Rabbi Dr. Benny Lau, a leading figure in the national-religious community, has called for great efforts to promote tolerance in Israeli society, and said that uniting as a people was the greatest challenge facing the Jewish people in Israel for the coming new year.
Lau, who has authored several books and has a weekly television show on the Torah portion, spoke with The Jerusalem Post in a special interview ahead of Rosh Hashana.
In evaluating the year past, Lau emphasized the great solidarity that the country experienced during the recent conflict with Hamas in Gaza, and said it was vital to utilize this experience to form a more cohesive society in times of peace, not just war.
The period between the kidnapping and murder of Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrach, and the end of the IDF’s Operation Protective Edge was unique in the way it affected the Israeli public, the rabbi said.
“During this period, a large section of the population experienced the feeling that we are partners in living in this country, that we are partners in our fate,” he said. “This summer aroused in us a great sense of shared responsibility and togetherness.”
And despite what many have seen as a return to the old political and societal divisions after the conflict ended, Lau said he believed the experience of the war would have a profound and long-lasting effect. He acknowledged, however, that it would be easy to forget this shared sense of fate, warning, “We must be very careful not to allow the politicians to destroy this.”
To counter that threat, Lau emphasized the importance of fomenting a greater level of tolerance in society for those with different ideas and opinions, for minorities and for the poor.
“Tolerance is the beginning of everything. Without tolerance, we can’t have a society,” he averred. “Right now... there is very little tolerance in Israeli society.”
He also deplored the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, the Arab boy whom a group of Jewish extremists murdered in revenge for the murders of the three Jewish youths. This deed, along with the other racist violence that occurred at the time, caused grievous harm to the state, Lau said.
“If we, in the name of nationalism, hurt or murder a citizen of the state, whether they’re from Shuafat or anywhere else in the country, then we are generating the destruction of our country. When we people talk in a racist manner against Arabs, Muslims and other minorities, we severely injure the state which is so beloved to us. In my eyes, a Jewish state is one that is extremely exacting in the right to equality of all its citizens,” said the rabbi.
He underlined the importance of education in this endeavor.
Lau also addressed the battles being waged over the combustible issue of conversion.
Efforts are under way to reform the conversion system and make it more accessible to immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to Orthodox law.
Moderates within the national- religious camp, including Lau, see these reforms as crucial to preventing future societal divisions, but the haredi rabbinic leadership and the conservative sector of the national-religious community have strongly opposed them.
Lau said that one of the biggest arguments between the Zionist world – religious and secular – and the haredi community was how to view the arrival of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
“We [the Zionist community] called it a redemption, and we are thankful for it. We see these people as part of our family and wanted to make every effort in helping them be part of the Jewish people, not just emotionally but in the realm of Jewish law, too. Haredi Judaism did not see their return to the State of Israel as a redemption, but as a failure of history. They don’t see these people as family, and are therefore doing everything to make conversion very hard.”
Lau said that anyone who loves the State of Israel must do everything necessary “to bring these brothers of ours together with us so that their personal identity, which is by instinct Jewish, can also be Jewish according to Jewish law.”
He also expressed vigorous support for the idea of converting minors, by consent, which is a less stringent process than conversion for adults.
Addressing the conflict between the more moderate and hardline sectors of the national-religious community, Lau described it as a battle between two ideological groups: one that wants to strengthen the religious world as much as possible even at the expense of a national agenda, and one that would prioritize national concerns even at the expense of the Torah world.
Lau agrees that a degree of radicalization has taken hold of part of the community, but says that it is largely among the sector’s youth and is generally a temporary phenomenon.
“The majority of the community are those who are educated, who serve in the army, who work and pay taxes and are part of the middle class,” he said.
“The youth are very influenced by their teachers and rabbis, but the same youth then leave school, go to the army, go to university, and discover that the world is more complicated and not so black and white. They find that there are other, more moderate ideologies, and you see that they move from the extreme to the middle.”
Identifying himself as being “in the middle camp,” he lauded the “overwhelming majority” of the sector as “faithful to the state, the army and the rule of law,” and praised its contribution to the country during the war.
“We are talking here about the future leadership of the Jewish people in the State of Israel, and I’m very positive about it,” he said.