US Jews fear Israel is casting them adrift

A religion divided: Intolerance of the secular by the exclusive ultra-orthodox is intensifying power struggles within Judaism
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All the uncertainties of American Jewry, at a time when the Jewish world is rapidly changing, seemed on display at the annual convention of the Council of Jewish Federations in Seattle this week.

As one of the two biggest fund-raising organisations, it funnels an estimated quarter of a billion dollars annually to Jewish causes in Israel and the United States. But while delegates watched cheery videos of teenagers living the "Israel experience", some speakers argued that the differences between the American diaspora and the Jewish state have never been wider.

The old rallying cries - poor, struggling Israel and the plight of oppressed Jews around the world - have faded, it is said.

In a side room, the journalist JJ Goldberg signed copies of his book Jewish Power. It explains how the Jewish lobby's clout became the envy of other minority groups, such as American Indians and Asians, establishing an aid pipeline for Israel and reserving 40,000 visas for Jewish refugees.

At the same time, Mr Goldberg described the theme of this year's meeting as "insecurity". Leaders of the 5.5 million Jews in the US are acutely aware of surveys showing that more than half their children will marry outside their faith, and only one-quarter will raise their own children as Jews.

There are increasing difficulties in relations between the diaspora and Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, was due to speak at the conference, but he cancelled his trip citing urgent negotiations with the Palestinians. Speaking by satellite, he tried to reach out to a group that is clearly wary of his leadership and unhappy with his politics.

The response was tepid at best. "There is real anxiety that even though he has legitimate security concerns, they may obstruct the peace process, and American Jews are pretty solidly behind it," Howard Bloom, of Omaha, Nebraska, said.

Mr Netanyahu spoke of a "silent holocaust" from assimilation, which had taken over from anti-Semitism as "the greatest threat to our continued life". He called for a "human airlift" of young Jews to Israel to imbue them with Jewish values.

His tone was combative over concessions in Hebron as he described it as a place not with 400 Jews living there now but with 4,000 years of Jewish history. The Palestinian police "supposed to defend the hills that we are supposed to vacate are the very police that used their rifles on our people", he said.

Mr Netanyahu spent some time, however, dismissing as "rumour" the fears about a proposed new law in Israel. The bill, pushed by Israeli conservatives, would give Orthodox rabbis the sole right to perform conversions of non- Jews.

The issue has taken on enormous symbolic importance for the majority of practising US Jews, members of conservative and reform congregations who follow a more liberal interpretation of the Torah, and feel their beliefs are being slighted. They fear that Israeli citizenship rights for themselves and their children could be under threat if conversions by reform and conservative rabbis are not recognised.

In a press conference, the leading reformer Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman called the proposed legislation "anathema to the Zionist dream".

"It's a real concern, an emotional concern," a 63-year-old Seattle resident, Goldie Silverman, said. Under the new law, her two grandchildren might not be considered converted, she said. "We sang the songs, we worried in the war, we feel the connection to Israel," she said. "Israel doesn't feel the connection to us?"

More than once this week, the 3,000 delegates, gathered in a year touted as the 100th birthday of Zionism, were warned not to treat Israel as an "ethnic theme park" to be visited for the occasional thrill. Dr Arnold Eisen, a celebrated religious scholar at Stanford University, described at one session a World Wide Web page on the Internet where visitors can click to have an electronic-mail message printed and posted on the Western Wall. "I ask myself, is this serious, is this real?" he said.

Dr Eisen's speech, using the theme of being Jewish in a virtual world to warn of traditional communities under siege from a highly mobile, trivialising popular culture, seemed to match the mood of many of his listeners. "There simply will not be many Jews in North America a generation or two from now unless we reimagine and reconstruct our communities," he said. At only 2 per cent of the US population, Jewish numbers were shrinking "because critical mass matters and we don't have it".