Challenge: Jewish unity

Israel needs to revamp itself as nation-state of the entire Jewish people, not just a strictly Orthodox stream represented by the Chief Rabbinate.

February 18, 2014 21:21
3 minute read.
MK Nissan Smolanski and Housing Minister Uri Ariel inaugurate the building of housing units.

Jerusalem Western Wall, Dome of the Rock 521. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Nearly all the major challenges facing the Jewish people – in Israel and abroad – have been raised during the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations’ annual Israel Mission, meeting this week in Jerusalem.

Conference executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein warned that in this May’s European Parliament elections, ultra-nationalists with anti-Semitic agendas could gain up to 30 percent of the vote; Finance Minister Yair Lapid expressed concern that failure to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians would devastate the economy and hurt relations with the US; and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in addition to speaking at length on the Iranian threat, discussed the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, calling those in Europe who back it “anti-Semites in modern garb.”

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All of these pressing issues, which focus on the Jewish people’s relations with the non-Jewish world, are exceedingly important – some are existential threats.

Another focus of attention, however, had more to do with intra-Jewish relations, namely Israel’s ongoing relationship with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism both in Israel and in the Diaspora, particularly in America.

While not as existentially threatening, regular clashes between Israel and American Jewry over the Jewish state’s lack of recognition of non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism should not be taken lightly.

In December, shortly after Michael Oren ended his stint as ambassador to the US, he warned that Israel must recognize the legitimacy of all forms of Judaism, including Reform and Conservative, or risk alienating many American Jews.

Since the conflict over recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism is an exclusively internal affair pitting Jews against fellow Jews, it should, in theory, be easier to solve than conflicts involving our relations with the fanatical Shi’ites of the Islamic Republic, anti-Semitic Europeans or Palestinians unwilling to recognize the Jewish people’s historical and religious ties to the Land of Israel.

On Monday, Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, who holds the religious services and Diaspora affairs portfolios in the government – and is therefore in a unique position to tackle the issue – addressed the issue of Israeli recognition of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

Bennett noted that it is important for Israel to “somehow work together” with the leaders of Conservative and Reform Judaism, whom he called “my brothers and sisters.”

This is not the first time he has risked the ire of some in the Israeli Orthodox leadership, including many of his own constituents, and reached out to non-Orthodox Americans.

In June, Bennett met with between 250 and 300 Conservative rabbis – nearly all attendees of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly convention that was held in Jerusalem. Senior members of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel described the meeting as the first time in the state’s history that a religious services minister met with a large and official group of Conservative rabbis. During that meeting, Bennett called for dialogue in which “neither side is superior, neither side is better.”

During his speech on Monday, he noted that one of the steps that the government had taken to foster religious pluralism was the decision to open a third section at the Western Wall exclusively for egalitarian prayer. The state also began paying the salaries of several non-Orthodox rabbis at the end of 2013, in the wake of a High Court of Justice petition.

While Bennett has taken important, indeed unprecedented, steps to embrace non-Orthodox streams who represent a majority of American Jewry, more needs to be done. These Jews are among the most committed Zionists in the Diaspora.

They regularly donate time and money to the advancement of the State of Israel. Many Israelis do not fully appreciate that for many Reform and Conservative Jews living in America, it is exceedingly hurtful that the State of Israel does not recognize their form of Judaism.

While it is unlikely that we will succeed in ending anti-Semitism in Europe, neutralizing a bellicose Iran or solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict any time soon, Israel can take steps to make peace “within the family.” Fostering Jewish unity it eminently doable. Israel needs to revamp itself as the nation-state of the entire Jewish people, not just a strictly Orthodox stream represented by the Chief Rabbinate.

An inclusive, pluralistic approach has been the tried and true policy of the Conference of Presidents for decades and it should be the policy of the State of Israel as well.

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