A massive Knesset conference on Thursday that intended to provide a forum for reaching common ground on religious identity ended up highlighting differences between the secular and religious Zionists on one side and the haredim on the other.

The conference opened with Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, who initiated the landmark event, stressing that it would not be anti-haredi. She expressed hope that the conference would lead to the building of a new joint Zionist vision.

“After 62 years of fighting for Israel’s physical survival without dealing with content, it’s important that there will be glue to keep us together,” Livni said. “This conference is not against one community or anyone in particular. We want to find common ground and prevent hatred. This is not an ‘anti’ event. It’s a ‘pro’ event.”

But then a session with secular journalist Dov Elboim and religious Zionist Rabbi Benny Lau found the two educators with different views uniting in their complaints about the haredim. Livni then joined them on stage and issued more complaints.

“While most parties are searching for common ground, others who have an interest in conflict [on both sides] are keeping us divided,” Lau said. “Being sectarian is not showing Jewish leadership. Religion belongs to all of the people. Being a Jew who is part of a kingdom of priests and a holy nation means taking care of the poor and downtrodden, not looking for bones [a reference to the controversy over graves removed from Ashkelon’s Barzilai hospital].”

When Lau talked about the beauty and moderation in Jewish law, Livni complained that she did not see this in debates over key issues like conversion. Lau responded that top rabbis have explained the Torah in ways that emphasize respecting people but that an “unkosher coalition” was making Judaism unpalatable for their own interests.

Livni said that as justice minister, she tried to appoint religious Zionists, but Likud MKs joined with haredi legislators against her out of fear of harming future coalitions with haredi parties. Lau said the Chief Rabbinate was “occupied” by the haredim. Elboim said it should be shut down.

Haredi activist Dudi Zilbershlag, who was in the audience, complained after the session that it was “empty” and “disproportionately anti-haredi.”

“They talked about haredim without letting us speak,” he said. “The haredim at this event are the most moderate haredim, but the anti-haredim are the most militant.”

But when he spoke in his own session, Zilbershlag also complained about haredi leaders for giving into extremists.

“There is a serious problem and I don’t intend to downplay it,” he said. “The haredi leadership is not strong enough against fringe groups.”

At breakout sessions, the trend of religious Zionist rabbis and secular MKs ganging up on haredim continued. The problem was exacerbated by the last-minute cancellation of two leading haredi rabbis, Mordechai Neugroschel and the haredi chairman of the International Rabbinical Committee for Conversion Matters, Rabbi Nahum Eisenstein.


The rabbis told the organizers that they did not want to be on panels with Reform and Conservative representatives. Eisenstein said he would not be able to attend the panel due to the presence of “unworthy people.”

Due in part to Eisenstein’s absence, a session on conversion focused on the problems posed by the Chief Rabbinate’s courts, which have set high standards for conversions and have annulled conversions by other official bodies.

After the conference, Livni told The Jerusalem Post that it was unfortunate that haredi rabbis had canceled. She said she did not believe that pointing out shortcomings in the haredi leadership was anti-haredi, but that if haredim at the event felt the conference did not provide them a forum, she would host another one.

“I would be happy to give a stage to the haredim and for them to hear what is said by others,” she said. “It’s not a debate of one side against another. If the crowd was hostile, I would be happy to do it with a haredi crowd if they would agree. But the haredim can’t not come and also say they their side wasn’t heard.”

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