I love Israel. Her government: not so much

ew 'inconvenient truths' about Israel and non-Orthodox Jews.

(RNS) In a few days, I will be in Jerusalem. It is the place that I feel most alive, most engaged, and most spiritually challenged.

And this time, more than usual.

The Israeli government decided Sunday (June 25) to freeze a plan to create an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall.

Fifty years after Israeli soldiers fought to capture the Wall, Jews are still fighting over the Wall.

Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency, just canceled a dinner event with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in utter frustration over this act of betrayal.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, leader of the Reform movement, was supposed to have met with Netanyahu this week, but the rabbi, similarly frustrated, canceled the meeting in protest.

The CEO of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, has also condemned the prime minister’s move.

“The Kotel (Western Wall) belongs to all Jews worldwide, not to a self-appointed segment,” said Harris. “This decision is a setback for Jewish unity and the essential ties that bind Israel and American Jews, the two largest centers of Jewish life in the world.”

As I pack my bags, let me stop and reflect for a few moments.

First: A tiyul (tour) of Bibi’s brain

I am going to speculate on what is going on in the collective minds and souls of Bibi’s government. It is not only cynical political self-preservation. It is not only the willful surrender of the definition of Jewish spiritual identity to the ultra-Orthodox.

What is going on here cannot be separated from other trends in Jewish life and demographics. Bibi Netanyahu and Naphtali Bennett, leader of Israel’s right-wing Jewish Home party, can read the findings of Jewish sociologists as well as we can.

To quote sociologist Steven Cohen:

The overall American Jewish population size is stable and growing, but its character is shifting dramatically. The Orthodox population (Haredi, centrist, and modern) is exploding. The non-Orthodox are in sharp decline. …

(T)he Orthodox “market share” has been soaring. Among the oldest generation, they’re 5 percent of all Jews. Among the middle generation, they rise to 15 percent. And among children, the Orthodox are home to 27 percent of the total. Within two generations, the Orthodox fraction of the Jewish population has more than quintupled. And it continues to grow.

And for the non-Orthodox?

Again, Cohen:

These trends mean diminished numbers of non-Orthodox who participate in Jewish life. One reason is that, among the non-Orthodox, the 28-45 year olds are fewer than the 56-73 year olds. Another factor is their lower Jewish participation rates. …

Among non-Orthodox Jews aged 28-45, just 204,000 are congregants vs. 461,000 among those aged 56-73. For Jewish organization members: 130,000 vs. 252,000. Or take the number who say they’re very emotionally attached to Israel: 198,000 vs. 466,000 among the older Jews. So it goes for measure after measure.


Bibi and his government know on which side their collective challah is buttered. They must believe that they can write off the non-Orthodox because, quite simply, they are not reproducing themselves.

Second: You don’t call, you don’t write

Several years ago, the American Jewish Committee sponsored a survey of American Jewish travel patterns to Israel.

The survey found that 59 percent of the 1,074 Jews surveyed have never been to Israel.

And, who goes to Israel?

More than 80 percent of Orthodox Jews have visited Israel. That compares to 54 percent of Conservative Jews, 36 percent of Reform Jews and 22 percent of those who identify themselves as “Just Jewish.”

I wonder if Bibi senses that it’s the Orthodox that seem to care most about Israel.

And therefore, he is willing to write everyone else off.

An El Al Boeing 777 aircraft at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, on July 14, 2015. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Nir Elias

Third: This could not have happened at a worse time

So, here is what happened in Chicago, as related by Daniel Politi in Slate:

Three people carrying Jewish Pride flags were asked to leave the Chicago Dyke March on Saturday in part because they “repeatedly expressed support for Zionism.” One member of the Dyke March collective said those carrying the rainbow flag with a Star of David in the middle were told to leave because the flags “made people feel unsafe,” adding that the march was “anti-Zionist” and “pro-Palestinian.”

Lovers of Israel increasingly face the (false, externally imposed) choice between Zionism and liberal ideals. At a time when Israel should be affirming pluralism, helping young Jews in their intellectual defense of the Jewish state, it has just made it more difficult for them to do so.

Fourth: ‘Af al pi chen’ as we say in Hebrew — nevertheless . . . 

I am angry over the failure of the Kotel compromise. The actions of this Israeli government, and past Israeli governments, frustrate me.

But, I do not let these frustrations dampen my enthusiasm for Israel, and for the Zionist dream.

No more than I would allow my deep frustrations and pain over the Trump administration to dampen my love for America.

I love Israel, far more than I dislike those who would curtain the rights of my fellow Jews.

And so, I prepare to get on that plane on Thursday, my enthusiasm for Israel is unshaken.

And my support for the work of Hiddush, run by my friend Rabbi Uri Regev to advocate for religious equality in Israel, is even stronger.

The question is: What are my fellow non-Orthodox Jews prepared to do about this latest betrayal? What actions will we take? How will we make our voices matter?

And how will we do so in a way that does not further fray the fragile threads that bind so many to the living reality of Israel?

Stay tuned.