Livni Now Pressing Israel-Diaspora Gap Issue

Kadima leader looking to widen support for centrist party with natural U.S. constituency.

Wed, 10/06/2010
Editor And Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

 This week I had the unique experience of spending an hour and a half with a leading Israeli politician who never made reference to the peace process, the threat from Iran or a pitch for support. 


On Sunday morning at a small meeting room at Park Avenue Synagogue on the Upper East Side, Tzipi Livni, 52, the leader of the centrist Kadima party as well as leader of the opposition, was more interested in listening than talking. She had requested this meeting — I was told it was “semi-on the record,” whatever that means — and wanted to hear, particularly from leaders of the liberal denominations, about how, or whether, American Jews
 connect with Israel. 


Her visit to the U.S. this week was centered on her latest cause
— one that resonates with concerned Jews everywhere: namely, how to narrow
 the worrisome and growing gap between Israeli and diaspora Jewry.

In the conversation Sunday morning with four liberal rabbis, two
journalists and the president of the North American division of the Shalom
Hartman Institute, who convened the meeting, Livni stayed laser-focused on what she sees as one of the critical questions of our time. 


“What are the Jewish values that unite all Jews as a society, as a people?” she asked at the outset, assuring us that she was interested in an authentic and open dialogue. 


“I came here to understand the sensitivities” of American Jews, Livni said. “I didn’t come with an action plan.”

She pointedly stayed away from political discussion during our 90-minute session, though she had made clear back home that she hoped to engage diaspora Jewry
in addressing an Israeli governmental system that many believe is held hostage by political minorities, particularly from the religious right. 


The implicit critique here is that the current Likud-led coalition is beholden to haredi Orthodox parties, creating tensions over conversion legislation and other areas of personal status that could further alienate liberal Jews in America and throughout the diaspora.

In an op-ed Livni wrote in The Jerusalem Post last month, titled “Time For A New Jewish Conversation,” she asserted that the shallowness of the Israel-diaspora relationship “constitutes a failure of leadership and
vision.”

Her visit to the U.S. this week was an effort to learn more about the problem, she said, and on her return, seek ways to address it, no doubt with the hope of widening support for her Kadima party. 


It’s quite possible that this new priority is a political move to carve out a constituency of largely untapped diaspora Jewry. But the Livni we met with on Sunday seemed to transcend politics in voicing her fears and frustrations about the Jewish future in an increasingly fragmented society.

“I don’t want to have to choose between Tel Aviv and B’nai Brak,” she said in referring to the deep secular-religious split in the Jewish state.

Throughout the meeting, she was more engaged and open than the no-nonsense leader I’d encountered on several earlier occasions.

At the helm of the party that gained the most votes in the 2009 national
election (but could not form a ruling coalition), Livni is widely respected
 for integrity and honesty in a political environment that is all too often
tainted by scandal. She has served in cabinet positions as minister of
 justice as well as minister of immigrant absorption, minister of agriculture and minister of housing. But she lacks the easy, glad-handed rapport and charisma that many politicians count on for popularity with the public. 


I have been present at meetings where Livni, whether aloof or shy, hardly made eye contact with her audience. 


But fresh off the plane from Israel Sunday morning, she shared personal observations and feelings with us, worrying that young people today, in Israel as well as the diaspora, seem less engaged in Judaism. 


“For secular Israelis like me, most of us grew up in families where our
 grandfathers were more religious, and our parents had respect for Jewish 
traditions,” she said. “We fasted on Yom Kippur, but today I see kids riding
 their bicycles. … For young people today, it’s more about being in Israel” than
about being Jewish.

She seemed intent on hearing our views, and the responses around the table were supportive of Livni’s ideas and agenda, acknowledging that democratic and Jewish ideals often can be at odds.

Underscoring the point that many young Jews today don’t see Israel as special in their lives, one rabbi offered an example of what he called “the incredible gap” in attitudes toward Jewish peoplehood between Jews in their 20s and those a generation older.

He told of a liberal yeshiva student in his 20s who expressed concern that a special prayer recited at the yeshiva on behalf of captured Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit did not include similar sentiments for all political prisoners everywhere.

In the end, it was Livni who said that the Israeli electoral system needs to be changed, noting that the reason it hasn’t happened is because politicians lack the courage to do so. She called for Israeli and American philanthropists to work together on a common agenda and cited the need for a curriculum in all Israeli schools — secular, religious, Arab and haredi — that taught core Jewish values.

But defining those values is daunting, she acknowledged, because each group assigns them different meanings and standards.

Yehuda Kurtzer, the young scholar recently appointed president of the North American division of the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute, later told me that the institute engaged dozens of academics in Israel to address the Israel-diaspora divide this year in the hopes of translating their ideas into educational projects throughout the country.

Kurtzer, winner of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies’ “big idea” award several years ago, said his goal is to create a smaller version of that project here.

“We can’t take for granted” that the Israel-diaspora relationship will endure without analyzing and nourishing it, he said.

That’s what’s driving Livni’s effort, and she told me the next day that she will press on in exploring ways to define Jewish values that connect all Jews.

“We need the Jewish community” in Israel and the diaspora, she said, “to feel part of something greater.”

Gary@jewishweek.org

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It's troubling that Livni, in trying to understand Diaspora Jewry, specifically wanted to hear only from liberal (i.e. non-Orthodox) Rabbis. By any measure, Orthodoxy is growing in the U.S., and has a lot of young people who tend to be more connected to Israel than do many of their non-Orthodox peers. This trend shows no sign of abating. So Livni has excluded an important and growing voice in American Jewry that already has changed the way American Jewry operates on a number of fronts from just 10 years ago. I wonder how Livni can really hope to understand American Jewry, and therefore Israel-Diaspora relations, if she is going to leave out an important part of the puzzle. The same would be true if she convened this meeting without any Reform Rabbis in the room. Given this glaring omission, the question needs to be asked whether she is truly interested in understanding American Jewry in a very open way (as the editorial suggests) or if she is coming to the table with a specific agenda (or at least pre-disposed to understand the relationship only in certain ways instead of as it truly is).
Tzipi, a politically astute lady, Seen as honest, but often too grate-y, Says, "My greatest concern, Young to traditions return - Just as long as it's not too Haredi!" Livni, claiming Haredi hooves are cleft, A wallet-loosening tactic so deft. Concerned of the plight, Of Jews from evil Right, She'll find out America's Jews just Left. To stop American Jews' connection's ruin, Tzipi says we must stop Haredim's spewin'. Would be better to claim, That the source of the shame, Is the rhetoric from the left and the U.N.!
@Gary Dalin: Without getting into the content of your post, which is troublesome more for the dismissive, shallow, and mean-spirited tone than for the quite legitimate content, I do want to give you the opportunity to correct one inadvertent, but significant factual error. Yossi Sarid is the former head of the Meretz party, not Shinui. Meretz is the Zionist-left wing party which advocates heavily for strong freedom of religion and a strong social safety net on economic issues. Shinui was the party founded by Tommy Lapid, which also advocated strongly for freedom of religion, always couched in more hostile terms toward the "dati" and especially "haredi" populations. Its economic positions were opposite of Meretz's. Basically, Shinui was a Libertarian party -- stop taking my money for the poor, the haredi, or whatever else, and leave me alone, whereas Meretz is a more classic progressive-left party -- we're all in this together, so we can't privilege certain parties at the expense of others. Meretz is still active in politics, though now down to 3 seats in the Knesset. Yossi Sarid retired from politics and now is a journalist, writing social and political commentary (for Haaretz, I think). The party is now chaired by Haim Oron. Shinui, as far as I know, is defunct, and Tommy Lapid passed away a couple of years ago.
While I was growing up in a conservative Jewish home that was kosher but I couldn't get my wonderful proudly Jewish father to go to a synagogue unless it were for a wedding or bar/bat mitzvah...the common wisdom that "they aren't religious in Israel." In fact, it wasn't until my early adulthood that I was even aware that ther were Haredim in Israel. Zionism, Kibbutzim, courageous soldiers...turning the desert into a garden...THAT was the Israel that we "knew" and fiercely loved. Now, we're told that Israelis are sometimes too religious and it's the Haredim that are the bad guys. We're told that they're responsible for the serious disconnect between Diaspora Jews and the singular Jewish State on earth. We're told that the religious Jews are the ones to blame for Americans Jews, for example, not fiercely loving Israel anymore. I'm now married to an Israeli and her wonderful parents are certainly not religious (though my father-in-law goes to synagogue with me when I ask.) But, make no mistake, I'm hardly orthodox. I've been to Israel quite a few times and I follow the news about Israel with serious, daily attention. There's no doubt that some of the positions on conversion and the like that emanate from the religious-establishment in Israel are offensive and appear to be illogical and contrary to Israel's national interests, to Diaspora Jews, including myself. But, I believe that the Haredim are being used as a scapegoat for any disconnect that exists between Diaspora Jews and Israel. The very notion that Livni is so oriented against the Haredim is indicative of many having already decided that it is "the religious Jews" that have to be gotten control over to solve "the problem." Israel, without a religious core is just a fool's enterprise. We might as well all live in the Diaspora if bicycles on Yom Kippor and Microsoft are the only really acceptable orientations there. The real problem is that Israeli leaders are tying too hard to be loved by everyone...least of whom are the American presidents and the Europeans who have made Israel a country that actually allowed thousands of rockets to land in civilian areas for years before it did anything about it. The Israelis appear to be ambivalent themselves about being a place where anti-Semites can't ever make Jews victims. If Israel is lethargic and sits there and does nothing as it did for years (as it did under Livni, I might point out) why...and how...can others be more enthusiastic? Israel already has an enormously successful economy in the face of all that's against her in the world. Let her show courage....Let her show refusal to compromise and no longer show ambivalence about any threat to the Jewish People and that "disconnect" that Livni and others seem to be so worried about will recede. Then, once it does it would be the time to address the stubborness that the Israeli religious infrastucture shows. That's something that takes a long time. Making a less-religious Israel more attractive to Diaspora Jews who can live religiously or secularly to their heart's content in America or elsewhere is just silly and misses the entire point. Israel's main mission is to uncompromisingly and courageously protecti Jews...religious or secular...from any harm from any source...Immediately. It isn't making Yom Kippur even friendlier for bicyclists even if some or many Israelis like to.
Yossi Sarid tried the same thing. His Shinui party worked to tap into the U.S. Reform/Conservative anger over non-recognition of their rabbinic ordinations and subsequent non-certifications of their marriages, divorces and conversions. In return for political support for their causes (despite his having no personal interest in religion ) Sarid happily took in their $ for his party. (which has since all but disappeared.) I see the exact same cynical approach: Livny is not at all religious and in fact she hates the Orthodox. So why not try to find allies who also hate the Orthodox under the rubric of 'common Jewish values'? Her goal is to fight the growing strength of those who practice classical Judaism; those who are having the babies who will vote for a strong Israel without whimpy concessions to Jew Haters. Good luck on finding common ground... Let the liberals dissipate their resources to the wind on Tikkuning the WHOLE WORLD'S problems, while the conservatives focus on the needs of the Jewish People. There are very good reasons the Israeli electorate rejects Livny. (BTW: 'she got the most votes' is a canard: the majority was split between multiple parties... collectively she was like totally dumped.)

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