Commentary Magazine


Topic: religious pluralism

Religious Pluralism is a Strategic Problem for Israel

When Israel’s current government was formed this spring after the March Knesset elections, there were a number of clear winners and losers in terms of the country’s political rivals. But one of the big losers from the reshuffling of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s cabinet was the overwhelming majority of American Jews who do not identify with Orthodox Jewry. Since then, a number of incidents have occurred in which government officials have made statements that have further alienated the many Diaspora Jews who bitterly resent the way their denominations are treated as non-Jewish religions rather than equal partners in the Jewish future. To date, Netanyahu, like his predecessors in both Likud and Labor, have tried to mollify American Jews with conciliatory statements. But after the latest such insult, it is clearly time for him to do more. Israelis on the left and the right, secular as well as religious need to come to grips with the fact that attacks on pluralism are more than an annoying public relations problem. They constitute a strategic problem for the Jewish state that needs to be addressed.

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When Israel’s current government was formed this spring after the March Knesset elections, there were a number of clear winners and losers in terms of the country’s political rivals. But one of the big losers from the reshuffling of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s cabinet was the overwhelming majority of American Jews who do not identify with Orthodox Jewry. Since then, a number of incidents have occurred in which government officials have made statements that have further alienated the many Diaspora Jews who bitterly resent the way their denominations are treated as non-Jewish religions rather than equal partners in the Jewish future. To date, Netanyahu, like his predecessors in both Likud and Labor, have tried to mollify American Jews with conciliatory statements. But after the latest such insult, it is clearly time for him to do more. Israelis on the left and the right, secular as well as religious need to come to grips with the fact that attacks on pluralism are more than an annoying public relations problem. They constitute a strategic problem for the Jewish state that needs to be addressed.

Though the Israeli political establishment, both on the right and the left, were primarily focused on the other implications of the new coalition, its formation ended a brief two-year period when the ultra-Orthodox political parties were left out of the government and attempts were made to ease the path to conversion as well as other efforts to begin to ease the country into acceptance of Jewish religious pluralism. This was a great opportunity for a country whose decisions on a variety of issues have often been held hostage by the views of the “black hat” minority. Though the collapse of the previous government had little if anything to do with the issue, the return of the two religious parties ended these experiments, returning Israel to a situation where the non-Orthodox rightly feel slighted.

As I wrote back in May, when I attempted to explain the situation in terms of Israeli political realities, the core problem is really not one in which there is a disagreement about “who is a Jew,” but rather who is a rabbi. That’s because the lack of a separation between synagogue and state means that in Israel the government pays rabbinic salaries making the right to be accorded official status is a political and economic issue rather than a purely religious one. Thus the right of the non-Orthodox streams to be recognized hinges on an ability to mobilize political support. Since they command the allegiance of few Israelis and the ultra-Orthodox constitute a powerful voting bloc in the Knesset due to the country’s proportional representation, the non-Orthodox inevitably are the losers in this tug of war.

Though a majority of Israelis are secular and most dislike the treatment they get from the rabbinate, the question of pluralism has always been secondary to a desire for civil marriage and disestablishment.

This is difficult for Americans who are unused to the lack of separation between religion and state in Israel to understand. To the extent that Israeli leaders understand how the Diaspora feels about this, they have still given it short shrift since the issue is always going to be overshadowed by the great debates over war and peace issues as well as those about economics.

While I agree with Reform and Conservative leaders who protest the lack of pluralism, I’ve also tried to counsel Jews living here to try to look at Israeli society in its own context rather than judging it by the standards of Jewish life in the United States. Until the non-Orthodox movements are able to convince more Israelis to back their appeal for equal treatment, an unsatisfactory status quo is likely to stay in place.

But in the wake of the collapse of the new effort to ease the path to conversion, as well as by the recent appalling statement of the country’s new Religious Affairs Minister that he does not consider Reform Jews to be Jewish, as well as another incident involving President Reuven Rivlin’s snub of Conservative rabbis, it’s time for a more pro-active response to the problem.

Orthodox Jews may take a dim view of their Reform or Conservative cousins because of doctrinal differences. They may also point, with justice, to the potential demographic collapse of Reform and especially Conservative Jewry in the United States that the Pew Survey highlighted in 2013. But what they and Israelis of all stripes must remember is that for all of the problems of the non-Orthodox, they still constitute approximately 90 percent of American Jewry. The Orthodox share of the American Jewish population may go up in the coming decades, but their triumphalism notwithstanding, they are going to be a minority here for a very long time to come. For the foreseeable future, the vast majority of people who call themselves Jewish in the United States are not going to be Orthodox.

In its questions about support for Israel, the Pew Survey illustrated that the decline of Jewish peoplehood and the rise of a new large unaffiliated group within the community in the United States is having a serious impact on identification with Zionism or the need to speak out in defense of Israel even at times when the media and the political left are attacking it. There is no magic bullet that will solve that problem, and there is little doubt that support for Israel is declining among the liberal Democratic constituencies that non-Orthodox Jewry support. But attacks on Reform and Conservative Judaism don’t help ameliorate the problem. To the contrary, the willingness of some Israeli leaders to speak of the bulk of American Jewry as alien outsiders deepen the already growing gulf between the two communities that need each other so badly.

American Jews need Israel because it is the spiritual center of Judaism and the place where the core principles of Jewish identity flourish. But Israel needs American Jews too, not least because of the vital political support they can furnish for a Jewish state that remains under siege. To those who say Reform and Conservative Jews must be written off because most support President Obama, I would answer that they still are the core of Jewish life here and political support for Israel. Moreover, growing numbers of secular and even religious Israelis are starting to recognize that their appeals for pluralism are justified.

Thus, the dustups between Haredi leaders and American sensibilities aren’t just meaningless spats but part of a genuine strategic threat to Israel’s security.

What can be done? American Jews can’t compel Israeli politicians to treat their needs as priorities when the electoral math points in the other direction. Yet Netanyahu must do more than merely publicly disagree when insults are hurled at the non-Orthodox. The prime minister and others in power must make it clear to the ultra-Orthodox parties that what they are doing is endangering the nation’s ability to mobilize support that props up the country’s vital alliance with the United States. That means Netanyahu must take some key issues, like the future of renovations to the Western Wall plaza in order to follow through on Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky’s plan to create a non-Orthodox section, out of the hands of the Haredim.

Genuine pluralism may not be in the cards in the immediate future. But unless Israel’s political establishment starts acting as if it cares about maintaining support from most American Jews, they will be worsening a problem that is undermining communal unity and making it harder to maintain a united front behind the defense of the Jewish state.

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Pluralism and Israeli Political Reality

A lot of Americans are upset about Israel’s government for reasons that have little to do with the peace process. Though many liberal supporters of Israel may cling to the delusion that peace with the Palestinians might have been advanced had Prime Minister Netanyahu been defeated last month, the new coalition presents another, more serious problem for American Jews: the return of the ultra-Orthodox parties to the government after a two year hiatus during which there excluded from the government. Netanyahu’s government hangs by a thread so there’s no doubt that the Sephardi Shas and the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism parties will be able to roll back some of the reforms put in place while they were gone from the Cabinet. This is causing a predictable and justified outcry among many American Jews. But before they start blaming Netanyahu for betraying them, they need to reacquaint themselves with the political realities of Israel and understand that Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog would have cut the same deals with the Haredim.

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A lot of Americans are upset about Israel’s government for reasons that have little to do with the peace process. Though many liberal supporters of Israel may cling to the delusion that peace with the Palestinians might have been advanced had Prime Minister Netanyahu been defeated last month, the new coalition presents another, more serious problem for American Jews: the return of the ultra-Orthodox parties to the government after a two year hiatus during which there excluded from the government. Netanyahu’s government hangs by a thread so there’s no doubt that the Sephardi Shas and the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism parties will be able to roll back some of the reforms put in place while they were gone from the Cabinet. This is causing a predictable and justified outcry among many American Jews. But before they start blaming Netanyahu for betraying them, they need to reacquaint themselves with the political realities of Israel and understand that Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog would have cut the same deals with the Haredim.

In addition to being a windfall for the sub-standard ultra-Orthodox education system, the return of Shas and UTJ to power will impact the effort to enact more liberal rules about conversion, the minimal progress made toward civil marriage and/or the recognition of non-Orthodox movements and rabbis. It may also undermine the plans to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

These are sore points for American Jews who see the exclusion of Reform and Conservative Judaism from official recognition by the Jewish state as a standing insult. The fact that the Orthodox rabbinate controls all life cycle events in Israel is something that most Americans — raised in a country where religion and state are separate — is something that both perplexes and infuriates the 90 percent of American Jews who are not Orthodox. At a time when Israel is under assault from foreign critics and many young American Jews are being influenced by left-wing opponents of Zionism, the lack of religious pluralism is another factor that increases alienation from Israel.

As even Netanyahu and other Israeli political leaders have admitted, this state of affairs is problematic at best. That’s why the previous government he led, which included the centrist and secular Yesh Atid and excluded Shas and UTJ was viewed with more affection by the non-Orthodox denominations. Its demise is viewed, not unreasonably, as a calamity for the cause of pluralism.

But those crying foul over Netanyahu’s deal with the Haredim need to get their head out of the clouds and understand that their concerns don’t mean much to most Israelis.

It’s true that most Israelis despise the Rabbinate and that includes many who are religious. It is viewed as corrupt and self-serving. The religious parties are rightly seen as being out for themselves and willing to sacrifice the rest of the country in order to get the patronage they want. The fact that most (though not all) Haredim don’t serve in the military as the overwhelming majority of secular and religious Zionist Israelis are compelled to do is an open sore in Israeli society. So, too, is the endemic poverty of the Haredi community, a problem that is exacerbated by the decision of many Haredi men to engage in religious study rather than work even though the majority of them have large families that are not adequately supported.

The immediate past government made tentative steps towards drafting more Haredim. That and other reforms are likely to be scuttled. That will upset Israelis but their anger will be tempered by the knowledge that the only thing that could have prevented this from happening was electoral reform that would reduce the influence of minority parties. They also know that so long as the religious parties hold the balance of power in a system where neither major party (Likud and the Labor-led Zionist Union) can ever hope to win a majority of the Knesset on their own, the Haredi parties will retain disproportionate influence. Indeed, the Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog was praying for a chance to offer the same sweet deal to the Haredi parties that Netanyahu gave them.

All of which brings us back to what American Jews should think about this.

Reform and Conservative Jews have a right to be unhappy about this state of affairs but it’s necessary to remind them that until their movements have the same kind of influence in Israel as the Haredim, nothing will change.

The plain truth is that in a country where rabbis are paid by the state, the question of who is a rabbi (which is the real question here rather than the one about who is a Jew) will be intensely political. The Haredim have 13 seats in the current Knesset. Though there are members of the other parties who support religious pluralism (at least in principle), the liberal movements have exactly zero MKs. Though there are growing Reform and Conservative congregations in Israel, it has long been thought that there are actually more Scientologists in Israel than Jews who are affiliated with the non-Orthodox. Even most secular Israelis tend to think of Orthodox synagogues as the only legitimate expression of Judaism. So long as Reform and Conservative Judaism are seen as expressions of the Diaspora rather than an Israeli, they will remain marginal.

Though many Israelis don’t oppose pluralism, it is not important to them in the way that civil marriage or the disestablishment of the Orthodox (two good ideas that will still probably remain pipe dreams for the foreseeable future) are.

It is to be hoped that Netanyahu will insist that his new partners don’t interfere with the planned alteration of the Western Wall plaza to accommodate non-Orthodox worship. But American Jews must realize that Israeli political realities will always trump their desires. Until more of them move to Israel or their movements gain more sabra adherents, even future coalitions without the Haredim aren’t likely to give Americans what they want.

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The Wall Compromise and the “Judaizers”

When Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky proposed the creation of a pluralist prayer space at Jerusalem’s Western Wall last year, there was good reason for skepticism that the scheme would be stopped long before it became a reality. However, the Muslim Wakf that controls the Temple Mount overlooking the Wall hasn’t—at least not yet—tried to stop any construction in the area, as I feared they might. The Orthodox group that currently administers the Western Wall plaza   also seems content to let the plan go forward because Sharansky’s plan to create three separate sections allows them to retain control over the men’s and women’s sections. That would, at least in theory, shunt non-Orthodox Jews who want egalitarian services at the Wall into the Robinson’s Arch section that is currently not accessible from the main plaza.

This is a deft compromise that deserves to be put into effect as soon as possible. Israelis may not care much about religious pluralism, but the spectacle of women seeking to pray in the manner of Reform or Conservative Jews being arrested at the Wall undermines the notion that it belongs to all of the Jewish people rather than just the Orthodox and hurts Israel’s image among non-Orthodox Jews in America. But the announcement that the Robinson’s Arch area that will be set aside for the egalitarians will be administered by the City of David Foundation is causing some to wonder whether the Israeli government is backing away from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pledge to support Sharansky’s pluralist vision. The Foundation has run the City of David archeological park outside the Old City walls. It is identified with the nationalist/settler cause and is assumed, not unreasonably, to support the Orthodox in the debates about pluralism.

This move contradicts Sharansky’s plan that sought to place the egalitarian prayer space at the Wall under the control of a pluralist council. As such, the involvement of the City of David Foundation casts doubt on the future of the plan to change the Wall plaza. If those fears are confirmed, the Israeli government should revoke the Foundation’s control of the area. But criticisms of the move haven’t been limited to worries about pluralism. Left-wing activist Emily Hauser wrote today in the Forward not merely to condemn the decision about the Wall but to slam the Foundation as “Judaizers” who should not be allowed near any of Jerusalem’s holy sites. But while supporters of pluralism may see her article as validating their concerns, they should be wary of conflating the argument about the Wall with Hauser’s agenda that seeks to divide Jerusalem. While leftists may distrust the Foundation’s motivation in rescuing ancient Jewish sites in eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods, they need to remember there is no such thing as “Judaizing” Israel’s ancient capital.

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When Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky proposed the creation of a pluralist prayer space at Jerusalem’s Western Wall last year, there was good reason for skepticism that the scheme would be stopped long before it became a reality. However, the Muslim Wakf that controls the Temple Mount overlooking the Wall hasn’t—at least not yet—tried to stop any construction in the area, as I feared they might. The Orthodox group that currently administers the Western Wall plaza   also seems content to let the plan go forward because Sharansky’s plan to create three separate sections allows them to retain control over the men’s and women’s sections. That would, at least in theory, shunt non-Orthodox Jews who want egalitarian services at the Wall into the Robinson’s Arch section that is currently not accessible from the main plaza.

This is a deft compromise that deserves to be put into effect as soon as possible. Israelis may not care much about religious pluralism, but the spectacle of women seeking to pray in the manner of Reform or Conservative Jews being arrested at the Wall undermines the notion that it belongs to all of the Jewish people rather than just the Orthodox and hurts Israel’s image among non-Orthodox Jews in America. But the announcement that the Robinson’s Arch area that will be set aside for the egalitarians will be administered by the City of David Foundation is causing some to wonder whether the Israeli government is backing away from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pledge to support Sharansky’s pluralist vision. The Foundation has run the City of David archeological park outside the Old City walls. It is identified with the nationalist/settler cause and is assumed, not unreasonably, to support the Orthodox in the debates about pluralism.

This move contradicts Sharansky’s plan that sought to place the egalitarian prayer space at the Wall under the control of a pluralist council. As such, the involvement of the City of David Foundation casts doubt on the future of the plan to change the Wall plaza. If those fears are confirmed, the Israeli government should revoke the Foundation’s control of the area. But criticisms of the move haven’t been limited to worries about pluralism. Left-wing activist Emily Hauser wrote today in the Forward not merely to condemn the decision about the Wall but to slam the Foundation as “Judaizers” who should not be allowed near any of Jerusalem’s holy sites. But while supporters of pluralism may see her article as validating their concerns, they should be wary of conflating the argument about the Wall with Hauser’s agenda that seeks to divide Jerusalem. While leftists may distrust the Foundation’s motivation in rescuing ancient Jewish sites in eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods, they need to remember there is no such thing as “Judaizing” Israel’s ancient capital.

Many Israelis are opposed to efforts to create space for Jews to live in what are now predominantly Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. But treating the area in Silwan that the group rescued from neglect and transformed into an archeological park that allows visitors to see the remnants of King David’s Jerusalem as an “illegal settlement” is outrageous. It is one thing to support a two-state solution and even to imagine that parts of Jerusalem will be part of a putative Palestinian state. But when Jews employ the term “Judaizers” to denigrate those who honor the Jewish history of the city they are adopting the language of anti-Zionism, not peace.

It should be remembered that all of Israel is the product of similar efforts to recover the history of the ancient homeland of the Jewish people that had been either erased or forgotten during centuries of foreign rule. That’s why Palestinian nationalism has always sought to deny Jewish history, especially in Jerusalem. It’s disturbing that some on the left have remained silent about the shocking vandalism of artifacts by the Wakf while condemning the efforts of those who have worked to preserve and protect the ancient Jewish heritage of the city.

The Sharansky plan for the Western Wall is worth fighting for, and if the City of David Foundation is an obstacle to that effort they should not be allowed to administer Robinson’s Arch. But their work at the City of David deserves praise, not condemnation. Whatever American Jews think about the peace process, they should avoid confusing their justified concerns about pluralism and the Wall with arguments about dividing Israel’s capital. Jerusalem is a city of both Jews and Arabs, but its ancient history is proof of Jewish ties that run deep in its history as well as the hearts of Jews everywhere.

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