The tightrope of being Jewish ‘enough’ in this world

  • Geoff
Warnings of alarming schisms threatening the Jewish people’s future have come in the past two months from two international Jewish heavyweights: Ronald Lauder, right-wing billionaire, Donald Trump supporter, and President of the World Jewish Congress; and Naomi Chazan, left-wing professor of politics at the Hebrew University, and former Speaker of the Knesset. Their views also challenge South African Jewry.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Aug 23, 2018

Lauder’s article in The New York Times last week described rising rifts between the world’s two largest Jewish communities, America and Israel. Young Americans compare Israel’s ethos on human rights and similar issues to theirs, and are becoming alienated. This is exacerbated by domination of Israel’s government by ultra-Orthodox parties, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apparent disregard of how his policies are perceived by Diaspora Jewry.

Examples of the past year include the government withdrawing from an agreement to create an egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel, proposing a strict conversion law impinging on non-Orthodox Jews’ rights, and a law denying equal rights to same-sex couples.

Lauder says the vast majority of the world’s Jews are not Orthodox, but traditional, secular, Conservative, Reform, or unaffiliated. Orthodoxy should be respected, “but we cannot allow the politics of a radical minority to alienate millions of Jews worldwide”.

Chazan’s equally sombre warning in July in a Times of Israel blog said two Jewish worlds are being created: a progressive, open, liberal, and pluralistic mindset among most American Jews; and a conservative, particularistic, introspective, and much less tolerant worldview in contemporary Israel.

She quotes American Jewish Committee polls: 73% of American Jews support a mixed-gender prayer area near the Kotel, but only 42% of Israeli Jews. Eighty percent of American Jews favour allowing non-Orthodox rabbis to perform marriages, divorces, and conversions, but only 49% of Israeli Jews. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict shows similar divisions: 85% of Israelis applauded Trump’s decision to relocate America’s embassy to Jerusalem, but only 46% of American Jews.

Does South African Jewry fit this American-Israeli split? South African Jews have extensive links to both America and Israel, but contrary to America, this tiny community of 70 000 is largely Orthodox-dominated. The Reform component is tiny, and many Jews have chosen to be unaffiliated. South African Jewry at large has a reputation of being conservative on Judaism and Israel, and the South African society also creates a tendency to be inward-looking.

There are indications of a different trend, however, towards a more open attitude along the lines of the American Jewish mindset, exemplified by Limmud. When it was launched in August 2007, Orthodox rabbis would not participate, and suggested that their communities not do so either, even though Limmud did not oppose Orthodoxy and some rabbis wanted to participate. This policy is still largely in place. However, this month’s Limmud was packed to the rafters with Jews of every stripe.

Taking a cue from Chazan: will South African Jewry develop in the future according to the open, liberal, and pluralistic American Jewish ethos, or the Israeli model of a conservative, particularistic, introspective, less-tolerant worldview?

It will be neither. We exist in a very different environment to both. This corruption-ridden, unstable South Africa, with its ethnic and racial pressures and hostility towards Israel, will influence a different identity to that of Jewish communities in America and Israel. South African Jewry will have to evolve to be unique to the situation here.


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