Editor’s Note: Israel is at war, and the suffering is difficult to bear. To better appreciate this transformation and the pressures of this moment, we have assembled a symposium of community leaders and thinkers to address the effect of the crisis on Diaspora Jewry.
The Jewish people are in shock. Israel is facing its greatest threat since the War of Independence and the reaction has been a dramatic increase of antisemitic incidents throughout the western world. In Israel the response of its citizens has been remarkable. At a time of polarization with fear of a civil war, the people united in volunteering wherever needed. After the end of the war, when inquiries about policy mistakes and security failures will begin, that unity won’t be maintained. There will need to be a period of re-evaluation for the spectrum of political parties, both the religious and the secular. The Religious Zionist world, which has seen itself as the emerging leadership, must examine its move to the extreme right politically and honestly understand its relationship to the broader Israeli public.
This war has ended the Zionist myth that having our own state will solve the problem of antisemitism. This observation in no way reduces the transformative impact of having a Jewish state and returning to our homeland Israel. The relationship between Israeli and diaspora Jewry, particularly American Jews, has become much more complex. The number of Evangelicals in America who support Israel is far greater than the total number of Jews, but the interdependence of American and Israeli Jewry is of more significance; how to best structure this relationship is still an open question. The majority of American Jews showed their commitment to Israel in the massive rally in Washington. But how deep this commitment is, and how many young non-Orthodox Jews share it, is not clear. Young non-Orthodox American Jews are moving to the left and are universalists while young Israeli Jews are becoming increasingly nationalistic and right wing. The Modern Orthodox are the exception. Israel is part of their religious identity with most spending a year or more in Israel studying after high school. Even though they are most connected, there is a difference of mentality between Modern Orthodox and Dati Leumi adherents.
The Israel that will emerge after the war ends and Israel redefines itself and its relationship with world Jewry will affect whether Aliyah from America increases. An Israel that was not prepared to protect its citizens from a horrendous terrorist attack and now faces decisions which affect its identity may not be an alternative for many American Jews. On the other hand, the sense that America is different because it gives its Jews full opportunity to succeed, and is a place where antisemitism only exists on the fringes, is no longer clear. Having failed to recognize the growth of antisemitism, the leadership of American Jewry may need to be replaced. Moreover, attempting to ally American Jewry with a particular American political party is neither feasible nor desirable. A party that supports Jews today may turn around tomorrow.
Israelis are not united about how to treat their Palestinian neighbors—whether to grant them full citizenship rights in a greater Israel, or to accept some version of two states. It is no longer an option to delay any decision and maintain the status quo. After the war ends, someone will oversee rebuilding Gaza and governing its more than two million residents. Within the Religious Zionist community, many believe that a greater Israel is part of an irreversible Messianic process. The opposition of the rest of the world, including the United States, is irrelevant to them. War tends to move citizens to the right. However, an unpopular right-ist government in Israel has lost the trust of the people. The next election will hopefully lead to a coalition government that will determine the future direction of the State.
There are different strands of Religious Zionism. I belong to the approach that has lost favor. I don’t view all events through a Messianic lens. From my perspective, Israel’s future will depend on finding a path to live in peace with its neighbors, even at the cost of giving up territory. We must grant full rights to non-Jews under our jurisdiction. Israel is in a bind. Fighting a brutal enemy is not the time for rational analysis, but without a strategy for after the war the military lacks sufficient defined goals, which limits its ability to fight and reach a satisfactory conclusion for the war. While I want to promote Aliyah, I don’t see American Jewry disappearing. For the near future there has to be partnership between the two communities of Israel and the diaspora. Israel is the Jewish country, implying it has an ethical responsibility for world Jewry while granting full citizenship to its Arab minority. It is a difficult balance but a necessary one.
Whether we Modern Orthodox Jews are in America or Israel, we need to be a bridge between elements in our community who define their Jewishness in a variety of ways that are sometimes contradictory. On the one hand, the future direction of the Haredi community both in Israel and America is unclear. The contrasting reactions within the Haredi world to the Washington rally (some yeshivot supported it but some did not) and within Israel reflect a loss of trust in leadership. Future leadership of the Haredi community will be determined internally, and Modern Orthodoxy will not play a defined role. There is also the Israeli Dati community, but it is extreme; it would have to revert to an earlier model before it can help unite the Israeli Jewish community. Thus, Modern Orthodoxy must model a committed observant Orthodoxy that can function in a modern Western liberal world. Accepting the reality that not all young American Jewish men and women will go to Yeshiva University, withdrawing from secular universities is not an option. When Jews were in the ghetto there was at least as much antisemitism. We need to figure out how to respond to that antisemitism, but we cannot grow so insular that we shun the world around us. It is true that in America, Modern Orthodoxy has limited influence on the non-Orthodox and the Haredi worlds, but it is the only bridge between them.