NEW YORK — On the Israel-diaspora front, surprising good news and, unfortunately, not so surprising bad news.
First, the bad news. The Oct. 16 arrest and harassment of a woman reciting the Shema prayer aloud during Rosh Chodesh services at the Western Wall is nothing less than shameful — an act that Jews of all denominations and beliefs should view as an embarrassment and outrage.
Anat Hoffman, 58, the chairperson of Women of the Wall, a multidenominational group that prays on the women’s side of the Kotel each Rosh Chodesh, was leading services for a number of Hadassah members visiting Israel to mark the centennial of their organization.
Hoffman, who is executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem, said that after her arrest, she was “strip-searched, handcuffed and leg cuffed” and dragged on the floor of the police detention center where she was held, and where she had to sleep on the floor.
Women are prohibited from praying aloud or wearing a tallit at the Kotel.
Faced with spending another night in the detention center and feeling “traumatized,” Hoffman signed a court order the next day that bars her from the Kotel for 30 days, and only then was released.
She said this was the sixth time in the last 24 years that she was detained for her activities at the Kotel and that she has never been charged.
Such treatment is seen by many American Jews, who are instilled with a sense of religious freedom, as deeply disturbing, particularly because their inclination is to support and feel an affinity for Israel and its struggle for equality among the nations of the world. To then see that the Jewish state is a place where Jews themselves face religious discrimination is not only upsetting but underscores sharp differences between the two cultures.
The good news comes from a report of The Jewish People Policy Institute, an Israel-diaspora think tank, which finds that contrary to conventional wisdom, young American Jews (under the age of 35) actually do feel significantly attached to Israel — at a much higher rate, in fact, than those aged 35 to 45.
Much of that positive response can be attributed, no doubt, to Birthright Israel, which will soon celebrate its bar mitzva year, having brought some 350,000 diaspora Jews ages 18 to 26 for free 10-day trips.
Birthright participants come back feeling strengthened in their connection to Israel, and their subsequent visits to Israel keep increasing that sense of attachment, according to the study, written by the Israeli journalist Shmuel Rosner.
At the same time, though, he found that these positive feelings about Israel do not indicate “an absence of critical thinking about [Israel], nor does it imply agreement with Israel’s current policies.”
To the contrary, the research shows that “reservations about Israel among diaspora Jews, and particularly young American Jews, have been more significant in recent years than in previous generations.”
Some may find that contradictory and upsetting. But I think it’s a positive indication that young people are engaging in the multilayered reality of Israeli life and policy, and thinking independently about solutions.
I’ve long believed that a large percentage of young American Jews, especially those on college campuses facing anti-Israel campaigns, lectures and media reports, simply turn away from the issue of Israel and its complexity. If they can’t feel good about Israel, they’d just rather not deal with it.
But the JPPI study suggests that at least some of the new critics, including those pained not only by its policies toward the Palestinians but those related to nonrecognition of liberal Jewish movements (see Anat Hoffman, et al), care enough about the Jewish state to try to influence its decisions instead of simply accepting the status quo.
This attitude resonates with the spirit of the biblical prophets who sought to improve an imperfect world through speaking out for justice and encouraging acts to repair the world.
Our community is much better off with young Jews demanding a more just Israeli society than with those who see a negative headline about Israel and simply turn the page.
True, much depends on the substance of the criticism, and how and where it is voiced. But efforts by the Jewish establishment to marginalize sincere critics will only backfire and alienate them, widening the gap among us.
The report suggests that Israeli leaders “must get used to a reality, even if they are not happy about it, of critical voices surrounding certain issues — this alongside continuing support and attachment, which may in fact be trending upward.” I’d add that the same holds true for American Jewish leaders as well.
Should we be surprised that Jewish life is complicated and its expressions sometimes counterintuitive? Welcome to the real world.
First comes acceptance of constructive criticism, then comes the challenge of actually encouraging it, improving the diaspora-Israel relationship so that we better understand and appreciate each other’s historical and social context, and views.
So, for instance, American Jews would recognize that women praying publicly in tallit (and perhaps tefillin) at the Kotel is seen by the rabbinic keepers of the Wall as flaunting Jewish law and tradition. And the Orthodox rabbis, in turn, would come to know that these efforts are rooted in a striving for equality and a desire for personal expression of one’s deepest religious feelings.
Sadly, we have a long way to go in bridging our diaspora-Israel gaps. But our dealings with each other must be based on one of Judaism’s greatest gifts to the world: the concept that each of us is created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God. Surely God does not look kindly on rabbis reacting to a recitation of the Shema, uttered at Judaism’s holiest spot, by having the petitioner hauled off, arrested and shackled.
The path to heaven is not found in punishing heartfelt prayer.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)