Conclusions and Recommendations

The least that can be said in concluding this brief discussion is that the parameters of the interactions and transactions between Jewish American and Israeli leaders have been undergoing inexorable changes. The analysis of a few instances of systematic misunderstanding between representatives of the two communities was meant to indicate some of the reasons and the directions of the change. As the two communities move on their own separate and distinct orbits into the future, it becomes increasingly clear that as a resource for American Jewish continuity, Israel is in some respects declining in importance and in others is changing its characteristics. While Israel is still in its formative stage, it is still possible to discuss the signs of an historic shift from what I called in my 1997 book (Rubber Bullets, Power and Conscience in Modern Israel) the epic phase of mass immigration and wars of survival to a largely post-epic phase of reduced military conflict and increasing involvement with domestic problems. The fact that these domestic problems include issues touching on Israel’s democratic character and the problem of church and state (the conflict between religious and secular Jews) is very important. If the decline in the prospect of more general wars of survival is likely to further American Jewish indifference to Israel as a focus of Jewish solidarity, issues such as peace and the religious-secular conflict are likely to enhance controversies and disagreements among involved American Jews.

I expect that the single most important consequence of these developments is a process of fragmentation or decentralization of the authority of the American Jewish leadership that mediates American Jewish and Israeli relations. This process of fragmentation can be seen as a deterioration of the former structure that mediated between the two communities for several decades. But it can also be seen as the beginning of a new network more adapted and more responsive to the transformations taking place in these respective Jewish contexts and the discontinuities to which they give rise. This process of fragmentation on the American Jewish side is likely to encourage similar changes on the Israeli side. Israeli and Jewish American relations may be progressing toward a new era of pluralism.

Such structural-organizational changes should not be seen simplistically as the symptom of such things as leadership failure but as the necessary result of deep transformations in the sociocultural and political sources of leadership and authority among American Jews involved with Israel and Israelis active in Israeli and Jewish American relations. On the Israeli side, the handling of the conversion law indicates, among other things, that when Israeli political leaders have to choose between vital political support at home and responsiveness to the needs and orientations of Diaspora Jews, the odds are that they will sacrifice the latter for the former. The Orthodox hegemony in contemporary Israel is a reflection of Israeli domestic political logic, not of collective voluntary choices or slow developments within Israeli culture and society. This fact is even further accentuated by the inconsistency between this hegemony and basic principles of Zionism and its visions of a “Jewish state.” Still, we should never underestimate the wider consequences of the church-state conflict in Israel on the future of Jewish civilization in both Israel and the Diaspora.

In the final analysis, changes in the attitudes of Israeli leaders toward American Jewish leaders (and American Jewry in general) have been influenced by changes in the needs and problems of these two largest contemporary Jewish communities. During the 20th century, and particularly following the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel, the principal tool of world Jewish solidarity has been the perception of external enemies and threats to the survival of the Jews. The threats to Jewish survival and the destruction effected by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Israel’s Arab neighbors were, of course, very real. Yet both Diaspora and Israeli Jews, who were unable to trust the inner strength of Jewish religious, cultural, social and political resources of solidarity, could find an easy escape in the focus on external enemies. In this context, it could be expected that just as the decline of anti-Semitism appeared to increase the threat of assimilation, the peace process between Israel and the Arabs and the expected decline in external military threats have induced the fear of erosion in Jewish commitment to Israel and to Jewish traditions in many Jewish circles.

Diminished confidence in the power of Jewish values and identities to control Jewish solidarity in an atmosphere of relative security and affluence has, of course, encouraged the appeal of ethnic, nationalistic and religious orientations, both within Israel and the Diaspora. A sense of deterioration in the power of Judaism and in the ability of an unthreatened Israel to command solidarity in large parts of the Jewish people has reinforced the ambivalence of wide circles of Jews toward the peace process, liberal-democratic values and openness to non-Jewish cultural influences.

These recent ideological and cultural divisions within the Jewish people have rapidly begun to develop into deep emotional gaps and mutual resentments. Earlier feelings of suspicion and distrust, which had been repressed during periods of great crises, began to surface and aggravate the gulf between the leaders of the two communities. Most recently, the declining importance attached by Israeli leaders to American Jews as a source of vital financial support has further weakened the interest in and engagement of Israelis with American Jewish leaders. Israeli leaders have commonly regarded American Jewish leaders with low esteem, as individuals whose influence in America derives more from their personal, financial resources than from virtues and achievements of public, scholarly or cultural leadership. In addition, Israeli leaders and officials have often regarded their American Jewish counterparts as unskillful and incompetent organizers and managers. Another source of the Israelis’ low esteem has been the usual conformism of American Jewish leaders and functionaries on major issues of Jewish concern and their tendency to echo official Israeli positions. Although more often than not such conformism was overtly welcomed, its long-term effect was to erode Israelis’ respect. Against this background, the intensity of some recent American Jewish reactions to the handling of the issue of conversion by the Israeli government came as a surprise to many Israeli leaders. Although such leaders (including secular ones) do not have a deep understanding of Jewish religious movements and practices in America; although, as is well known, many secular Israelis regard Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Judaism as the only authentic form of Judaism; and although the virulent responses and persistent resistance from some Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders to the demands of the Orthodox establishment were irritating to many Israelis, they did, at the same time, appear to express the kind of independence which, in the long run, is likely to gain Israelis’ respect.

Nevertheless, the transparent tendency of Israeli leaders to give greater weight to local political considerations than to the wider concerns and interests touching the welfare of Diaspora Jews and world Jewry has undermined the claim of Israeli leaders to speak for the interests of the Jewish people as a whole. At present, Israel’s traditional authority as a spokesman of the entire Jewish people and its interests has become vulnerable to challenges from various sectors within the Jewish people. On the face of it, this could be a rare opportunity for American Jewish leaders to claim the authority to represent more inclusive, comprehensive Jewish needs, interests and goals. On the conversion issue, an impressive segment of Israeli public opinion, perhaps even the majority, could be mobilized to support moves to resist the “imperial” hegemony of Israel’s Orthodox religious establishment on matters concerning religion and church and state.

There are serious constraints, however, on the capacity of American Jewish leaders to fill the leadership vacuum created by the failing Israeli government. Can the organization and the structure of American Jewry generate a truly synoptic Jewish perspective? Can the American Jewish community support Jewish leaders who speak out courageously and are willing to confront the Israeli government and, particularly, Israel’s prime minister? Would the scope and origin of the resources available to such Jewish leaders be adequate for their task of leading the Jewish world on certain key issues? From the point of view of the Israeli leadership, I believe, only Jewish leaders who speak out and are willing to take the risks of a real struggle for their beliefs can command the attention and respect of their Israeli counterparts. But such a development requires American Jewish leaders to be willing to act as constructive adversaries to the Israelis, not just as followers.

With respect to the more organizational context, it would probably be wiser in the longer run for American Jewish leaders to exploit and balance the trend toward a more pluralistic, interactive system within Israel rather than fight it. By exploiting, I mean recognizing the creative potential of more direct, unmediated transactions between sectors and institutions in the two communities. In order to facilitate such transactions, it may be desirable to create flexible frameworks, sites or arenas where the various voluntary organizations and groups could interact. Among the ideas raised recently in different arenas:

  • an Aspen-like network of sites for the meeting of Jewish scholars, artists, businessmen and professionals from the two communities;
  • an international Jewish TV channel combining commercial, educational and specific cultural interests;
  • facilities to encourage the development of Internet sites for special interests and concerns;
  • special electronic and “real” sites for meetings of Jewish youth, teachers and NGOs;
  • facilities for Jewish historical tourism in Europe, Israel, America and other continents.

The common features of these frameworks will be to replace Israeli-focused programs with international Jewish programs and to allow greater flexibility for demand-responsive entrepreneurs rather than centralized administrative control. Special attention must be given to the financial techniques that would allow the pluralistic, interactive systems to evolve without hindrance. This new era in Jewish life requires a novel style of entrepreneurship and organizational leadership. Further analysis of such issues and possibilities would be a very worthwhile investment.