Yisrael Beytenu MK David Rotem apologized Sunday in the Knesset for statements he made last week that Reform Judaism was “not Jewish.”
Rotem should be commended for his apology. However, his comments about the Reform movement are, unfortunately, widely held among Orthodox and haredi Israelis, including among our lawmakers.
Indeed, immediately after Rotem apologized, MK Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism) lashed out at the Reform Movement, calling it “the big enemy of the Jewish people.” A headline that quoted Maklev’s comment appeared Monday on the front page of Yated Ne’eman, the mouthpiece of Maklev’s political movement, Degel Hatorah.
Haredi MKs from UTJ and Shas have in the past made disparaging comments about the Reform Movement, particularly after the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that rabbis from non-Orthodox movements are entitled to salaries from the State of Israel just like their Orthodox counterparts. Former Sephardi chief rabbi Shlomo Amar said at the time that non-Orthodox movements “poison the well of holiness.”
However, representatives of Orthodox Jewry are not the only ones making caustic statements about their fellow Jews. Deputy Finance Minister Mickey Levy, in a slip of the tongue during an interview last year on a haredi radio station, called haredim “parasites.”
He immediately apologized, but the sentiment he expressed is felt by many, particularly on the secular Left.
The birth of many haredi babies is regularly referred to by journalists and pundits as a “demographic threat,” as though these young souls, who should be seen as the Jewish people’s ultimate victory over Nazism, are somehow inherently threatening.
When she was an MK for the liberal, left-wing Meretz Party, Naomi Chazan, speaking at a convention of the Federation for Humanistic Judaism, said that, “Only if we succeed in getting rid of this terrible black evil, of the taking over of our lives by the black demon, can we nurture all that is good in the state.”
Religion is not the only source of infighting in Israeli society. The Right regularly and viciously attacks the Left for daring to criticize military actions launched by the IDF or for protesting against settlement growth in Judea and Samaria. In contrast, the Left is quick to accuse the Right of “fascism.” The entire Russian population is besmirched by claims of alcohol abuse and crime, while Ethiopians are exposed to discrimination for their skin color.
Jews are no strangers to infighting. Indeed, the Jewish people has been a divided house since its very beginning, from Jephthah of Gilead’s massacre of 42,000 men from the tribe of Ephraim in a single day to the split between the tribes of Judah and Israel.
The Second Temple was destroyed, our rabbis teach, because “baseless hatred” prevailed at the time. But the Jews did not learn their lesson. Rabbinic Judaism denounced the Karaites as heretics and the Mitnagdim and the Hasidim were at each others’ throats, as were traditionalists and Maskilim.
And of course, some Orthodox Jews still revile the Reform, while the Reform have few good words to say about the haredim.
Hostility between Revisionists and the Labor Movement reached a breaking point following the 1933 assassination of Yishuv leader Chaim Arlosoroff and in the 1948 sinking of the Irgun’s Altalena munitions ship. These incidents were proof that Jewish infighting had not ended with the return to the Land of Israel.
Since its establishment, Israel has managed to bring together an extremely diverse population. But we will be fooling ourselves if we were to pretend that the incessant internal tensions between Right and Left, religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, have not taken their toll. And we have not even mentioned the gaping divide between Jew and Arab. Unfortunately, a culture of healthy public debate, one of the conditions of a strong democracy, has yet to emerge in the Jewish state. Hopefully one day it will.