“Reform Jews won’t Support Israel in Times of Danger ”

He grew up in a secular family which later became observant and is recognized as one of the top spokespeople for American conservatism. Senior journalist Ben Shapiro thinks there’s no crisis between Israeli and American Jewry and doesn’t understand why Israel invests in the Reform and Conservative communities.

Zvika Klein

American Jewish journalist Ben Shapiro, author of a number of non-fiction books on politics and society and a political commentator, grew up in a family he describes as traditional. Only when he was 11 did his parents begin to draw closer to Judaism in a serious manner and keep Shabbat and kashrut. “Until then, we would eat in non-kosher restaurants,” he recalls.

According to him, he connected to Israel from the moment he began to study Orthodox Judaism. “I remember that my first connection with Israel was when I learned Judaism with a Rabbi or would go to Jewish Sunday School. We didn’t visit Israel until I was 16. My parents very much wanted to visit the country, and even offered to send me by myself, but I said it wasn’t fair that I’d visit before them. You need to understand: Visiting Israel isn’t a cheap matter.” When he eventually came to Israel at 16, it was with the rest of his family.

The second time he visited was in honor of his marriage to Mor Toledano, a daughter of Israeli immigrants to the States. “I wasn’t in Israel for about a decade. It’s not because we didn’t want to, we simply haven’t taken a vacation that lasted more than five days in the last decade, and I wanted to visit Israel long enough to get used to the jetlag. My wife’s a doctor so the vacations and timings are very limited. Add to this the fact that we have two children under five. However, we hope to come next year for a month.”

Peter Beinart Jews

We hear so much about there being a crisis with American Jewry, but those voices usually come from the political and religious left. You’re one of the strongest voices on the other side – what do you think of the nature of the relationship?

Shapiro: “It very much depends on which community you’re talking about. I would divide the American Jewish community into two. There are those who really care about Judaism, and for whom Israel is a top priority, and there are those Jews who are ethnically Jewish, but they go to synagogue at best once a year, and even then they eat lunch on Yom Kippur. These are Jews who promote abortions, LGBT rights, and left-wing politics more than Judaism. I don’t think most of them care about Israel, and I say this based on statistical studies.”

He claims there are two reasons a Jew would care about Israel – religious and practical. “Secularists don’t see a need to support Israel, because they’re secular. The US is a safe place for Jews and to tell them that they need a Jewish State for their safety sounds strange to them. After all, they live in the safest country in history for Jews. They aren’t connected to the other dimension since they aren’t religious. It’s easier for them to follow common opinion on the left, that Israel is not multicultural and doesn’t accept other opinions.”

In the past, Makor Rishon revealed that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office decided on a change in strategy. According to sources close to him, it was understood there that liberal Jewry is set to disappear, therefore the focus should be on investing in Orthodox Jews and Evangelist Christians in the US. “It’s a lot more practical,” Shapiro agrees, “Reform Jews vote Democrat, where you have people like Keith Ellison (the first Muslim elected to Congress, who opposed American support for the Iron Dome and often criticizes Israel – Tz.K.) and at whose convention Israel was booed. It doesn’t pay off to invest there.”

So how does it end? Do we need to entirely give up on non-Orthodox Jewry?
“I’m not saying give up on it entirely, but if you have one dollar you should invest it where you’ll get more dividends. I wouldn’t invest in the Reform community. I would invest it in the Orthodox; they’re pro-Israel, more connected to their Jewish identity, and their children have greater odds of being Jews in the future. Their descendants will care about Israel in a generation. I’m not saying abandon anyone who isn’t Orthodox, but if you’re looking for the most worthwhile target audiences, you go to where you get the most sympathy.

“You need to understand: The Reform Jews want Israel to make them feel warm and fuzzy, without having to support it in time of danger. They’d like to be ‘Peter Beinart Jews’ (a liberal American Jew journalist considered to be a leading voice of progressive young American Jews – Tz.K.) – Jews who declare moral superiority regarding Israel and who detach themselves from it whenever it’s unpleasant to show support. I think it’s strange for Israel to invest so many resources in those who oppose it. I doubt if Beinart is Zionist; he invests most of his time defending Hamas. He explains why their activity is justified and moral, even though they attack civilians.

“If you nevertheless want to bring Reform Jews closer, then it’s through organizations like Birthright, which connect students to Israel. It’s worthwhile to invest in those ages. But there’s a middle generation which wasn’t exposed to the memory of the Holocaust, which doesn’t regularly attend synagogue, and whose Judaism amounts to support for LGBT rights. If so, why invest in a Reform synagogue if you can invest in an Orthodox one? I don’t get it. If you nevertheless want to invest in both, then give the Orthodox 80% and the Reform 20%. The idea that a Jew who is a member of a Reform synagogue will be more beneficial to Zionism than an Orthodox Jew doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Cowardly Jewish Organizations

Beinart was recently arrested at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel and questioned for a few hours – apparently due to the fact that he took part in anti-Israel events. Other liberal Jews were recently detained after they were alleged to have taken part in events calling for the boycott of Israel. Shapiro surprises me by saying he doesn’t support this policy.

“I don’t know enough about this specific policy. I understand why you would want to question those who support a boycott of Israel, but in terms of public relations, you need to let people like Beinart come in. It’s a matter of freedom of speech. To investigate people who made this or that statement against Israel is not a wise policy.”

A few years ago, in the days leading up to the signing of the nuclear deal between the world powers and Iran, Prime Minister Netanyahu went to the US and spoke against the deal before Congress, to the dismay of President Barack Obama. Many American Jews were outraged at what they saw as Netanyahu’s intervening in American politics. “I think the Jewish organizations who refused to speak out against the deal with Iran – and these are the biggest organizations around – are cowards,” Shapiro declares, “This hope that Iran will change just because Obama is the one who advanced the agreement is just absurd. If Trump advanced an agreement which endangered Israel, I would criticize him even though he’s a Republican President. It’s not at all a question of which party the president is affiliated with. Unfortunately, most American Jews have blind faith in the Democratic Party, and that’s a problem.”

Which organizations are you referring to?
“The pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, for instance. Their conduct regarding the Iran nuclear deal  was shameful. They do good work in their delegations to Israel, but in the matter of the Iran deal, they chose not to pressure the government into withdrawal, because the heads of the organization were close with the Obama administration. They said ‘We need to preserve the complete support of Israel in Congress.’ But if the Democratic Party isn’t really pro-Israel, then maybe we don’t really need that support.”

Shapiro believes that the fact that AIPAC leaders are Reform and Conservative led them to support the Obama administration and oppose Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policy. Another organization he mentions is the Anti-Defamation League, “which went out of its way in an absurd fashion to oppose Israel.”

How is Trump’s term in office affecting the relationship between the government and the Jewish-American right and the Orthodox community? And how does this affect Israel?
“Trump is a man with a very polarizing personality. I like what he’s doing in the Middle East a lot; he’s the complete opposite of Obama, and this is, therefore, excellent for Israel. On the other hand, it’s awful that he spends time with porn stars and pays them hush money. Because he acts so negatively, it creates opposition to everything he does, even when he does something positive. The danger is that the person who eventually replaces him will go to the other extreme.”

You’d think all Jewish organizations would praise the moving of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but there were those who opposed it.
“Many of them, like Thomas Friedman or Peter Beinart, think Israel needs to give up sovereignty in Jerusalem. They’re in love with the peace deal which was a massive failure. Moving the embassy also killed the narrative that Trump is a Jew-hating Nazi, as it suddenly turned out that Trump made a very pro-Israel move. They criticize Israel for attacking Palestinians at the Gaza border and claim the trouble there is related to the embassy move, when they protested there a few weeks before, as well. You want the Israeli government to support these people? Good luck.”

All the President’s Men

Not everyone was invited embassy opening. The president of the Reform Movement, Rick Jacobs, said he wasn’t invited, and the same is true for some of his colleagues. They also weren’t invited to the menorah lighting ceremony at the White House. That changes the balance.
“People in Jared (Kushner)’s team are well acquainted with the American Jewish community. They know very well that if they invite a senior Reform Rabbi, he’ll criticize President Trump in front of the cameras, which is something they wanted to avoid. President Obama, by contrast, didn’t invite Rabbis from Agudath Israel and the OU. He invited primarily Reform and Conservative Jews. Does Israel not have an interest in Reform rabbis attending these sorts of ceremonies? Of course it does. But I doubt that no one in the administration spoke with them before the event.”

Jacobs says he wasn’t invited and claims he would’ve come if he was.
“Did you ask the White House if it ever spoke to him on any subject? It could be interesting. If what you say is true, then it’s not OK, and they need to talk to him. You need to talk to everyone. What has changed is that the President is currently surrounded by people who support Israel. Now they’re the ones closest to the President, rather than J Street, the Jewish organization Obama used to advance his anti-Israel politics.”

Who takes up J Street’s position today?
“I’m not sure that such an organization exists, whispering in the President’s ear. It’s not the OU or Agudath Israel. But that’s also not needed because his people are naturally connected to the Jewish community. There wasn’t one religious Jew who supported Obama as President. The number of people who go to synagogue every Shabbat and supported Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran is about seven.

What do you think is the future of those Jews who don’t go to synagogue every Shabbat?
“Their future is assimilation. This is not my analysis, that’s the demographic data. And it’s a tragedy. The Jewish community in America is the most secular and atheist of the religions, by far.”

Is there a disconnect between American Jews and Israel?
“It depends on which part of the American Jewish community. I always hesitate to use the term ‘American Jewish community’ because there really is nobody who truly represents everyone. If you try and put me and Peter Beinart, or Noam Chomsky (an American Jewish linguist, radical leftist and anarchist – Tz.K.) in the same community, it won’t work. And as to your question: Regarding the relationship with the Orthodox, the Modern Orthodox, and the pro-Israel community – the situation was never better, And what of the left, which tries to declare Jewish identity to be considered a minority in the American political world? Here there’s a big disconnect.”

The Israeli government invests hundreds of millions of shekels in strengthening Jewish identity, primarily of non-Orthodox Jews in the US. Is this a good thing?
“We need to send more money to the people who’ll fight for Israel and less to projects showing Israel as a place where women in bikinis tan on the beach. When I see billboards encouraging tourism in Israel which show a picture of a woman on the beach, I think: I live 10 miles from Santa Monica. If I want to go to the beach, I can do that right now. That won’t make me be pro-Israel. What will make me be pro-Israel is the daily existential struggle against the worst people in the world – primarily Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the PA.”

Being Where You’re Most Useful

What can we learn from each other?
“The American Jewish community can learn that there is a real, existential fight for survival in the State of Israel. We need to learn this not only from what’s going on in Israel but also from the experiences of European Jewry. The fact that it hasn’t come to America doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. American Jews need to understand that we need a Jewish State to protect the Jewish people. This is proven every day in the streets of Paris. American Jews need to understand that if they want their children to have a connection to Judaism, they need to be connected to the State of Israel, and their children need to connect to a religious Jewish community.”

And what can Israel learn from American Jewry? According to Shapiro, Israel can learn from pro-Israel American Jews “to embrace their Jewish identity. If Israel wants to live as an independent country it needs to have a Jewish identity. Instead of fleeing its Jewish identity, Israel needs to embrace it. After all, Israel is not like any other country or nation.”

Should American Jewry have a say or influence on matters of religion and state in Israel?
“I think that in order to have a say in a country you don’t live in, you need to pay taxes or volunteer for the army. I have very firm opinions, but I don’t obligate the Israeli government to adopt them. Of course, that doesn’t mean American Jews shouldn’t be allowed to say what they think about the Israeli government. After all, they know how Israel is perceived abroad, they send enormous amounts of money to Israel every year, they provide a significant number of immigrants to Israel, and they’re also part of a global Jewish community which protects Israel.”

His answer on the question of an egalitarian section at the Western Wall surprises me. “I don’t have a firm opinion on the matter. After all, it’s a religious site, and we can discuss the character of the site itself. The issue is that the mehitzah is a relatively recent invention in Jewish history; it’s not mentioned in the Torah. Therefore although I don’t want to speak in the name of halacha and I would, of course, consult with rabbis, I don’t rule out the discussion on the subject. in other areas where there is no possibility of a halachic discussion, like conversion, my opinion changes. On conversion, there needs to be a firm position and it needs to be rabbinical. It’s a little strange to me that Israeli secular politicians decide on legislation regarding the question of who is a Jew.”

We didn’t have a state in 2,000 years of exile. We finally have one now. Many Israelis don’t understand why the Jews don’t leave everything and come to Israel.
“The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, had a good perspective on the subject. He said that a Jew needs to be where he is most useful. There are people who are most useful in Israel and others who are useful outside of Israel. It’s a call to every Jew. On the other hand, if you live in a particular place because of convenience – that’s a problem.”

If you were told you can only be a proper Jew in Israel – would you disagree?

“I think this is incorrect. Jewish identity and the connection to Israel was never stronger than in communities who care about Jewish identity, Torah, religious observance, and Israel. This fear, that you can’t be a Jew except in Israel, derives from the media liking to give a platform to Jews on the Upper West Side in New York, who are ethnic Jews, and who read the New York Times every day. These aren’t the people who will support Israel in the present and certainly not in the future.”

You have a very sharp outlook on these matters – the Orthodox community is thriving, the rest will disappear. Aren’t you worried?
“I’m always worried. I’m a Jew, after all. I’d like for Israel to have strong positions which help it defend itself, and not weak ones which bring in people who don’t really care about the State of Israel.”

Translation: Avi Woolf

Photos: AFP, AP

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