Donniel took on the hot topic of pluralism from his unique position of being both American and Israeli. He reframed pluralism as an educational rather than a political issue and said that, in order to bring pluralism about, both American Jews and Israeli Jews will have to rethink the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, and the relationship of Israel as a state to Judaism as a religion.
He began by noting that a schism has come about because Americans and Israelis see the world from different perspectives. And from their separate perspectives, each is making a fundamental mistake.
Israelis, he told the assembly, look around them and see small percentages of Reform and Conservative Jews, as well as large numbers of Russian immigrants who are totally disinterested in religion. They don’t understand either the religious point-of-view of North Americans or why Diaspora Jews are so interested in Israel. And they ask why they should undermine their government for something that just isn’t their issue.
On the other hand, he noted, Diaspora Jews don’t understand the role of Israel. In fact, they question whether they should maintain ties and teach their children to love a country so beyond their control.
The problem, said Donniel, is that Israelis see Israel as a local need and Diaspora Jews see it as an overseas need. Instead, Israelis need to understand the Diaspora as their own overseas need and the Diaspora needs to understand Israel as a local need.
In other words: Israelis need to understand the role of their country in world Jewry, and we need to understand that Israel plays a role in our own Jewish identity and practice.
Israel is important to the Diaspora, said Donniel, precisely because it is provides a geographic center for Diaspora dispersion. It is one thing to have a religion of prayers and values; it is another to consider ourselves a people, a player on the world stage, and for that we need Israel. Israel, he said, unites us. When the Federation talks of fund allocations in terms of so much for local (American) needs and so much for overseas (including Israel) needs, it tends to hide this “local” need from us.
Israelis, on the other hand, don’t understand the Diaspora’s interest in their country. This puzzlement stems, in part from the secular Zionism on which Israel was built. The essence of secular Zionism is the connection to the land. The Zionists saw the religious need for connection to their history (what we would call “the story”); but they didn’t share the beliefs of their forefathers and they didn’t want to act like their forefathers. For them, it was sufficient to walk where their forefathers walked. Since religion and living in the land are equivalent for these Israelis, they don’t understand Diaspora Jews who consider themselves Jewish, and who like to visit Israel but have no intention of making Aliyah.
These two views of Judaism, one tied to the land and one not tied to the land are a fundamental split, said Donniel, what he called a “sectarian moment”, or the type of division that makes people split into two different groups.
Donniel said that is a fundamental error when we see this split as a political conflict. “Israel is a democracy,” he said (reiterating a view he shared with us in Israel last winter). “In a democracy a minority cannot accomplish something the majority is against.”
The problem, he said, is that most secular Israelis have serious questions about the meaning of their Jewish identity. While most Israelis believe in God, they have no interest in worshipping God. Therefore, they have no interest in a synagogue-based Judaism.
Donniel’s work with secular Israeli educators is aimed at helping people to find their own connection to Judaism, their own way to connect for themselves. This effort is what he calls the educational issue. Since it is unlikely that their search will result in anything like American Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism, but is like to result in a new kind of Judaism, he says it is unfair and futile to base a religious pluralism discussion on acceptance of these denominations in Israel.
Donniel distinguished between what he called pluralism, or acceptance, of other denominations and a kind of mutual co-existence. He also distinguished between a state, such as Israel and a synagogue. A synagogue is formed by people who think alike and want to worship the same way. They may want a mechitzah, or a cantor who does or does not do responsive readings. Whatever the issues, those who aren’t happy can always form another shul. A country, however, is a singular resource, and the shared public spaces of that country, particularly those with special significance, such as the Kotel or other shrines, cannot be considered the possessions of a particular sect.
He further distinguished between the idea of separation of church and state, which he felt that neither Israelis or Diaspora Jews saw as the right model for Israel, and a model that called for public spaces that were not value neutral (as government buildings might be in the States or in Canada), but that, nonetheless, allowed for diversity within those spaces.
The only way to achieve such non-neutral, yet diverse public spaces in Israel is when Israelis themselves feel they have a stake in such spaces, he said. Right now, Israelis love to reject Judaism as a whole as archaic and dictatorial and so they see no need for diversity at shared religious sites. If, on the other hand, they develop such a stake, if they become players in Judaism because they have developed a Judaism which is meaningful for them (the goal of Donniel’s educational efforts) then there might be pluralism for all.
We are living in a special moment in history, Donniel said, a moment when Israelis seem open to listening and perhaps reframing their connection to Judaism, perhaps because the philosophy on which you create a country is not sufficient to sustain a people and their country for the long term. Israel, he feels, has reached a point of economic and to some extent, military, security and is ready for the next stage. He feels that, to reach that next stage, the relationship to the “overseas” need, i.e. Judaism throughout the world, must be reinvented. At the same time, we, in the Diaspora must recognize the value of Israel to our own lives, not just as a foreign entity to which we have cultural ties, but as a connection that makes us who we are.