From The Sidelines To The Front Lines
Fri, 01/14/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
Knesset member David Rotem, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Knesset member David Rotem, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

2010 marked a turning point in the relationship between diaspora Jewry and Israel. Although philanthropy and tourism remain essential components of that relationship, diaspora Jews signaled that unquestioning support could no longer be taken for granted and demanded, as never before, a voice in shaping the values of the Jewish state.

That new assertiveness stems in part from the increasingly active role Jews were being asked to play in defending Israel against what Prime Minister Netanyahu has called Israel’s “Soft War,” a worldwide campaign of delegitimization against the Jewish state. The front lines of this confrontation lie far from the Lebanese or Gazan borders, but on college campuses and op-ed pages, shelves of Trader Joes, Seattle’s buses, containers of Sabra hummus and the “like” icons of Facebook. While many diaspora Jews are willing to be good soldiers in the Soft War, they’ve come to demand that Israel provide what some feel is needed most to complete their vital PR assignment: a Jewish state not stained by corruption, blemished by bigotry or hijacked by the religious right.

Despite growing evidence of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, there was plenty of good news to go around this past year, with the strong Israeli economy and improved security attracting record tourism — over three million visitors in all — and Birthright Israel, more popular than ever for young adults, began its second decade by approaching the 300,000 mark. But as visitors sipped lattes at Tel Aviv’s bustling cafés, conversations kept returning to the year’s three obsessions: flotilla, Beinart and Rotem.

The response to the Gaza flotilla raid of May 31, where nine activists were killed, unleashed a worldwide media onslaught that set Israel’s defenders on their heels. They regrouped, buoyed by videos showing defenseless Israeli soldiers under armed attack. Still, much of the positive PR resulting from Israel’s remarkable humanitarian efforts following the Haiti earthquake dissolved in Israel’s perceived insensitivity to the humanitarian needs of Gazan civilians, and this posed a new challenge for the weary infantry of the Soft War.

Israelis were united in defending the actions of their soldiers, believing that the world, including, many felt, the American president, was out to get them. With Israeli support for Obama plummeting to the single digits, a fissure opened between Israelis and American Jews, who, despite a Republican resurgence at home, continued to support the President solidly. This tension was amplified during tense interactions between the administration and Prime Minister Netanyahu, including two ill-timed announcements on West Bank housing construction that emerged during key meetings with Vice President Biden.

Then Netanyahu was heckled during his November speech before 4,000 at the Jewish Federations’ General Assembly. Unnerved by this shocking reception — harassing a prime minister is a red line rarely if ever crossed at the G.A. — Netanyahu accused the protesters of joining the ranks of those who believe “Israel is guilty until proven guilty.

“The greatest success of our detractors is when Jews start believing that themselves,” he added, choosing to attack rather than reach out to his critics. “We’ve seen that today.”

In June, noted intellectual Peter Beinart raised a storm by accusing the American Jewish establishment of sacrificing its liberal values in favor of support for Israel at any price. A long-time supporter of Israel, Beinart spoke about a generational divide. The sense that the world is against us doesn’t resonate with younger American Jews, he said. Indeed, young American Jews in focus groups repeatedly used the word “they” rather than “us” in reference to Israel. In a poll, only 50 percent of young Jews said they would consider Israel’s destruction a personal tragedy. Other surveys gave conflicting results, but Beinart’s critique struck a chord, particularly in the Israeli press.

In mid-July, the Jerusalem Post featured an interview with political guru Frank Luntz, who was in Israel to advise government officials on how to improve their PR skills in talking to Americans. “Americans want to hear empathy,” he advised. “They want to know that you feel the pain of the people in Gaza.”

Luntz spoke of a focus group he did with Harvard and MIT students, Jews and non-Jews. “Within 10 minutes,” he said, “ the non-Jews started with “the war crimes of Israel,” with “the Jewish lobby,” with “the Jews have a lot more power and influence…” The Jewish students responded with silent acquiescence. When Luntz later confronted them, two of the women in the group started to cry.

“The guys are like, ‘Oh, my God, I didn’t speak up, I can’t believe I let this happen.’ And they’re all looking at each other with horrible embarrassment and guilt like you wouldn’t believe.”

Such is life on the front lines of the Soft War.

The summer also gave us the Rotem bill, which was designed to help hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants to Israel convert to Judaism, but which threatened to disenfranchise diaspora Jewry by placing the authority to determine Jewish status entirely in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate. Mayday calls went out to diaspora leaders; the response was immediate and decisive. Unlike prior “Who is Jew” controversies, this one involved the liberal streams recruiting allies like Natan Sharansky of the Jewish Agency and Jerry Silverman of the Jewish Federations of North America. Then, when members of Congress began to chime in, Prime Minister Netanyahu recognized that it was time to derail Rotem, at least temporarily. Another red line had been crossed — mainstream, “establishment” Jews lobbying Congress against Israel, on a question of religious freedom.

Simultaneously, Israelis too seem to have decided that, with regard to the chief rabbinate, enough is enough. There has been a convergence on the issue of conversion, though in Israel the prime concern has been acceptance of Israel Defense Forces conversions. Public sentiment appears to be shifting toward a decentralization of religious authority. Even a small step toward a de-clawed Chief Rabbinate would mark a sea change in the Jewish state’s relationship with Jews around the world.

Accompanying conversion-related controversies, an epidemic of human rights outrages intensified the alienation of American Jews looking to support a Jewish state that shares their values. These include: the arrest of a woman for carrying a Torah near the Western Wall, the segregation of women on buses and streets, ethnic segregation at a yeshiva in Immanuel, the proposed loyalty oath, right wing Jews marching defiantly through an Israeli Arab town (Umm Al-Fahm), halachic rulings sanctioning the killing of gentiles, incitement toward minorities and foreign workers, and the letter signed by 49 rabbis supporting a ruling by a rabbi in Safed banning the sale or rental of property to non Jews. Added to this was the frenetic burst of construction in outlying settlements at year’s end, further compromising chances for a two-state solution.

The response to the Safed letter was a counter letter signed by more than 1,200 North American rabbis (full disclosure — I’m No. 67), saying:

“We struggle to maintain a strong, loving relationship between Jews outside of Israel and the Jewish state. Every day, that challenge grows more difficult. Many of our congregants love Israel and want nothing more than the safety and security of the Jewish homeland, but for a growing number of Jews in America this relationship to Israel cannot be assumed.”

Although couched in the reasoned, persuasive language of the Soft War, this letter was pure shock and awe, an unprecedented shot across the bow to Israeli leaders by rabbis from all denominations. As 2011 begins, it remains to be seen whether Netanyahu will continue to see this growing chorus of influential diaspora critics as a fifth column playing into the hands of the enemy, or will be chastened enough to shore up his legions on the front lines of the Soft War.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn., and a regular columnist for The Jewish Week. His “Standing on One Foot: A rabbi’s journal” column appears monthly.