OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

Deep concerns about American Jewish leadership

American Jewish leaders profess to support a Jewish and democratic Israel. Yet they blithely oppose legislation that would make the State of Israel more Jewish and more democratic.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky Esq. is a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Applied Policy.

The left-leaning Israeli media is disseminating news articles transmitting the discontent of American Jewish leaders with the new Israeli government and the policies it wishes to implement. A good example of this genre is the recent Times of Israel headline that blared, “169 liberal U.S. Jewish leaders sign letter expressing concern over Israeli government.”

These leaders headed non-Orthodox rabbinical seminaries, federations, AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents and others, and they decried accusations of “antisemitism” directed against critics of Israel’s government (I haven’t heard any but be that as it may) as well as the now familiar laments about the proposed judicial reforms that will preserve Israel’s democracy and the amendment to the grandfather clause in the Law of Return that currently allows third-generation gentiles to become Israeli citizens as “Jews.”

The lines are drawn and there is little I can do to assuage their “concern over the Israeli government.” What I can do is this: express my concern over the state of American Jewish leadership. And these concerns are well-founded.

It is not only that these leaders are self-appointed and often found their own organizations of which they anoint themselves the leaders for life. It is primarily that these leaders are presiding over the rapid decline and disappearance of American Jewry under the dual albatrosses of assimilation and intermarriage. The population of American Jewry is steadily declining, artificially sustained only by counting halachic non-Jews as part of the Jewish community (even those who do not perceive themselves as such). The intermarriage rate among American Jews outside the Orthodox world hovers at around 75 percent. I am concerned about that because I grieve at the disappearance of every single Jew. I am concerned about American Jewish leaders’ attitude toward this problem and lament their inability or reluctance to do anything about it.

I am concerned over the drift over American Jewish leadership from liberalism to the far left, the progressive end of the political spectrum. I am concerned that the Reform Jewish movement proudly features on its website an article entitled “Why Pronouns are So Important – and Why Using the Right Ones is so Jewish.” I am concerned because that is not at all important (in fact, it seems ridiculous and a denial of reality) and it is not at all Jewish. I am concerned because American Jewish leaders seem enamored with every progressive cause far more than they are with Torah knowledge and observance of mitzvot, Jewish identity and Jewish continuity. Indeed, as the progressives embrace anti-Israel activism in all its forms — delegitimization, boycott, divestment and sanction, I am concerned that American Jewish leaders will ultimately fall into lockstep with these Jew haters so as to remain in their good graces.

I am concerned that American Jewish leaders do little to try to influence Jews to be more Jewish — more learned in Torah, more observant of mitzvot, more inclined to marry Jews and have Jewish children and grandchildren. Some of these signatories are intermarried themselves.
I am concerned that American Jewish leaders have fallen into the trap of denouncing anti-Jewish attacks from so-called right wingers but rarely (or never) if perpetrated by leftists, progressives, blacks or Muslims. I am concerned that they downplay or ignore assaults on easily-identifiable religious Jews. I am concerned that many American Jewish leaders have come to the defense of Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), blatant Jew-haters but, nevertheless, still Democrats, like almost all of these American Jewish leaders, and thus must be defended.
I am concerned that American Jews have so many problems — internal and external — and American Jewish leaders are racing, tripping over themselves, sending letter and issuing daily statements criticizing Israel’s democracy and opining on pending legislation, which, by any reasonable reading, will have absolutely no effect on American Jewry (not even revising the grandfather clause pursuant to which very few Americans ever apply for Aliyah).
I would be even more concerned if I hadn’t seen this movie before. In this week’s Torah portion (Beshalach), God eschewed guiding the Jewish people to Israel through the shorter sea route and instead takes the more arduous wilderness journey “lest the people reconsider when they see a war and return to Egypt” (Shemot 13:17). A few days later, the people saw the approaching Egyptian army, fearsome in its might and capabilities, and complained to Moshe: “Was there a shortage of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness…Did we not say ‘better to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness?’” (14:11-12)
The “people” feared a war and the “people” complained to Moshe. And where were the leaders, the heads of the Jewish tribes and organizations, to calm the people, to explain to them the situation, to have faith in God and confidence in Moshe? Where were the Egyptian-Jewish leaders to assist Moshe?
The answer is that they were long gone. Moshe and Aharon appealed to them before the first summit with Pharaoh and they were enthused with Moshe’s mission and the impending redemption — until they had to undertake personally the risky assignment of accompanying Moshe and Aharon to Pharaoh. They did not quite make it. Rashi (5:1) comments that one by one these leaders slinked away out of fear of what Pharaoh would say or do. They were not “leaders.” They had organizations and titles but they could not lead people and they could not even follow Moshe. So, confronted with George Patton’s choice of “lead, follow or get out of the way,” they got out of the way, and quickly. Moshe (and Aharon) had to lead alone, by themselves. Thereafter the people approached them, directly, without any intermediary. They had other “leaders” in name only.
American Jewish leaders profess to support a Jewish and democratic Israel. Yet they blithely oppose legislation that would make the State of Israel more Jewish (repealing the grandfather clause) and more democratic (reforming the judiciary). They need to get their house in order. I do not doubt their sincerity. These leaders are dedicated professionals. But their misguided choices, shallow understanding of Torah and failure to adequately address the real problems of American Jewry has me concerned.
And that should concern all Jews who are lovers of Israel and the Jewish people.
Rabbi Pruzansky was a pulpit rabbi in the U.S. for 35 years. He now resides in Israel and serves as the Israel Region vice president of the Coalition for Jewish Values.
The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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