The strife in the Middle East comes from the clashing beliefs of two peoples who both believe that the Land of Israel belongs to them. These two peoples of course are American Jews and Israelis, whose mutual incomprehension has surfaced yet again in the controversy over the Rotem bill.
Like any two peoples locked in conflict, each has its own historical narrative. Israel’s population comes from all over the world, and in much of the world it’s customary for a Jewish community to have a Chief Rabbi. Both the Ottomans and the British recognized the Rabbinate in Palestine, and its authority was strengthened after the establishment of the State. A Chief Rabbinate is as normal for Israelis as the Queen is for the British.
Americans, on the other hand, come from a political tradition where religion is a private matter and the state legally cannot interfere. Having a Chief Rabbi would be as peculiar as, well, having a queen. In particular, since pluralism runs deep in American culture, the idea of empowering one stream of Judaism over another seems inherently wrong. For American Jews these principles are generally so self-evident that they are beyond question.
Israelis are mostly secular Jews, and it doesn’t matter to them who decides what’s kosher. Some are unhappy with the Rabbinate’s monopoly on performing weddings and its standards for conversions, but that is more likely because of disagreements over particular standards rather than about the principle of rabbinical power. It’s like the Food and Drug Administration in America: people may disagree with its decisions, but most don’t actively object to its authority.
By contrast, Alana Newhouse captured the powerful feelings of many American Jews in the New York Times last week. “Future historians,” she wrote, “will inevitably wonder why, at a critical moment in its history, Israel chose to tell 85 percent of the Jewish diaspora that their rabbis weren’t rabbis and their religious practices were a sham, the conversions of their parents and spouses were invalid, their marriages weren’t legal under Jewish law, and their progeny were a tribe of bastards unfit to marry other Jews.”
No Knesset law can invalidate religious practices in the Diaspora; all it can do is fail to recognize them in Israel. As Newhouse’s passionate Op-Ed shows, however, this bill is an emotionally charged symbol. American Jews feel as if they have been slapped in the face by a member of their own family. It doesn’t matter that very few of them will ever be directly affected by anything the Knesset decides. The issue is deeply polarizing.
Meanwhile, both the Rabbinate’s detractors and supporters claim that Jewish unity is on their side. The Rabbinate believes that there must be a single standard – a religious standard – for who is a Jew, otherwise we will no longer be one people. Meanwhile Benjamin Ish-Shalom of Beit Morasha, opposing the Rotem bill, writes in The Jewish Week, “We are one people and must remain one.”
Professions of unity come mostly when unity is in doubt, and the truth is that there are more divisions within Jewish life than we can count. A true pluralist would respect those divisions, rather than ignoring them or trying to defeat the people with whom one differs. Israeli and American Jews share Jewish identity but have different values and expectations. There’s nothing wrong with that. Let’s accept that we live in different countries and grant each other some autonomy. We’ll get along more peacefully with a two-state solution.
Bob Goldfarb is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem and a regular columnist for eJewishPhilanthropy.com. His Twitter feed on Jews, the arts, and Jewish culture can be found at Twitter.com/bobgoldfarb.
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