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Carlo Strenger

Carlo Strenger

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Is Israel Alienating Jews of the World?

Posted: 07/13/10 12:31 PM ET

Yesterday the Knesset approved the new law of conversion in a first reading. The law gives a monopoly for conversions to the Chief Rabbinate. It is not really clear how much the new law will change the status quo in practical terms: Israel has only recognized conversions performed by orthodox rabbis in Israel. Nevertheless the law shows how blissfully unaware our lawmakers and politicians are of what goes on outside their narrow fishpond, and that they have no clue about the effect of their actions on the wider world. Much of this is based on the anachronistic view that Israel should be impervious to the views of the gentiles and do whatever it thinks is right.

Now it turns out that Israel's lawmakers are also completely blind and deaf to what Jews around the world (and a large proportion of Jews in Israel) feel, think and believe. Approximately 85 percent of world Jewry is not orthodox. For reasons of political expediency and in order to maintain peace and quiet in the coalition, the Knesset is about to pass a law that offends the vast majority of world Jewry.

Of course, one can argue that the feelings and beliefs of Jews who are not Israeli citizens need not to be taken into account by Israel's lawmakers, who are, after all, elected by Israeli citizens. While this argument is correct in a dry, legalist way, it is phenomenally shortsighted.

Israel was meant to be the homeland of the Jewish people, and the relationship of Israel to world Jewry has been of great importance ideologically, emotionally and pragmatically to both sides. I on purpose disregard how important the political influence of US Jewry has been for Israel throughout its history -- and most politicians here are at least aware of this. But the bond between Israel and world Jewry is also one of shared values.

Our politicians do not notice that while Israel is becoming more and more of a Jewish state in the sense of religious orthodoxy, it is less and less the state of the Jewish people. Ever growing numbers of world Jewry feel that their emotional and ideological connection to Israel is gradually unraveling, and the new conversion law is only speeding up the process.

Lately the Jewish world in the US has been stirred by an article of Peter Beinart in the New York Review of Books. Based on a number of polls Beinart shows that the younger generation of American Jews feel progressively estranged from Israel. Part of this is due to Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories and what many of these Jews feel about Israel's often illiberal policies and disproportionate use of power.

While Peter Beinart's article continues to shake US Jewry, its significance has been almost completely missed in Israel. Except for an in-depth interview in Haaretz, Beinart's views generated very little media attention here. I am quite convinced that most politicians here wouldn't even know about it. Quite unfortunately I am not sure that it would make a difference if they did. Yisrael Beiteinu initiated the law as a matter of coalition convenience, and its trademark is to offend everybody on the globe -- now including world Jewry. The Haredim, whom this law is supposed to appease, have never cared about the world anyway -- and the rest of the Knesset is shrouded in its usual myopia.

US Jewry lives in a very different universe from that of Israeli politicians. Since its founding, America has seen religion as a completely private affair where the state does not mettle. US Jewry is highly pluralist in its religious orientation. The standard categorizations of orthodox, conservative and reform have long given way to much more fluid forms of religious ritual and spiritual experience. Blends of all sorts have evolved, and for Americans, as for every citizen of the free world, the idea that the state has a say on what 'real' Judaism (or any other religion) is, sounds positively ludicrous, belonging to a different age.

Quite naturally many Jewish-American leaders feel that this law is insulting to their constituencies. The state of Israel, by fiat, determines that their form of practicing Judaism is relegated to some second-rate status in what is supposed the state of the Jewish people.

I don't know whether this will be of much comfort for Diaspora Jews, but our lawmakers are not only blind to the impact of their actions on world Jewry, but also trample basic liberties of their fellow non-orthodox citizens. Only wedding rituals performed by orthodox rabbis are allowed; Jews cannot marry non-Jews, and Kohanim cannot marry divorced or widowed women.

The result is patently absurd: Israel is the only country in which Jews are told by the state whom they can marry and how. Many non-orthodox Jews, who are not willing to have the state impose orthodox value on them, choose to formally marry in Cyprus or some other venue. They feel alienated by the country of which they are citizens, which they serve, often at great personal cost, and where they pay their taxes, because the state infringes on some of their most basic liberties.

Lately some of our politicians are waking up to the reality that Israel, as its Ambassador to the US has said, is more isolated than it ever was, except maybe during the 1970s. If they will continue acting as if they never read a foreign newspaper, they will soon find out that along the way, they will have alienated a whole generation of Jews, too.