The last few years have seen an uptick in interest surrounding the concept of an Israel-Diaspora divide, largely revolving around the mostly accurate assessment that Israeli and American Jewry have different values and priorities and that this disparity will eventually lead to a reckoning in U.S.-Israel relations. But beyond that the foundations of the concern surrounding the Israel-Diaspora divide are not so sound.
First of all, the divide is almost exclusively between Israel and North American (primarily U.S.) Jewry. It is not an Israel-Diaspora divide. I had the opportunity last year to visit with Jewish communities in Georgia and Azerbaijan. These populations are part of the Jewish Diaspora, but I can guarantee they are not attuned to nor especially interested in the latest IfNotNow controversy or a critique of the internal practices of some American Jewish organization. This is not because they are somehow disengaged from Jewish life but because they have their own priorities, and discussing an “Israel-Diaspora divide” projects what is principally a North American affair onto hundreds of thousands of Jews in Latin America, Europe, and the former Soviet Union, for whom the relationship with Israel is a totally different animal. In doing so, we obscure the very existence of any Jewish communities outside of the United States and Israel. So going forward, let’s refer to this as an “Israel-American Jewry divide.”
As I mentioned earlier, the view that Israel and American Jewry are divided is generally correct. This is because most Israeli and American Jews espouse different worldviews shaped by fundamentally different formative experiences. The American Jewish story is the minority experience. However great the economic, social, and mainstream political success U.S. Jews have achieved, minority status, anti-Semitism (or memories of anti-Semitism) still greatly inform the outlook of many a Jewish American. By contrast, Jewish Israelis are the majority in their country so many have never experienced anti-Semitism in the Jewish state itself. This is not to say Israel is free from internal divisions or racism. Far from it. But while someone may be given a hard time for being Mizrahi, Ethiopian, Russian, gay, poor, a woman, non-Orthodox, Arab, or any number of other reasons, very few people in Israel have encountered abuse for the basic fact of being Jewish. It follows that the Israeli understanding of political power and minority relations is drastically different from the American Jewish view.
Here is where the Israel-American Jewry divide typically leaps to the issue of the Rabbinate (or, as Naftali Bennett erroneously posited over the weekend, assimilation). The thinking goes that the issue keeping these two communities apart is Israel’s reliance on an anachronistic Ottoman regime for religious affairs, which empowers rabbinic authorities to govern all matters of life and death for Jews (and Islamic courts to do the same for Muslim Israelis), leading to an absence of civil marriage and divorce and the non-recognition of any streams of Judaism outside Orthodoxy. It’s true that the Rabbinate offends the sensibilities of most American Jews, and rightfully so. But it is not an especially popular institution among Israelis either. After all, 55 percent of Israelis support civil marriage. Not the overwhelming backing seen among U.S. Jews (81 percent), but a solid majority nonetheless and hardly cause for hand wringing about a rift between Israel and American Jewry.
Why all this talk of a divide, then, if most Israeli and American Jews agree on the Rabbinate? In fact the Rabbinate is not the core issue keeping Jews in Israel and the United States from seeing eye to eye.
Analyses tend to focus on religious pluralism for a range of reasons. There is obvious reticence on the part of some Jewish communal leaders and organizations to discuss the real elephant in the room, the Palestinians, the occupation, and the question of one versus two states. Some of it is also simply a bad reading of the situation. The lack of civil marriage and religious pluralism in Israel is deeply offensive to many American Jews, but it is unlikely to lead to many turning their backs on Israel. In fact, the relative agreement between most Jewish Americans and Israelis on the subject makes it far easier to talk about, even though it is unlikely anything is going to change regarding the Rabbinate anytime soon.
On the flipside, the Palestinian issue accentuates the real gaps between American and Israeli Jews. Whether one agrees with this reading of the situation or not, it is undeniable that many Jewish and non-Jewish Americans sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a question of oppressor versus oppressed. Some also see a segregation or apartheid element at play here too, which carries echoes of previous political struggles in the U.S.. Americans are proud of our democracy and our elections, and the the lack of voting rights for West Bank Palestinians seems to run contrary to the vision many in the United States have for freedom overseas. In the Jewish community, these views are only sharpened by the Jewish minority experience and the view of Jews as necessarily being champions of the downtrodden (with the Palestinians filling this role).
Contrast this with the Israeli view. Israel also has a democracy, but its political culture is shaped by fundamentally different forces. Israeli Jews’ status as a majority population means they see less in common with the Palestinians, both citizens of Israel and residents of the occupied territories. Meanwhile, many Israelis hail from countries where there is no democracy, such as the Arab states, Iran, and the ex-U.S.S.R. These groups frequently faced condescension from the “enlightened” Ashkenazi class who positioned themselves as protectors of democracy. This tension is exploited by right-wing political parties whose agendas are often inimical to democratic norms.
Discussions of the Israel-American Jewry divide tend to conclude by asking how the rift can be healed. But I would ask readers why closing the gap is seen as an intrinsically good thing. Are American Jews supposed to surrender our worldview and accept diktats from Israel? On the flipside, should Israelis sit and be lectured to by their cousins in the United States? A divide does not have to mean an acrimonious relationship, and accepting the rift as a fact of life does not mean we stop advocating for a two-state solution as a worthy objective for advancing American foreign policy interests and Israeli security. But we can stop grasping at straws to find commonalities where they simply do not exist, and perhaps never did.