A seat at the table

One can agree or not with the actions of the Israeli government, but there is no doubt that in recent years there is a serious crisis with Diaspora Jews.

July 15, 2019 22:23
WILL THE bonds with the Diaspora break?

WILL THE bonds with the Diaspora break? . (photo credit: REUTERS)

Last summer, The New York Times published an article entitled “Israel, This Is Not Who We Are.” The article was written following the arrest of Rabbi Dubi Hayun – the deputy mayor of Haifa – a conservative rabbi who was detained for questioning in accordance with a directive by the Rabbinical Court of Haifa for performing a wedding without the consent of the Chief Rabbinate. The writer of the article in the Times described how a series of events – including the freezing of the planned Western Wall deal, as well as opposition to LGBT rights and the removal of the paragraph regarding equality from the Nation-State Law – are viewed by the Jews of the United States.

The writer of the article is no less than Ron Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress. In the article, he warns of growing alienation between Diaspora Jews and Israel, particularly the younger generation. He claims that the government of Israel is damaging efforts to strengthen the bond between this generation and the State of Israel, a relationship that is being undermined.
One can agree or not with the actions of the Israeli government, but there is no doubt that in recent years there is a serious crisis with Diaspora Jews. The climax was around the freezing of the Western Wall deal, which took place on the same day as a bill to block conversions independent of the rabbinate was introduced and while the board of governors of the Jewish Agency was meeting in Jerusalem. This was a slap in the face for a lot of Diaspora Jews who care about Israel. But even after this climax, the publication of a blacklist of well-known rabbis abroad (including Orthodox rabbis who were disqualified) added fuel to the fire.

One cannot exaggerate the importance of our existence as a single, united nation, even if our ways of life and religious views differ. It is impossible to ignore the fact that most Jews in the Diaspora do not hold Orthodox Jewish views and that the Chief Rabbinate in Israel does not recognize rabbis of Orthodox congregations who are on the liberal side of the spectrum.

The Western Wall has become the symbol of the conflict. Every Rosh Hodesh, Women of the Wall come to pray, as is their custom, and haredi groups start fighting them. The Western Wall Plaza has gravitated from being a site that supposedly includes all shades of the Jewish people to becoming a battlefield. From being the largest synagogue in the world to a boxing arena – where we all lose.

It appears that the unending conflict between the need and desire of respected parts of Diaspora Jewry for recognition by the government of Israel versus haredi control of the Jewish identity of the state, which does not accept anyone with a different outlook to its own, will not be solved any time soon. What the government does not do, the court of law will have to do. Thus non-Orthodox conversions made abroad are recognized for the population registry. Thus, Reform and Conservative rabbis, both male and female, can serve as rabbis of settlements (though they are funded by the Culture Ministry rather than the Religious Affairs Ministry). And thus, non-Orthodox movements will receive funding for their events from Jewish culture budgets. In the end, the haredi obstinacy in not agreeing to grant legitimacy and space for the different streams is a Pyrrhic victory, since the court of law cannot allow such blatant discrimination. But this only fans the flames of the civil war.

I SUGGEST trying a different approach. Instead of fighting only for recognition, let’s try to talk about representation. Moshe Feiglin and former minister Moshe Nissim already suggested something in this vein. Feiglin reserved a place on his list in the Zehut Party for a representative of Diaspora Jewry who was chosen in open primaries by representatives of that group. As part of his recommendations for regulating state conversion in Israel, Nissim suggested reserving seats for representatives of Diaspora Jewry onto the appointments committee of the judges of conversion rabbinical courts.

In the end, the crisis is significant, but is also influenced by the fact that there is no Diaspora Jewish representation in government bodies relevant to their lives. It is important to understand that the Chief Rabbinate and other bodies have a meaningful influence on the standing of Jews in the Diaspora, partially because of their recognition of conversions, providing proof of Judaism and divorce in manifold communities by various rabbis abroad. In addition, the Jewish holy sites are managed by clerks under the authority of the chief rabbis. Therefore, any initiative that seeks to mend the rift by actions which are disconnected from the problematic factor – the Chief Rabbinate – is, in fact, a mockery.

Bringing in representation can be done by the voting bodies, appointment committees and management bodies of the holy sites. If a public council representing all the Jewish people were entrusted to manage the Western Wall Plaza, rather than a single clerk who is a haredi rabbi, we would never have reached this dire situation. If there was representation, even if only symbolic, of Diaspora Jewry in bodies who choose the chief rabbis and the Chief Rabbinate’s council, there is a chance that the Chief Rabbinate would be more attentive to the diversity of the Jewish people.

The most apt expression for the required action at present is “A seat at the table”: to enable representatives of Diaspora Jewry to be partners in decision making. This is the order of the day and the way to reverse the growing alienation between us and our brethren in the Diaspora. The crisis with Diaspora Jewry will not disappear and initiatives of “joining of hearts” will not help without “turning away from evil.” Introducing representation is another way to act on this matter and to change the trend of estrangement between significant parts of the Jewish people who do not dwell in Zion, the government and the entire State of Israel.

The writer is head of the religion and state department, Ne’emnei Tora Ve’avoda.

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