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Feeling Alienated From Israel, American Jews Are Cutting Donations

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
November-December 1997

While American Jews are contributing record sums to Jewish causes at home and abroad, thousands are withholding or diverting up to $20 million in donations this year, reports The New York Times (Nov. 17, 1997), "partly to protest the religious and peace policies of Israel’s conservative Government."  

In a front page story about the increasing alienation from Israel on the part of many American Jews, The Times (Nov. 16, 1997) notes that, "In dozens of interviews in the last few days with Jews from every religious stream across the country, many Reform and Conservative Jews said they are hurt and outraged at what they see as attempts by the Orthodox rabbinate to cement its control over religious life in Israel. With Orthodox authorities in Israel exerting their political muscle and some declaring that Reform Jews are ‘apostates’ and ‘infidels’ increasing numbers of American Jews are voicing disenchantment with Israel and feeling divided among themselves."  

The catalyst for the controversy is legislation pending before the Israeli parliament that would write into law Orthodox control over religious conversions in Israel and bar non-Orthodox representatives on local religious councils. Martin Ashram, who teaches Jewish history at his Reform synagogue in Beachwood, a Cleveland suburb, told The Times: ‘For them to say that no one in the world is Jewish if they’re not Orthodox is ridiculous, insulting, alienating and narrow-minded. We are not alienating Israel — it is Israel that is alienating us."  

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a respected Conservative scholar at New York University, said: "There is not an American Jewish family in which there isn’t an intermarriage. There isn’t an American Jewish family in which there isn’t a convert by Reform or Conservative rabbis. When Israel starts carrying on and saying these are not Jews, we are being informed that many of our nieces and nephews and, alas, some of our children and grandchildren are not Jews. And that’s what people care about."  

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of Hillel Jewish Center at the University of California at Los Angeles states: "There is enormous anger and sense of betrayal among some of the major funders and founders — the money people who early on came on board as supporters of the creation of the state of Israel, before there was a state of Israel. They gave generously and now feel that the whole enterprise is being called into question."  

The Times
states that, "The changing relationship between American and Israeli Jews may eventually have an even more drastic effect on giving . . . younger Jews, comfortably integrated into American life and most of them born after the Holocaust and the creation of Israel, simply have a different relationship to the Jewish state."  

Many American rabbis, lay leaders and Jewish commentators have urged American Jews to redirect contributions to Israel from the Jewish Federation system, which works closely with the Israeli government, to alternative charities like the New Israel Fund, the Abraham Fund, the Israel Policy Forum and others whose programs are primarily aimed at promoting democracy, tolerance and pluralism in Israel.  

Prof. Gary Tobin, director of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, declares that, "American Jews, like all Americans, don’t like extremists, and they don’t like theocracy. So the notion that one branch of Judaism controls the political scene and disenfranchises them is totally at odds with their democratic, pluralistic American identity and values."  

Mark Heller, senior research associate at the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, argues that American Jews used to see their ideals and beliefs reflected in Israel but that the policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu have "destroyed this connection." Writing in The Jerusalem Post (Nov. 4, 1997) he states: "The use of state power to define ‘authentic’ religion and enforce compliance with it completely contradicts the American ethos . . . It is anathema to most American (and other Diaspora) Jews, for whom religious-communal affiliation, in general, and personal status, in particular, are — or should be — matters of personal choice . . . Unless Netanyahu stops subordinating long-term strategic needs to short-term political calculations, the common values that link Israel and the U.S. will continue to weaken."

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