WASHINGTON – Israeli ambassador to the US Ron Dermer called on US Jewry to continue raising their voices on religious pluralism issues, to serve as a catalyst for change inside Israel.
Speaking at a session entitled “Israel’s Diplomatic Horizons” at the AJC Global Forum on Monday, Dermer was asked several times about the lack of recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism, and the lack of recognition of their marriages, by the Chief Rabbinate.
Dermer stressed that this question was not just a problem between the different streams of Judaism in the US and Israel, but also very much a domestic Israeli concern.
“We have an issue,” he admitted. “We don’t have civil marriage in Israel at all, and the ones who are most affected are the immigrants of the Former Soviet Union.”
Nevertheless, he added, while some of the non-religious parties have taken up this issue, none of them have made it their “flag” issue.
Dermer explained that in Israel’s political system, “when you have a smaller party, and that is the issue for the party, then you will usually find that if it’s not the issue for the prime minister governing at the time, they will have enormous leverage and power. You have not had a party in Israel that has made this its be-all and end-all. If you did, you would see change very fast.”
Dermer said that he believes that “ultimately the changes you seek will actually be there,” but that it is “a very long process. That may not be an answer everyone loves to hear. But I suggest that you keep saying what you have to say, keep expressing your opinion.”
Dermer said that Israel did not have to take into account only its domestic constituency of Jews and Arabs, “but I think Jews outside Israel have a voice; they may not have a vote, but for me the raison d’etre for Israel is a land that all Jews around the world can call home.”
Dermer said the Diaspora voice is “meaningful,” and “I think you need to raise it; I think people here have to make it clear how important this issue is to them, and hopefully it will push the system to make the right decision.”
Dermer said that these issues are difficult to move forward in Israel because “contrary to what people believe, the prime minister is not a king. There was a magazine headline a few years ago, ‘King Bibi.’ But [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] is not a king, he is not even a president.”
The prime minister has to manage the coalition, Dermer pointed out, and the system allows smaller groups to have an over-representation in terms of the power they have.
“That said, I know that the prime minister is a firm believer that anyone from any religious stream of Jews around the world should feel at home in Israel.”
Dermer also addressed the changes in the Arab world toward Israel, noting that “there is no question that there is a dramatic change happening in the Arab world, and their perception of their interests and where we fit into those interests, where Israel is not seen as its enemy.”
Dermer stressed that he was talking about the governments, while the populations have been educated to believe the worst about Israel. “The regimes already understand that that story is not true, that Israel is not their enemy,” he said.
The rise of both militant Sunni and Shia Islam is bringing the Sunni powers close to Israel, “and I think one of the great challenges and opportunities of Israeli diplomacy is to figure out how to take advantage of that new constellation of forces to construct a process which can get us to where we want to go, which is a broader conciliation with the Arab world,” the ambassador said.
Dermer noted that while on the one hand some think that if Israel negotiated a full peace agreement with the Palestinians, that would then “bring in the Arab world”; and on the other side, there are those who think it unnecessary to deal with the Palestinians if you can build a new regional alliance.
Both those approaches, he said, were mistaken.
“I think those two things have to be done in unison, to find a way to take advantage of this new alliance of interests and create a framework by which Israel can enter in a process that won’t ignore the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but would make it go under one broader [regional] umbrella.”
He said a great deal is happening between Israel and the Arab world, but “it’s just not seen. I know there is a temptation to have everything surface.
It would make everyone feel good.”
Nevertheless, “people have to understand that what makes an iceberg strong is not what you see above the surface, but what you see underneath the surface. Day after day we are working to strengthen what is underneath the surface. And I have great respect and admiration that the prime minister has not publicly spoken about all these things, because while it may make him more popular in certain quarters, it will actually undermine efforts that are under way.”
Dermer said Israel was trying to use what is was happening in the Arab world to form much stronger ties not only with peace partners Egypt and Jordan, but also with other countries in the region, and “hopefully when this pops above the surface it will be something solid and very sustainable.”
As to the often fraught relationship between Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama, Dermer said this has not impacted the fundamental relationship between the two countries.
Not whitewashing the disagreements over Iran or the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, Dermer said “the relationship between two countries is tested when the two governments don’t see eye to eye on an issue. That’s how you know how strong the relationship is.”
Despite all the disagreements over Iran, and the repercussions of the nuclear agreement, how Israel and the US have “weathered this storm” attests to the “fundamental strength of the US-Israel relationship.”