The recent flap over egalitarian worship at the Western Wall highlighted a disconnect with traditional standards, and the promotion of nontraditional agendas that are more political than spiritual. Despite hysterical claims that the Israeli government would ban mixed worship at the Kotel, there in fact is an egalitarian pavilion that was never in jeopardy of being shut down. The controversy reached a crescendo with a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, decrying both the incident and the broader refusal to recognize non-Orthodox authority in Israel. The controversy has generated an avalanche of commentary – much of it from the nontraditional movements to inflame passions that may be less about the availability of mixed prayer services at the Wall than about the Israeli public’s ambivalence regarding liberal Judaism.
There have also been liberal threats to cease supporting Israel over the issue, though many liberals have already abandoned the Jewish State for reasons that have more to do with secular politics than religion.
The Reform and Conservative movements have never flourished in Israel as in America, and the reason is not simply that the Orthodox have had a monopoly over the religious establishment since 1948. Though Orthodox hegemony is certainly a fact, there has never been a demand for nontraditional alternatives by secular Israelis, for whom religious identity is not defined by movement affiliation or liberal politics.
Israelis seem to have little affinity for non-Orthodox ideologues who conflate Judaism with progressivism, or for the liberal compulsion to downplay radical Islam and validate supposedly moderate organizations that deny Jewish history and sovereignty.
The results of a 2013 Pew Research survey of American Jewish attitudes suggested that “attachment to Israel” by movement affiliation correlated most strongly with Orthodoxy, followed closely by Conservative and somewhat less by Reform. The survey, however, did not define what “attachment to Israel” means in practical terms. Perhaps a better attitudinal test would be to ask whether respondents support pro-Israel organizations, or instead favor groups that oppose Israel as a Jewish state or promote Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (“BDS”). Unfortunately, this measure would likely show waning commitment among many liberals, irrespective of how they self-report in response to opinion surveys.
The reality is that progressive organizations hostile to Israel attract many Reform and Conservative congregants and clergy, but very few Orthodox. J Street is known for endorsing anti-Israel political candidates and approving the labelling of products from Judea and Samaria, while the New Israel Fund provides financial support to organizations that oppose Israel as a Jewish state, and the Jewish Voice for Peace seeks to end American aid to Israel. Though such groups espouse goals that are antithetical to Israeli sovereignty and culture, they draw support from across the non-Orthodox and secular spectrum.
This phenomenon is not limited the “hard left,” as Democratic Party apologists contend, but extends to mainstream liberals whose political agenda gives credence to the revisionist Palestinian myth and the fable that Israel is an occupying power. There is also ambivalence among those who support Israel simply because they view her as progressive.
It is reasonable to ask whether liberals who support Israel do so out of historical conviction or because they project their own political sensibilities onto Israeli society. If the former, their fealty would remain constant regardless of her shifting political landscape. If the latter, however, their support would fluctuate with every fickle change in Israel’s political landscape and never be absolute. Accordingly, those who support Israel because of her presumed liberalism are conditional proponents at best.
Given the increasing progressive disdain for Israel and tolerance for anti-Semitism, the issue facing Jewish liberals is how to perpetuate pro-Israel commitment while maintaining their political credentials. The task is difficult when their political platform uncritically champions the Palestinian cause, uses moral equivalence to justify radicalism and terror, and defends progressive hatred of Israel as political commentary.
The conundrum for pro-Israel liberals is that their cherished agenda denigrates Jewish national identity by endorsing revisionist claims that deny Jewish history. Unfortunately for them, progressive ideology brooks no dissent; and if their political belief system is all-or-nothing, support for Israel will likely fall by the wayside.
Progressive ideology brooks no dissent; and if their political belief system is all-or-nothing, support for Israel will likely fall by the wayside.
The unwillingness of liberals to acknowledge left-wing antipathy for Israel stems from the false assumption that Jewish values are synonymous with progressive ideals. However, this view ignores the disparity between traditional Judaism and many core progressive dogmas.
Although Jews as individuals are free to hold their own political beliefs, they cannot claim the imprimatur of tradition regarding issues that conflict with Jewish law. Traditional views on marriage, sexual relationships, and family, for example, are quite conservative and thus inconsistent with liberal policies concerning these areas. Accordingly, though liberals often claim to be guided by Jewish values, their agenda diverges from normative tradition in many material respects.
The failure to acknowledge progressive hostility toward Israel also arises from the mistaken belief that Zionism is an inherently liberal ideology. This presumption, however, reflects fundamental ignorance regarding the movement’s history, and suggests that while most American Jews may know who Theodor Herzl was, probably very few have read “Der Judenstaat.” If they had, they would know that Zionism is about self-determination first and foremost, not progressive economic theory or social policy, and its mission has always been national regeneration and Jewish continuity.
Though Herzl may have envisioned the modern state’s economic structure as the proverbial “third way” between capitalist and socialist ideals, his vision of statehood was rooted in Jewish history and national identity. As he wrote in Der Judenstaat:
“I consider the Jewish question neither a social nor a religious one, even though it
sometimes takes these and other forms. It is a national question, and to solve it we must
first of all establish it as an international political problem to be discussed and settled by
the civilized nations of the world in council.
We are a people — one people…”
And while Jewish socialists saw in Zionism an opportunity to advance the “great socialist experiment,” they could not refocus its essential purpose, which remained the physical and political salvation of the Jewish People in their ancient homeland. Indeed, Herzl’s embrace of Jewish nationhood ran counter to the left-wing rejection of nationalism and religion as societal evils.
Consistent with their disparate religious, mystical and nationalistic antecedents, the early Zionist Congresses reflected a diversity of philosophical, ideological, economic and religious thought. The interests of various liberal factions were certainly represented, but so were those of religious Zionists, secular nationalists, industrial capitalists, and committed philanthropists. Despite the perception that labor Zionists guided the movement, they represented but one faction; and while they may have attempted to infuse Zionism with their own sensibilities, they never altered the central goal of national regeneration in the Jewish homeland.
If one recognizes that Zionism was never inherently leftist – and that modern Israel was not founded on progressive social principles – it would be misguided to support her simply because of a perceived affinity with western liberal values. Such support would necessarily wither if Israeli society and government were to grow more conservative, which to a large extent has already happened as the Israeli government has shifted to the right.
Those who support Israel based on her presumed progressivism seem to forget that the country remains a liberal democracy regardless of who controls the government. Indeed, Americans often confuse “liberal democracy” with liberal politics, though the terms are not synonymous. Whereas liberal democracy refers to representative government characterized by the rule of law and free elections, the liberal agenda reflects specific political ideology. Like any other political philosophy in an electoral system, liberalism may compete – but is not guaranteed supremacy – at the ballot box.
The intent of liberal democracy is not to entrench one party’s agenda over another’s, but to guarantee voters the freedom to accept or reject competing ideologies, whether liberal or conservative.
This is the aspect of Israeli political society that liberal Americans should celebrate, not the elevation of a platform that exalts a Palestinian nation that never existed, belittles Israel’s Jewish character, and threatens her national security. The Israeli left – with western progressive complicity – was responsible for Oslo and the waves of terror it enabled. The rejection of Oslo’s facilitators by the Israeli public shows the triumph of liberal democracy over self-destructive political fantasy.
Unfortunately, many American liberals have conditioned their support for Israel on her acceptance or rejection of their political agenda, regardless of what Israelis want, what is most conducive to safety and continuity of the world’s only Jewish nation, and irrespective of the Orthodox establishment. But considering the high rates of intermarriage and assimilation among secular and nontraditional Jews in the US, it could be that their political and social values are simply out of step with most Israelis, who tend to be more Judaically literate and culturally centered.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Israelis resent outside attempts to mold their society, and chafe at the paternalism of western liberals who rationalize BDS, legitimize Islamists posing as moderate, and tolerate anti-Semitism within their ranks. Likewise, nobody should be shocked when Israelis refuse to embrace Jewish movements that have become identified with liberal politics.