By Gall Sigler
Since the national elections in April 2019, political stability eluded Israel. The numerous elections that followed, largely viewed as referenda on Netanyahu’s domination of Israeli politics for the past decade, failed to produce sturdy coalitions. On Nov. 1, Israelis will head to the polls once again, for the fifth time in 3½ years.
The political chaos that plagues Israel bolstered political apathy and exacerbated social divisions within the Israeli Jewish community. Most significantly, the Israeli government appears paralyzed and unable to pass necessary reforms. Notable are the widely-reported budget delays, transportation reforms and the US Visa Waiver program.
Ultimately, the fragile coalitions and repeated elections made a coherent government strategy, necessary to tackle politically complex issues, impossible. Israeli politicians appear somewhat willing to cooperate on obvious national security issues, such as Iran and Hamas. Yet the preoccupation with short-term issues and election campaigning left festering wounds untreated. Among those wounds is the aching relationship between Israel and American Jewry.
Recent polls reveal how profound the chasm between American and Israeli Jews became. In 2021, Pew Research Center found that 71% of American Jews identify with the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, only 8% of Israel Jews identify their political ideology as leftist. During the Trump administration, the ideological disconnect between Israeli and American Jews reached a new high. While American Jews balked at Trump’s politics, Israelis revered his blatant pro-Israeli policy. At the end of his tenure, Trump had an overwhelming 71% approval rating in Israel, whereas only 27% of American Jews viewed Trump in a favorable light before the 2020 presidential elections.
The differing political postures of Israeli and American Jews are often contextualized by the different political environments the two states inhabit. American Jews have long accepted Israeli security needs in the region and the exceptional nature of its political predicament. Yet the rightward shift in Israeli politics has left many American Jews, most of whom are liberal, unable to reconcile their attachment to Israel and their political ideology. The absence of peace negotiations in years, coupled with the destruction wrecked in Gaza in 2014, 2018 and 2021, left American Jews questioning Israel’s intentions. Strikingly, only 33% of American Jews believe Israel is making a genuine attempt to reach a peace resolution with the Palestinians.
The differing political postures between Israeli and American Jews are understandable; diversity of political opinion within the Jewish world is arguably desirable. Nevertheless, the fact that American Jewry, the majority of which believes Israel and an independent Palestinian state can coexist, question the integrity of Israeli policy, must raise alarm in the Knesset corridors. Meanwhile, in light of the political turmoil, Israeli-Palestinian peace has been marginalized from the political discourse.
Beyond the political alienation of American Jews, Israel has made few efforts to promote inclusive Jewish institutions that welcome the diversity of American Jews. The vast majority of Jews in the US either identify as Reform or do not affiliate with any particular branch; only 9% of American Jews are Orthodox. In Israel, however, the Orthodox tradition reigns exclusively.
At the nascence of Israel, a compromise between the largely secular Labor movement and the Orthodox minority was reached. The “status quo,” as it came to be known, anointed the Rabbinate as a quasi-governmental entity. The elected government relinquished sovereignty over family law and personal status, such as marriage, divorce and conversions, to the Orthodox institution.
American Jews have long lamented the exclusionary nature of the Orthodox Rabbinate, which refuses to accept the Reform and Conservative traditions. Recognizing inclusive policies as a focal point to revamping Israel’s relationship with American Jews, numerous governments pursued legislation that would ease Orthodox restrictions. Nonetheless, the reforms were quickly pushed aside to protect precarious coalitions.
In 2016, the Israeli government approved a plan to open a praying section at the Western Wall, to welcome Jews of non-Orthodox denominations. Under the Orthodox tradition, men and women are separated at the Western Wall, and women are not allowed to read from the Torah.
However, the plan, welcomed by American Jews as a significant move toward a pluralistic acceptance of Jewish diversity, was never applied due to the objection of Orthodox coalition members. While Bennett wished to reinvigorate the non-Orthodox praying plan, fears that drastic policy changes would hinder the unity of Bennett’s razor-thin coalition convinced him to forgo the plan.
The relationship between American Jews and Israel is not beyond repair. Most American Jews feel deeply connected to Israel, with only 16% of American Jews claiming that Israel is not important to them. Neither did most American Jews give up on the notion that Judaism and democracy can cohabitate in Israel. The critical question is whether the Israeli government is willing to accept that meaningful reform cannot be overlooked if the relationship is to be improved.
The upcoming elections in Israel must be more than another referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu; the elections must recognize the heavy price of reactionary politics. In the absence of a strategic approach to the myriad challenges facing Israel, among them the aching relationship with American Jews, Israel will continue to alienate American Jews. If Israel is to repair its relationship with American Jewry, it must advance political and religious reforms that indeed signal Israel’s devotion to its claim to be an inclusive home to all Jews.
Gall Sigler is a rising senior at Yale University, a native of Israel and a Jewish Exponent intern.
If you want to know why the Left has been in power in Israel for only 8 years since 1977–read this article.
I support Israel. I find it difficult to believe so many Jewish people continue to support the Democrat party which has been hijacked by the radical left. This country is headed down a very dangerous direction and our young people have been indoctrinated into this socialist/communist ideology. There are Jews who think Israel is the enemy. David Horowitz, a one time radical leftist, labeled Reform Jews as Democrats with holidays. Make no mistake, Israel and the Jewish people are seen as one in the eyes of those who are anti-Semitic. They make no distinction and many of these Israel and Jewish “haters” are Democrats currently serving in Congress. Wake up people!