The Sacred Struggle For Peace

By Timna Axel
Northwestern University

Dual Israeli-American citizenship can make me feel a tad schizophrenic. At our small Passover seder this March I sat next to Gilad Shalit, or at least the chair set for him by our friends on the moshav. The empty seat seemed to lodge a big splinter into the Haggadah itself. Were we slaves to Egypt or to the forces of Gaza? After Ten Commandments and centuries of persecution, I could barely delineate Jewish ancient history from the ethereal prophecy sitting at the table. Given the circumstances, I was feeling seriously thankful for those old Europeans who first thought up Jewish autonomy.

The problem, as Gilad Shalit’s empty chair keeps whispering, is that Jewish self-rule is losing. The majority is giving up the debate to a loud and impinging minority, and nowhere is this clearer than 5,000 miles away in America. With all the cameras turned on the political alienation between Netanyahu’s government and the American Jewish left, it seems there’s an extraordinary development being overlooked; the theological one. Ynet News has reported on a surprising backlash from American Jewish leaders who are reacting to a potential Israeli legislative deal that would give “exclusive control over conversion to Shas and Orthodox rabbis.” The Conservative and Reform movements, which are extremely large gefilte fish outside the Holy Land, have long felt uncomfortable with the growing power of Israel’s ultra-religious minority.

This latest move may be provoking an American break with a lesser-known commandment: disagreement with the status quo is un-Jewish, un-Zionist, and unacceptable. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, has publicly taken a stand.

Ynet reports: [An article written by Rabbi Schonfeld in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which was published in nearly every Jewish newspaper throughout the US, has caused quite a stir. She wrote that Israel is being conquered by small, extremist ultra-Orthodox parties, but American Jewry has kept quiet on the assumption that “silence on religious coercion equals unity and thus also equals Israel’s security.”]

Now, Schonfeld warned, “The young generation sees Israel as a society with growing religious zealotry and oppression. We must change the growing alienation of young Jews in the Diaspora, who are unwilling to accept a society that allows a religious minority to contemptibly threaten their religious values.”

Alienation of young Jews in the Diaspora? More like outright divorce. Jewish American university students, at least the ones I know, don’t particularly warm to segregated bus lines, ultra-religious rule over personal status, the predicament of women whose husbands refuse them divorce, the absence of any civil alternative for religious marriage, and the disproportionate funding for Orthodox institutions that serve only 17 percent of Israelis. Even the U.S. State Department thinks it’s a little much. Given the current political climate, Israel cannot afford to lose the support of our generation. And that means American Jews across the political spectrum are starting to recognize that blindly nodding through Israel’s wrong turns is dangerous for the state.

In Israel, the politics of ultra-Orthodox Judaism are often married to right-wing nationalism. The bones under Ashkelon’s new emergency room have only provided the latest crusade for the religious right, which has led the charge into the West Bank and against the two-state solution. For the rest of us, the take-away is that we have to halt the monopolization of “Jewishness.” Avigdor Leiberman and Eli Yishai do not get to define whether you or I are true Jews, and their attempt to do so is bad for Israel and bad for peace. If they give up their rightful claim to Zionism and the Jewish state, the non-Orthodox majority will never be given equal weight at the table of democracy. For Israel to truly be a Jewish state, it must end the hegemony of those at the fringe and begin the process of true democratic inclusion.

In the words of Amos Oz, “Who can say that the struggle for peace is less sacred, or less Jewish, than the shaven or covered heads of married Orthodox women? Who can say that the attempt to establish a model of social justice, with neither exploitation nor oppression, is less Jewish than attaching a mezuzah to every doorpost?”

It’s time to shatter the myth of hierarchical Judaism and fight for real self-determination, not just for the Palestinians but for the Jewish state as well.

Timna Axel, a guest blogger for J Street U, is a student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.