(photo credit: YOEL LEVI)
Israel’s reputation as the only democracy in the Middle East suffered yet another blow last week, when two senior cabinet members went off the deep end and virtually excommunicated millions of fellow Jews in both the Diaspora and Israel.
Just as an historic compromise was reached allowing for all Jews to pray according to their customs at different sections of the Western Wall, and a court upheld the right of all Jews to use public ritual baths, the leaders of two fundamentalist parties baldly refused to let these decisions apply to non-Orthodox Jews – for the simple reason that they do not recognize non-Orthodox Jews.
It is absurd that the Start-Up Nation of 2016 is incapable of extending the religious freedom ostensibly guaranteed by its Declaration of Independence to all its citizens. It is especially absurd that, in a so-called democracy that fails to separate religion and state, a government with the majority of a single vote can be blackmailed by two fundamentalist coalition partners that dictate a corrupt human rights policy.
The leading tail wagging the dog in this regard, by virtue of his disparaging remarks and the contempt he expresses toward the largest movement of affiliated Jews in the United States, is United Torah Judaism chairman and Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman. He declared last week regarding the mikvaot decision that his party would not stay in a government that recognizes the Reform and Conservative movements.
This is because, Litzman said on Israel Radio, “The Reform don’t know what mikvaot are. They are jacuzzis for them.” Furthermore, he continued, “We will not sit in a government that recognizes the Reform. This is an instruction from the Council of Torah Sages.”
Not to be outdone, Shas Party boss and Interior Minister Arye Deri quickly declared that Shas also will not sit in a government that recognizes the Reform Movement.
Thus, in the minds of fundamentalist ministers Israel cannot be both Jewish and democratic.
The country’s state monopoly on religious affairs was quick to assert its own position. The Chief Rabbinate accused the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations of no less than “uprooting Judaism” and causing assimilation and intermarriage: “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 typical comment was made by former Shas leader 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 mildly 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.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu duly paid lip service for the benefit of Diaspora Jews by declaring, “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.”
Unfortunately, such a statement cannot be taken at face value, given the government’s track record on social reform. The Knesset’s first-ever LGBT Rights Day was observed recently with the introduction of bills to allow gay civil unions and same-sex couples to adopt children, educate health professionals, prohibit so-called “conversion therapy” and give same sex partners of soldiers killed in action equal survivor’s benefits.
They were all voted down in preliminary readings.
Litzman, expressing his opposition to the gay rights bills, referred pointedly to that week’s Torah portion dealing with the sin of the Golden Calf, reflecting his fundamentalist view that gay people are sinners.
Unfortunately, fundamentalist prejudices are guiding more than a single ministry. Despite the prime minister’s assertion that every person is created in the image of God, for the likes of Litzman and Deri, this does not apply to every Jew.