For Dr. Steven Bayme, the video of leaders of American Reform Judaism being roughed up at the Kotel was a stark symbol of how wide the divergence between American Jews and Israeli Jews has become.
Dr. Bayme, who identifies as modern Orthodox and lives in Riverdale, N.Y., is an official at the American Jewish Committee, where he is national director for Contemporary Jewish Life and director of its Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations. He believes American Jewish-Israeli relations are vitally important for both Jewish communities. And he believes that they took a definitive turn for the worse five months ago, on June 25, a date that he believes will go down in history “because two things converged: the freeze of the Kotel agreement,” in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had promised American Jews to respect their role as having a role to play in organizing the space holy to world Jewry, “and advancing a bill that would cement the Orthodox monopoly on conversion.”
“Whether or not these two issues get resolved, it points to a long-term fissure between a Jewish state that will become increasingly religious in the Orthodox sense of the word, increasingly particularistic in the survivalist sense of the word, and an American Jewish community that is largely liberal and universalistic,” he said. “As long as their trajectories are going in such different directions, we are looking at real chasm.”
In 2014, Dr. Bayme organized the Jewish Religious Equality Coalition to challenge the Israeli chief rabbinate’s monopoly on personal status in Israel. This new coalition “is a wall-to-wall coalition that has significant Orthodox participation,” he said. “It shows how deeply concerned American Jews are. They’re really concerned whether the degree of passion and attachment that has been so critical to Israeli-American Jewish relations in the past will continue to the next generation.”
So far, clearly it has not been so successful.
“The coalition has done its job in the sense of raising its voice,” Dr. Bayme said. “I cannot guarantee victory. All we can say is that you’re guaranteed failure if you don’t raise your voice. We’re trying to bridge the divide, trying to exercise some moderation within the debates. It’s very much of an uphill struggle.”
So if Netanyahu and the Israeli government want to bridge the divide, what should they do?
“At the absolute minimum, Israeli public policy needs to be weighed as to its impact on the American Jewish ethos,” Dr. Bayme said. “Israel is a sovereign state, it will reach its own policy conclusions, but at minimum it should take into account what impact a policy will have on the American Jewish community.
“Secondly, we know remarkably little about one another. In America, the dominant narrative we teach about Jewish history is the Holocaust. We don’t do as good a job teaching about the birth and rejuvenation of the sovereign Jewish state. The teaching of Israel needs to be part of the core Jewish curriculum.
“By the same token, the Israeli education system needs to let students know much more about us. What is their image of Reform Judaism? Do they understand it as a very dynamic and diverse movement? There’s lots of room for educational exchanges.”
“Thirdly, Israeli society will have to undergo its own evolution. If you choose not to accept Reform conversions, that’s your business. You as an individual have the right to reject them. The issue is the Jewish state, acting on behalf of the Jewish people, should not be invalidating individual conversions.”
The ongoing confrontation reflects demographics, politics, and issues, Dr. Bayme said.
Demographically, “the charedi parties show every indication they are only growing in influence. If you have families who are larger, you will be more significant. I think 25 percent of Israeli first graders this year are charedi.
“Secondly, every Israeli government is worried not just about who is in the coalition today, but what the next coalition will look like.”
Those Israelis looking to minimize charedi influence and liberalize that community were hopeful following the elections for the 19th Knesset in 2013, when a coalition was formed including Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party rather than the charedi parties. In keeping with Yesh Atid’s platform, the government passed laws that chipped away at ultra-Orthodox power, and even would have drafted members of that community. Before the end of 2014, however, Netanyahu called early elections, and again aligned his government with the charedim.
“The politics along with the demographics are structural things,” he said. “Thirdly, the divide between Israeli and American Jewry is also a divide over issues. An area where we at the AJC supported the Netanyahu government was with respect to the Iranian nuclear bomb. American Jews largely favored the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” more often known as the Iran deal. “American Jews have to ask themselves what is the toll that assimilation is taking on American Jewish identity, and therefore on its relationship to Israel. Distance from matters Jewish also means distancing from Israel as well.
“The divide is growing greater on both sides of the spectrum.
“The picture should not be overly negative. Relations at the top are quite tight. American Jews in leadership posts are more invested in Israel than ever before. Israelis in leadership posts are spending more time here.
“Israel looms very high on the American Jewish radar screen. Birthright Israel was an extremely important initiative. It legitimated Israel in the American Jewish consciousness. The question is, what kind of Israel is looming large? Is it an Israel we can identify with, or a state that American Jews will instinctively recoil from? That’s where American Jewish voices needed to be heard.
“When the chief rabbi of Jerusalem says Reform Judaism is worse than Holocaust denial — besides the perverseness of it! — think of what impact that has on a critical mass of Reform Jews.”
Dr. Bayme said that his coalition has been targeting Israel’s modern Orthodox community, rather than the charedim. “We have tried dialoguing with them,” he said of the charedim. “It’s been relatively fruitless. The real swing vote is the national religious community. Some exciting things are happening in terms of Israeli modern Orthodoxy,” such as new conversion courts that are independent of the Orthodox chief rabbinate.
Granted the divide between Israel and American Jewry is real, but why is it important?
For one thing, it threatens political advocacy for Israel, Dr. Bayme said. “The U.S.-Israel relationship presupposes an American Jewish community that actively and assertively wants America to be standing behind Israel.” A weaker Israel-diaspora connection will lead to a weaker Israel-U.S. relationship — and a weaker Israel.
For another, it divides the world Jewish community and even the American Jewish community. “The pro-Israel consensus that developed after 1948 is falling apart,” he said.
But what bothers him the most, he said, as someone committed to the Jewish people, for whom the State of Israel is a central component, is “what kind of Jewish state are we talking about? Are we talking about a Jewish democratic state, or a state where all sorts of personal inconveniences will be administered by charedim? There’s currently a coalition crisis over train tracks being repaired on Shabbat. A Jewish state that imposes so many restrictions on what people do is something a lot of us will have a hard time relating to.”