Jacob Rothschild would help with British participation. The world’s top Jewish doctors and researchers would also be brought together in Israel for seminars on medicine. Likewise Jewish lawyers. And on and on it went.
But the brightest jewel in this glittering array was an ambitious plan to bring 50,000 Jewish teenagers to Israel – mostly Americans – for at least a month this summer. To assist in planning the airlift and securing the best air fares, United Airlines CEO Gerald Greenwald signed on to help.
“This was really the most meaningful thing we were working on,” says Adelson. “You know, people of my generation all grew up with Israel and its battle for independence and the wars for its survival. It’s bred into us. But for the younger people, who haven’t been through those days, it’s much more difficult to instill these same kinds of feelings in them for Israel.”
Quickly, however, there were warning signs that all was not what it should be on the Israeli side. Shortly after Josephson and Adelson agreed to become co-chairs of the anniversary committee, they found out that Edgar Bronfman had also agreed to take the job. It had been offered to him by Israeli foreign minister David Levy. Eager to avoid a public conflict, Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, graciously bowed out.
But no sooner had that obstacle been removed than other, larger ones loomed. Implementing the extravagant plans laid out by Josephson and Adelson required staff. People were needed to write letters, work on scheduling, make phone calls, handle travel arrangements, and tend to the thousands of details that go into pulling a project like this together. Adelson decided he couldn’t wait for money to come from Israel. So he began to do what needed to be done, using his own money.
“I had a lot of faith,” Adelson says. “I’ve been involved with Israel for years. Sometimes it gets a little complicated over there, but sooner or later they seem to do the right thing. And during this period, I was in Israel every six or eight weeks, and Marvin and I were meeting with all kinds of significant people: The president. The finance minister. The tourism minister. We continued to get approvals, and we continued to get told we should go ahead and do these things.”
At the same time, however, Adelson was sending bills, and no money was forthcoming. To make matters worse, by January 1997, barely six months after their initial conversation with Netanyahu in New York, Josephson and Adelson had already seen two chairmen of the Israeli committee resign. Several months later, their $12 million budget was cut in half.
“What was happening was, we started out with a whole list of things we wanted to do, and every time there were problems, we’d eliminate something. So we kept paring down and paring down until finally you say, ‘Hey, there’s really nothing left except the television special we’re doing in Los Angeles.’ “ (The two-hour special, To Life! America Salutes Israel’s 50th, produced by television veterans Don Mischer and Gil Cates and with a writing staff headed by M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart, ran on CBS last week.)
To make matters worse, while Josephson and Adelson were going through this excruciatingly disappointing process, negative items began to appear about them in the Israeli press. First they were portrayed (incorrectly) as major contributors to Netanyahu’s campaign who were rewarded with these “plum” jobs as heads of the international anniversary committee.
Then they were accused of submitting fictionalized expense reports. corruption, screamed a headline in the Jerusalem Post. “We went through a period,” says Josephson, “where the implications were that here were these well-off American Jews flying first-class, staying in the best hotels, and trying to get the Israeli government to pay for it. Well, the truth is, we did fly first-class and we did stay in the best hotels, but we paid for it ourselves.”
The accusations had enough traction that the Knesset actually voted to send three auditors to Los Angeles to go through Adelson’s books. At issue was $300,000 he submitted in expenses. “They went to my accountant’s office and looked at checks, who was at what lunch. They got into very minute details,” he says. “They came over with a hostile attitude and left apologizing.”
Though Adelson was livid that his integrity and his credibility were being challenged, he wasn’t surprised. “I’m not naïve. I knew beforehand that because of my relationship with Bibi, somebody might take a shot at me because they wanted to embarrass him. I had $150,000 in legitimate expenses that I didn’t put in because I felt they could be criticized as personal, even though they weren’t.”
And finally, Israeli resentment, which had bubbled below the surface, began to seep out. Quotes appeared in Israeli newspapers charging that the Americans were throwing their weight around and trying to Americanize the celebrations. “I don’t think it’s true completely, but there was some of that feeling,” Adelson says. “With the Ramat Gan stadium show, we discussed the plans endlessly and the Israelis agreed that having David Wolper and Gary Smith involved, given their experience in this area, would be a positive thing. We always planned to do the show in Hebrew and have a co-producer in Israel. But I can’t deny there was a feeling on the part of those involved in Israel that this was a show they should produce themselves.”
In the end, that’s exactly what happened. Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert, outraged that a significant symbolic event like this was going to be held in Tel Aviv, demanded that the show be moved to Israel’s capital. It was. It was also significantly scaled down in size and scope and will no longer be televised around the world on Independence Night. For all their time and effort, and their admirable determination to hang in despite the disappointments and the indignities, Josephson and Adelson finished up with very little in the way of tangible results.
“The reason Americans wanted a big celebration,” says Dr. Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, the intellectual center of America’s modern orthodox movement, “is Americans have a greater need for the psychological dimension of the event. We are a community in distress. Except the Israelis recognize their distress better than we recognize ours. The trouble is we have the American tendency to try and cover things up with a great deal of pseudo-optimism.”
Josephson believes that the anniversary effort simply got caught in the endless web of Israeli politics. “I’m more saddened than angry about the whole thing. A lot of Israelis don’t understand Americans and a lot of Americans don’t understand Israelis. Clearly, we missed out on a great opportunity to bring everyone together.”
Not long ago, there would have been no need to manufacture an event around which Jews from the two countries could come together. American-Israeli unity was a given, as natural as the seasonal rhythms of the festivals that mark the Hebrew calendar. It is accepted wisdom that in the course of modern Jewish history, no ideology, no set of values, and no single occurrence – not even the Holocaust – has been as unifying a force for Jews as the existence of the state of Israel.
The human drama of Israel’s creation and the improbability of its survival still leave many Jews breathless. “Stop just for a moment and consider where the Jewish people were after World War II and the Holocaust,” says David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, “stateless, powerless, decimated. Not only does this new Jewish state survive and overcome war, terrorism, economic boycotts, and persistent attempts at diplomatic isolation, but it fulfills this unprecedented notion that it is a home and a haven for the world’s Jews.
“So in addition to this extraordinary story of the will to live and thrive and prosper,” Harris says, “you have a story of return and renewal. The tale of a country the size of New Jersey receiving – while fighting for its survival against six armies – Jews from 100 countries who speak 110 different languages. And it successfully manages this Herculean task of integrating Jews from around the world of various historic, religious, political, and social experiences based on one fact – they all share the same Jewish identity.”
But Harris and his peers at the major Jewish organizations know the American-Israeli relationship faces an uncertain future, one in which there’ll be a desperate search for ways to maintain the synapses that have so effectively carried the impulses back and forth for the first 50 years. Some of the distancing that’s occurred is the natural result of evolution. If two brothers left Russia in the early forties and one went to Palestine and the other came to America, their descendants today would be second cousins. The next generation will be third cousins. So there is an ongoing shift, from a sibling relationship to one of distant relatives.
The change in the dynamic of the relationship is also a measure of how successful each community has been and how differently they have developed. In America, the flip side to the intermarriage-assimilation-indifference hysteria is that Jews have accomplished exactly what they wanted to over the past 50 years. They strove to be fully accepted and to function as equal partners in America, economically, politically, socially, and culturally. And in five decades, they’ve achieved that.
In fact, they’ve achieved more than that. Not only do Jews now think and act like Americans; Americans now think and act like Jews. There’s been a slow Judaizing of America in which it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see where one begins and the other ends. Are Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, and Billy Crystal Jewish comedians or American comedians? Or both? Which sensibility does their view of the world represent?
The downside to this commingling has been the dilution and in some cases the complete disappearance of a distinctive Jewish culture among mainstream American Jews. As a result, it’s become more difficult to feel Jewish without an institutional connection. And the phenomenon of the completely secular American Zionist whose whole life is Israel – the story of many Jews over 60 – is largely a thing of the past. The connective tissue between the two communities is, increasingly, religious commitment.
“So have we stood back and enjoyed this wonderful American success?” asks Gary Tobin at Brandeis. “No. We’ve turned it into the intermarriage crisis. We don’t know how to deal with normality. As American Jews, we should take the next twenty years to get our house in order; that’s the most important aspect of relating to Israel. Because right now, the American Jewish community is behaving in ways that are insecure, confused, backward-looking, and neurotic.”
Israelis have also been extraordinarily successful in reaching their goals over the country’s first 50 years. Though security remains a constant emotional, physical, and financial strain, survival is no longer a real question. Israel has become not only a dominant military power but an economic one as well. The current recession notwithstanding, Israel has a per capita gross national product greater than that of its four neighbors – Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt – combined.
The country has come a long way from the fifties or even the sixties Israel, which was dominated by the kibbutz ethic and the collective sensibility of its European founding fathers. Today’s Israelis have grown up in the Middle East. They speak Hebrew and perhaps some Arabic but not always English. They have also been buffeted by the cultural and political impact of absorbing hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Sephardic countries.
“Any serious culture derives its images from its surroundings,” says Leonard Fein. “So when Israelis think about rivers, they don’t think about the Mississippi; they think about the Jordan. Everybody in Israel has experienced war. There’s only a very tiny percentage of Americans who have. Whenever there’s a terrorist incident or a military one, everybody knows someone who was involved. Israel is really a neighborhood pretending to be a country. It’s a very different experience from the American one. So culturally we’re drawing apart.”
What has developed over the past fifteen years or so is a kind of pyramid structure. Relations between Israeli and American Jews are very tight on the leadership level – between, say, Netanyahu and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. But the farther down you go, the less serious, sustained contact there is. “Most Americans, even those who know a great deal about Israeli politics, don’t know much about daily life in Israel,” says Fein. “They don’t know what’s taught in the schools. They don’t know what songs are on the pop charts, or what plays Israelis go to. Amos Oz is read by a small number of Americans, A. B. Yehoshua by an even smaller number, and David Grossman by a smaller number still. And that’s about it.”
It is also true that the farther you get from the top of the pyramid, the less American Jews matter to Israelis. “By and large, the Israeli leadership recognizes that American Jewish support is important and necessary,” says Dr. Steven Bayme. “But increasingly, the rank and file believe that the American Jewish community is withering away. Israeli education shows very little understanding or appreciation of American Jewry. There’s no sense of the vitality of the American Jewish community. So Israelis grow up knowing only that America means assimilation. And if American Jews are going to disappear anyway, Israelis feel, why should they be important to us?”
In the near term, the critical issue, the one with the potential to continue doing the most damage to the relationship between Israeli and American Jews, is what’s known as the conversion issue, or sometimes the pluralism issue. The controversy spins around two central questions: Who is a Jew? And what should be the character of a Jewish state?
Back in 1948, when Israel was founded, David Ben-Gurion allowed the Orthodox to continue their control of all religious affairs. The government sanctioned a board of rabbis known as the Chief Rabbinate, and it was given complete dominion over all marriages, divorces, burials, and conversions.
The issue is critical now because there are several hundred thousand Israelis – mostly non-Jewish Russian immigrants married to Jews, or children with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers – who are not considered Jewish by the state. Though they are citizens, they cannot marry in Israel or be buried there in a Jewish cemetery unless they convert. And this must be done under the auspices of an Orthodox rabbi – a rigorous process that requires a commitment most are not willing to make.
Conversions performed by Conservative or Reform rabbis in Israel are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate. In other words, they’re not legal. The impact of this has been to create a group of citizens who are denied basic rights: To marry, they must go overseas. This creates the prospect of a two-tiered society. It also creates the possibility that – given the number of Jews in the U.S. whose religious identity would also not be accepted by the Orthodox – there will be two groups worldwide as well.
“If Israel wishes to remain the center of the Jewish world,” says Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s academic center in New York, “it must have a level playing field in which no religious community has the ability to restrict, impose, or harass everyone else. It is not the business of a modern government to determine who can marry whom and who can be buried where.”
In America, Israel’s Orthodox monopoly has sparked deeply felt outrage and a sense of alienation at a time when the relationship between the two communities is least able to endure the damage. The poisonous rhetoric of the Chief Rabbinate has left most Jews in America angry and disappointed. The rhetoric is so unforgiving that after a recent failed attempt at a compromise, which would have allowed Reform and Conservative rabbis a role in preparing converts, the Chief Rabbinate issued a statement in which it could not even refer to the other streams of Judaism by name. It simply denounced them as “those who do not believe in Torah from the heavens, who try to shake the foundations of the Jewish religion.” The statement also condemned “those who have brought about disastrous results of assimilation among Diaspora Jewry.”
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform organization that represents 876 congregations and nearly 1.5 million American Jews, has been out front in Reform’s battle to gain a foothold in Israel. “In America, it’s the synagogue that’s the heart of Jewish life, and American Jews believe they’re being put in the position of having to choose between their synagogue and allegiance to the state of Israel.”
Yoffie accuses Israel’s leadership – on the left and on the right – of a lack of courage and vision. “This could be a time for a significant national leader to galvanize the state of Israel and the Jewish people and to provide some direction. Where’s Ben-Gurion when we need him?”
Israeli leaders, Yoffie argues, forget they have a broader constituency. “They’re supposed to be the leaders of the Jewish world. If they only serve the Israelis, then Israel is only the state of the Israelis and has nothing to do with me,” he says, barely able to contain his anger.
“Netanyahu doesn’t have to be a reform Jew. But if he can’t even say, ‘I value what you’re doing; I understand that your movement is a significant force in promoting Jewish values and fighting assimilation; I see you as an ally in our battle to preserve the Jewish people’; if he can’t as prime minister come and visit a Reform synagogue … if those things can’t happen in 1998, we’re in deep trouble.”
For most Israelis, the issue has a different focal point entirely. The Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism, which essentially represent an attempt to preserve religious practice for those living in a modern, integrated society, have registered barely a blip on Israel’s spiritual radar. In the West Bank town of Efrat, for example, which was first settled by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, founder of the Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side, there are 7,000 residents and 23 Orthodox synagogues. In the entire state of Israel, there are fewer than 50 Conservative synagogues. Of Israel’s 4.6 million Jews, just over 10,000 are Reform and 20,000 are Conservative.
The struggle in Israel is not between the various streams of Judaism but between the Orthodox and everyone else. Will Israel be a Western-style democracy that welcomes the diversity of the Jewish people? Or will it become a theocracy dominated by fundamentalism?
Will the government legislate Sabbath observance? Will there be more measures like the one that supports segregated public buses – which women have to enter at the back – that run through some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods? Or will things go to the other extreme, as exemplified by a proposal from the Meretz Party that called for a new national anthem? The idea was that “Hatikvah,” the anthem since 1948, which speaks movingly of Jewish hope, might offend Israel’s non-Jewish residents.
These issues have so much ballast in Israel that a recent poll done by Tel Aviv University’s Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research found that only 30 percent of Israelis thought the conflict with the Palestinians was Israel’s greatest threat. This even though three out of four believed the peace process was going nowhere. Fully 60 percent believed that the primary dangers – especially the Orthodox-vs.-secular battle – were internal.
“The first 50 years was the era in which we dealt with survival,” says the Jewish Agency’s Gad Ben-Ari. “We were concerned with how to build the state and secure it. Now we are beginning to deal with issues we never had time for, like: What is the meaning of Israel as a Jewish state? This country belongs not only to Israeli citizens but to Jews everywhere.
“The positive thing about all this is that Jews in the Diaspora are now beginning to get involved in these battles. They are standing up and saying they are not happy with Orthodox dominance. They are standing up and saying, ‘Even if we don’t speak Hebrew, and even if we do not visit Israel twice a year, we still want a Jewish state that appeals to our Jewish identity.’ If they didn’t care,” says Ben-Ari, “they wouldn’t be in the fight.”
Despite the drift, the disagreements, and the struggle taking place in both the American and the Israeli communities to forge an identity for the next century, no one actually believes we’re witnessing a divorce. Rather, there is a sense that this is more like a good family fight, in which roles may get redefined and there may be a period of estrangement but where in the end the relationship will remain intact.
What’s happening between Americans and Israelis is in many ways analogous to what’s happening within the American Jewish community. Both centrifugal and centripetal forces are at work. “The community is actually dizzy right now,” says Leonard Fein. “Though a lot of people are dropping out, the people who are hanging in are incredibly energetic. And as far as Israel is concerned, there continues to be an empathetic and a sympathetic relationship even as there is, these days, lots of frustration and irritation.”
There is also an intense effort to ensure that links between the two communities will continue. Though Josephson and Adelson’s plan to have 50,000 teens visit Israel this summer didn’t work out, there is a movement under way, led by Michael Steinhardt and with interest expressed by people like Ronald Lauder, to create and fund a program that will provide access to a trip for every American Jewish teenager.
“Look,” says Yoffie. “Israel returned us to history. It restored our national sovereignty after 2,000 years. The Jewish people have power again, and I don’t dismiss that in any way. It’s an extraordinary blessing. What we’re now involved in is a debate on how that power is to be used. And the fact is that despite everything, this ought to be a time for celebration.”