Acceptable criticism?

Religion, But Not Politics

Why are American Jews more inclined to criticize Israeli religious practices than human rights issues?

Right now, my Facebook feed is dominated by pictures of Anat Hoffman handcuffed at the kotel for wearing a tallit and saying sh’ma.

Of course, this incident infuriates me. I, too, have been yelled at—and even blamed for the Holocaust—while praying with Women of the Wall. But the outpouring of anger by the American Jewish community makes me wonder: Why are we so willing to criticize Israel on religious grounds, and so resistant to doing so on political grounds?

When it comes to criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, African refugees and asylum seekers, and Bedouins, I often hear the argument that Diaspora Jews should not criticize Israel because we don’t live there. I don’t buy this argument in general. For religious, political, and financial reasons, American Jews certainly have a stake in what happens in Israel.Let’s say, though, that we did accept the argument that American Jews have no business criticizing Israel. If this were the case, then we should stop complaining about religious discrimination there. Who are we to criticize when we don’t live the day-to-day religious reality?

Of course we want to support liberal religious leaders like Anat Hoffman. But we don’t always jump to support Israelis leading human rights efforts.

One obvious response is that these arrests affect Jews, not Palestinians. Or, perhaps, the reason is that the Israeli Orthodox hegemony has direct negative effects for liberal American Jews. Personally, whenever I serve on the beit din (legal body) for a conversion or sign as a witness on a ketubah (wedding contract), I feel obligated to offer a disclaimer that the individual or couple may run into trouble if they or their children move to Israel.

But I think there is something more going on. Perhaps this phenomenon is just today’s manifestation of the classic dichotomy between the “new Jew”—the hardy, gun-toting Zionist working the land—and the weak, pasty, religious Diaspora Jew.

Even today, American Jews continue to fetishize Israel’s military strength. We send our children on Israel trips in which they playact IDF boot camp. We wear IDF t-shirts and kippot. We assume the Israeli army can do no wrong. We question our own credibility to say anything at all about how Israel uses its power.

On the other hand, committed American Jews feel pretty good about our Judaism—and we should. As much as our community bemoans intermarriage and affiliation rates, American Judaism has never been richer. Most non-Orthodox communities have achieved full egalitarianism in ritual practice. Even some Orthodox communities have welcomed women as religious leaders. We have developed inspirational new music, rituals, and modes of practice. Many of our communities have achieved full equality for LGBT Jews.

While many new prayer and learning communities have sprouted up in Israel over the past decade, the norm remains a traditional brand of Orthodoxy—even if most Israelis don’t practice as such. This cultural reality is reinforced by the Orthodox rabbinic establishment, which ensures that non-Orthodox communities receive little or no state money, and that non-Orthodox rabbis cannot legally perform marriages or conversions.

American Jews look at this Israeli reality and think that we’ve gotten something right. We like our Jewish lives. We cannot imagine a woman arrested for wearing a tallit. We can’t imagine our Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist rabbi being banned from performing our wedding. In this regard, Israel seems impossibly backward, and so we feel free to criticize.

It’s possible that our fierce attacks on the Israeli religious establishment are actually a proxy for our frustration about the political situation. Maybe we blame the Israeli religious right for the settlements and for the political stand-off, but direct our anger to other, safer issues. But if Israel is to survive as a safe and democratic state that, yes, allows women to be rabbis and wear tallitot at the kotel, American Jews will need to shatter the tired paradigm of the impotent Diaspora Jew capable only of ritual expertise, and the powerful Israeli “new Jew” and to engage with the political issues, and not just the religious ones.