Backgrounder: The Widening Gulf

Differences between Israel and American Jews harden around political and religious disputes

THE growing rift between the Israeli government and diaspora-- especially American--Jewry has both political and religious thrusts.

The political element is fairly straightforward. US Jews have traditionally adopted liberal-left positions on such issues as Mideast peace, and the embracing of the Oslo accords by the Rabin-Peres government warmed their hearts--not only in that it agreed with their political outlook, but also in that it considerably improved ties between the administrations in Jerusalem and Washington. (It's not surprising that Bill Clinton was seen as the most "pro-Israel" president ever, when one considers the Labour government swallowed wholesale the State Department's position on the Middle East conflict and how to resolve it.) American Jews found they could simultaneously be loyal Americans and "good", pro-Israel Jews.

This changed abruptly, however, once the election in May 1996 of Binyamin Netanyahu brought an end to the enthusiastic outpouring of Israeli concessions which kept Oslo chugging along. As relations between Netanyahu and Clinton have cooled, American Jews have taken a far more critical and outspoken stand against Israeli government policy than before.

For many American Jews, writes Edward Alexander, professor of English at the University of Washington, Seattle in a recent edition of B'tzedek magazine, the single "Jewish" interest in their lives is the "Palestinian" issue. "Israel has indeed served a tremendous purpose" for US Jews, Alexander writes. "It has enabled them to define themselves as Jews precisely by criticising Israel in holier (or lefter) than thou pronouncements and, in the process, advertising their own virtue to the goyim." (vol I, no II, summer/fall 1997) The situation has become so serious that US commentators feel that, for the first time in decades, an American president can bash Israel, without worrying overly about angering the Jewish lobby at home. As long as a nationalist-inclined government remains in power in Jerusalem, relations between Israel and US Jews are unlikely to improve dramatically.

THE religious row has been generated over two contentious laws under Knesset consideration: the religious council law, if passed, would prohibit reform and conservative representatives from the country's 130 municipal religious councils; while the conversion law stipulates that only orthodox conversions to Judaism inside Israel would be recognised as legitimate.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has little room to manoeuvre: his shaky coalition depends on the support of 23 members of three orthodox parties (Shas, the National Religious Party and United Torah Judaism), who have repeatedly threatened to topple the government if the laws are not passed. While the strength of the reform and conservative movements within Israel is not considerable, they are influential indeed in the diaspora, and especially in the US. Thus non-orthodox American Jews, many of whom are already opposed to Netanyahu on political grounds, see the conversion and religious council bills as an attempt to delegitimise their Jewishness.

Netanyahu has appointed a committee under Finance Minister Ya'akov Ne'eman to seek a compromise solution. Several deadlines have come and gone, and the committee was most recently given until the end of January to come up with recommendations acceptable to all parties.

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