Purim is approaching, so, at first, I thought the following headline was a joke: “Tens of thousands of haredim [ultra-Orthodox] pray for their Israeli brethren in downtown Manhattan.” But it was far from a joke. In the middle of the week, during work hours, in the streets and avenues of the bustling business district of New York City, some 50,000 “brothers and sisters” prayed – separately, of course – to spare their victimized Israeli brethren from the terrible decree imposed upon them in eretz hakodesh, the holy land. The injustice and insult to the “army of Torah students” had to be exposed, prevented. The rule of law must be ignored for the sake of more worthy purposes.
What is happening? Are these people under threat? Why has Manhattan become the stage for a public outpouring of haredi solidarity and strength – not about an American situation, but one in Israel? The answer is that they know the Jewish people – wherever they may be physically – are connected to one another, that our destinies and futures are interdependent.
As one of the New York haredi leaders said, “we are all brothers, wherever we are.” They get it – and use it to exercise control and power. And so must we; the vast majority of the Jews in the world whose “official “ recognition as Jews – when we marry, divorce or are buried – is in the hands of the politically powerful and savvy haredi establishment in Israel.
Even though both demonstrations were by a small minority of the population, and they wrought havoc on traffic and on citizens’ schedules; even though in Jerusalem the rabbinic organizers of the protest regularly encourage and instruct their followers to violate the law, to not be part of Israel’s army, to not assume responsibility for protecting the state and its citizens, although they live in and benefit from that state; and even though 5,000 miles a way in “down town,” a tiny minority with atypical garb for the Wall Street business district – who sometimes themselves openly confront their own majority society – the mass events were allowed to take place with police assistance, with public sanction.
Why? Because they took place in countries dedicated to democracy, where the right of people to openly speak, think and act according to their conscience and beliefs is a well-protected value.
In Jerusalem, if that minority gets what it wants – continued control over the Jewish nature of the state – democracy, the very tool which they understand and so skillfully use, and which has already been compromised regarding equal recognition and staus for different forms of Jewish expression, will likely diminish even further. The chances of that happening in Manhattan are almost zero as it is in a country where the value of personal freedoms and rights are deeply entrenched and where religion and state are officially separated.
The Orthodox/ultra-Orthodox monopoly over Jewish law and practice in Israel threatens all “other” Jews – modern Orthodox no less than Reform and Conservative, in Israel and around the world. I say let’s learn from the haredim: it’s OK – for Jews from around the world to speak out and take action to protect their common interests. The right of all Jews to practice Judaism as they choose is dependent on Israel becoming more of a democratic, Western pluralistic country. We – like the haredim – have the right, and the obligation to join forces to fight for interests which impact on all of us, and, even more importantly, on our children and grandchildren – wherever they live. United we may stand, divided we will definitely fall.
Jews abroad are encouraged to use their influence and power to protest the hegemony over Jewish life experienced day after day in Israel – and often abroad – just as they energetically work to protect Israel from external enemies, including Iran, the Persia of Purim fame.
We – Masorti-Conservative, Reform, secular and modern Orthodox Jews, like Ester, Mordechai and their brethren throughout the land, must work together in clever, sustained action to protect Israel from turning into a Persia where edicts for limitations on the freedom of Jewish life are issued.
The author, chairperson of the Masorti Movement in Israel, has been involved for over 35 years in work to strengthen Israel’s civil society.