If there was any doubt that Jews around the world have strong feelings and opinions about Israel, it was disabused by a major new paper produced by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI).
Jewish and Democratic: Perspectives from World Jewry was released several weeks ago at a conference in New York state. It is the result of 40 discussion groups and seminars around the world, as well as questionnaires and an analysis of existing research. The process included participants from much of Canada, though none from Vancouver.
The diversity of comments and the consensus that appears from the document are not particularly startling, but they are interesting for their quantification of some things we probably already assumed. The most significant “finding” seems to be that Jews around the world take great interest in Israel, its security, future, successes, failures and ethical challenges.
The report was undertaken in response to Israel’s Ministry of Justice considering legislation that would codify Israel’s Jewish and democratic character “at a time when different ideological groups within Israel hold conflicting views of how these components should be prioritized.” Israel has always tried to be democratic and Jewish. Long-term concerns are that high Arab and low Jewish birthrates could imperil the Jewish majority and, therefore, the Jewish and democratic system, particularly if some resolution is not found for the stateless Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. More immediately, tensions have existed over questions of whether Israel is Jewish enough and/or democratic enough. Given the range of opinion on the matter, efforts to pin down the perfect recipe for a democratic Jewish state will be like nailing Jell-O to the wall.
We suspect that any proposed legislation will flounder in a tsunami of pilpul, much like the continual but inconclusive debate over “who is a Jew,” which revives itself several times in this report. Even so, the discussion is worth having and the report is full of provocative nuggets.
Jews of all ages are apparently more willing to criticize Israeli policies than was the case several decades ago. In considering Israel’s “Jewish and democratic” nature, the most common concern among Diaspora Jews is the inequality between Jews and Arabs within Israel, as well as political and military control over non-citizen Palestinians in the West Bank. Concern over treatment of Bedouins also arises. As small minorities in their home countries, Diaspora Jews have a “special sensitivity to minority rights,” says the report. (We like that the report uses the term “world-Jews,” which sounds like a hip neologism, like “world music.”)
Many participants express concerns over the enforcement of Orthodox standards in civil society. One comment is that Israel is now a “Jewish Orthodox democracy.” Another participant asserts that, “As a Jewish state, Israel needs to be pluralistic and Jewishly diverse.”
Previous research has indicated that many Jewish Americans (and others) resent that the Kotel has a strict gender separation and that enforcement is controlled by the Orthodox. At the conference where the report was released, one Conservative woman expressed her view: “Our support of Israel is unambiguous, it’s wall-to-wall. But I want to know there is a place for me where I can put on my tallit every morning. May I do that in the state of Israel and not have things thrown at me? Will the government arrest me? Is there a place for me in Israel?”
It turns out we’re not so different, Diaspora and Israel. Nearly three-quarters of Israelis disapprove of the way their governments handle religious issues.
Overall, the report suggests that Diaspora Jews on the far right prioritize Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic nature, while those on the far left view Israel’s Jewish character as an anachronism. The majority, the report says, want to have it both ways – and believe it is possible to do so.
Despite recent suggestions of a weakening of the bond between Israel and Diaspora Jews, particularly among young people, Jews in diverse countries overwhelmingly declare themselves connected with Israel and identify as Zionist. The report acknowledges that some younger Jews, particularly in the United States, as evidenced in the Hillel movement, are reacting against strictures laid down by their elders over what are appropriate views to hold on topics around Israel. The report takes some pains to note that these young people do not necessarily disagree with the broader consensus around Israel, its Jewish and democratic nature or other factors, but do resent being told what they are allowed to believe, hear and say.
Breaking news? Not much. Still, the report – and, most especially the constructive dialogues that went into creating it – is a sort of snapshot in time of the Diaspora’s thoughts on Israel. Beyond the details, which are themselves interesting, is the tremendous consensus that we care about Israel very, very deeply.