A Jewish female activist (C) from the Women of the Wall prayer rights group wears a prayer shawl and tefillin during a monthly prayer session near the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What is one to make of Interior Minister Arye Deri, who just last week introduced a bill to uphold freedom of the press, but followed this almost immediately with a declaration that his Shas party will not sit in a government that recognizes the Reform Movement? Some might think there is a contradiction between supporting press freedom and denying the civil rights of non-Orthodox Jews to pray according to their religious customs. Unfortunately, in the minds of Deri and his fellow travelers, there is no conflict – because to true Jewish fundamentalists Israel cannot be both Jewish and democratic.
Deri’s declaration was absolute, as he told Channel 2: “We won’t sit in a government that recognizes the Reform, not over the Western Wall, not for marriage and not for divorce.”
Such words might be considered the aberration of a power-drunk politician only recently restored to office following the expiry of his compulsory time-out from government for the finding of moral turpitude that accompanied his prison term for bribery. Deri’s assault on Jewish pluralism, however, follows a growing number of anti-democratic attacks by the ultra-Orthodox establishment on non-Orthodox Judaism, sparked by the agreement signed by the government – including Deri – on the creation of a pluralist prayer space at the Western Wall.
Incredibly, this enlightened decision to recognize the civil rights of all Jews to share a place to pray at the holiest venue of the Jewish people – which is not the exclusive property of the ultra-Orthodox – is developing into another war of the Jews. What was hailed by the non-Orthodox Jews of the Diaspora and Israel as an historic breakthrough of religious tolerance, long awaited by those still hoping that the country’s Orthodox monopoly on religious observance, as enforced by the Chief Rabbinate, might someday evolve into a kinder, gentler practice of tolerance.
Apparently this is not yet meant to be. Deri was quickly joined by his haredi cabinet colleague, United Torah Judaism chairman and Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, whose party – which voted for the pluralistic prayer section – declared that it would not support any government legislation unless the Western Wall agreement is revoked.
Not to be outdone in sectoral extremism, the Chief Rabbinate accused the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations of “uprooting Judaism,” and causing assimilation and intermarriage.
In its statement, the Chief Rabbinate said, “If you look at the assimilation that has spread throughout the Jews of the world who are connected with these bodies, at the intermarriage, the uprooting of everything of holiness, you will see clearly that they have no connection to original Judaism – Judaism that sustained the Jewish people throughout all the years of its existence.”
A more typical comment was made by former Shas party head Eli Yishai, who condemned the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall by asserting that “the next thing we’ll see is [Reform Jews] putting tefillin on dogs and calling them up to the Torah.”
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform Movement in Israel, responded to the Chief Rabbinate by accusing it of “behaving like a branch of the United Torah Judaism and Shas parties,” instead of a body charged with providing religious services to all Jews.
“The wave of incitement of the last two weeks against Reform Judaism is not connected to the Western Wall or mikvaot, but rather to the understanding and the panic of haredi politicos that the majority of the Israeli public is disgusted by the Orthodox monopoly,” Kariv said.
It was good to see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu come out on the side of the angels, when he declared, “I reject the recent disparaging and divisive remarks by ministers and members of Knesset about Reform Jews.
Reform and Conservative Jews are part and parcel of the Jewish people and should be treated with respect. This is the government’s policy. This is my policy.”
Of course, if the haredi parties act on their threats to leave the government, an early election may be expected – and the prime minister will have the opportunity to uphold his declared government policy.