Op-Ed: Olmert Should Engage with US Orthodox

Posted on June 19, 2006 In News

Olmert Should Engage with US Orthodox
Stephen Savitsky and Nathan J. Diament
American Jews are divided over Prime Minister Olmert’s proposed “realignment” withdrawal plan. Mr. Olmert’s commitment to President Bush to first pursue bilateral talks with P.A. President Abbas will push off any unilateral moves to next year.

The interim period is a critical window of time within which Mr. Olmert ought to undertake an array of initiatives as the elected leader of the Jewish State with a particular eye toward keeping policy disagreements from spilling over into emotional alienation from the Jewish State. Among such efforts, Mr. Olmert must to reach out to the Orthodox (which is, in the main, to say religious Zionist) Jewish community in the United States.

This outreach effort should be a unique one – not inconsistent with, but indeed – separate from the government’s interaction with American Jews generally. Why is such an unprecedented effort needed?

While a minority within U.S. Jewry’s populace, across all categories, American Orthodox Jews are unsurpassed as those closest to and most supportive of Israel. We travel to Israel more frequently than our less observant brethren; our children study in and emigrate to Israel in higher percentages; in participatory terms, we contribute more broadly to Israel related charities and institutions; we consistently poll as those most highly affiliated with Israel. We also identify closely with the settler community.

Moreover, not only are the American Orthodox most directly engaged with Israel in Israel, but among American Jews generally it is the Orthodox who are the growing core of those most engaged in political activism who place Israel as their #1 issue above others. Increasingly, other segments of American Jewry are devoting their activism to issues like abortion rights, gay rights and global warming ahead of support for Israel.

So much of this, of course, derives not only from the personal experiences of Orthodox Jews with Israel, but from the religious education we have imbibed about the Jewish homeland – with the biblical narratives set in the hills and valleys of Yehuda and Shomron.

And so, when Prime Minister Sharon announced and then implemented his Gaza withdrawal, the Orthodox community in the U.S. was riven with disappointment, if not feelings of betrayal analogous to those felt by religious Zionists in Israel. At the end of the day, while most American Orthodox personally objected to Sharon’s plan, most were not prepared to publicly protest out of deference to the government of Israel.

But as has already been said by so many so often, the withdrawal Mr. Olmert has outlined for the West Bank is a much more weighty undertaking than Gaza’s. Not only does it entail moving many more people and greater cost, but it is handing over the heart of the biblical homeland.

For these reasons, it is less certain that most American Orthodox Jews devoted to Israel will again defer to the decisions of the Israeli government. In fact, when Mr. Olmert visited Washington in May, a rally was announced to protest his plans for further withdrawals. The rally drew few attendees, made little news and was objected to as “inappropriate” by leading organizations such as the Orthodox Union. But no such rally was even conceived when Prime Minister Sharon visited in the run up to Gaza withdrawal; it is a harbinger of what may come as the implementation of realignment nears should Mr. Olmert fail to engage the community in the U.S.

A “realignment” from parts of the West Bank will require greater support in Israel and in the diaspora than entailed in the Gaza evacuation – especially in the United States from whose government Israel will certainly seek diplomatic support and assurances, if not material aid. This is a daunting enough prospect to undertake without public divisions in the American Jewish community playing out in competing newspaper ads and lobbying campaigns confounding congressmen as to what is “pro-Israel.”

Apart from such utilitarian reasons for the Prime Minister to engage our community, are the more noble reasons of maintaining the unity of the Jewish people and the fundamental notion that the modern State of Israel is indeed a “joint venture” of the Israeli and Diaspora populations.

Such an outreach effort would entail meetings tailored to American Orthodox rabbis, lay leaders and grass roots audiences by Mr. Olmert personally, his cabinet ministers and other emissaries. It will not suffice in this context to articulate a message to a broad audience of American Jews and presume it will resonate with the Orthodox Jews. John Kerry’s 2004 campaign dealt with the U.S. Orthodox that way and lost the vote for president in this constituency to George Bush by 70%-30%.

No, Prime Minister Olmert must engage religious Zionist Americans directly and appeal to the community’s deep commitment to Israel in the context of her modern role in world Judaism. In arguing for realignment, Mr. Olmert often states that it is necessary to preserve the character of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” We know what a democratic state is, but definitions of a “Jewish state” abound – what is Ehud Olmert’s definition of that critical term? Is it more than a state where 51% of citizens are Jews? This is something that many religious Jews in the U.S. are as keenly interested in as Israel’s geography and may be an avenue for Olmert to elicit Orthodox support.

A religious perspective on Israel is that it is the land whose welfare “God seeks continually” and a religious Zionist might believe that leaders come to power at particular times for particular reasons. Whether Ehud Olmert’s talents are indeed those which will serve the land and the people best is yet to be seen. How he deals with those in America who are religiously committed to Israel will be one critical test.

Stephen Savitsky is president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and Nathan J. Diament is the Union’s director of public policy.

Originally published in Ha’aretz on June 16th, 2006.
IPA/Public Affairs