(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu only recently declared before the North American Jewish leadership his commitment to ensuring that all streams of Judaism feel at home in Israel and his promise to provide governmental funding to Israel’s non-Orthodox institutions. This was great PR and necessary strategic positioning, but the reality on the ground is very different.
The Education Ministry has just acknowledged that it has frozen financial support for organizations promoting Jewish renewal, non-Orthodox and secular, despite the fact that these funds were included in the state budget.
After the national budget was passed in November, reports Haaretz, NIS 143 million were allocated in the Education Ministry budget for “Jewish Culture” in 2015, later increased to NIS 150m., and the 2016 budget for Jewish culture was passed at NIS 142m., but is likely to be increased further. Most of these funds are intended for Orthodox organizations and programs, many of which are related to Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s party and political and religious ideologies.
Only NIS 8.6m. in this budget line were allocated for organizations that advance “Jewish renewal” and stand for Jewish pluralism in 2015, and NIS 7.9m. was budgeted for them in 2016, representing less than six percent of the 2015-16 budget. It is quite likely, according to Haaretz, that the Education Ministry will now reallocate these shekels, distributing them, too, to Orthodox organizations. Following Haaretz’s exposé Bennett tweeted a lame denial, which simply does not address the facts and contradicts the official information given earlier to the paper by the ministry’s spokesperson.
The meager funds allocated for Jewish renewal and alternative (non-Orthodox and secular) interpretations of Judaism were never more than a fig leaf, which is clear when one compares the total amount allocated to primarily Orthodox institutions of different shades and colors with the token NIS 16.5m. promised to the non-Orthodox and secular educational initiatives. Bennett has now suspended even this tiny fig leaf, demonstrating the reality of Israeli politics, where politicians on both the Right and the Left easily turn their backs on the very core principles of religious freedom and equality. These principles, as far as they are concerned, are up for sale in return for political spoils, cynically sold for votes, resulting not only in the growing erosion of respect for democracy and our political institutions, but also in a growing disdain and antagonism among the general public towards Judaism.
Bennett’s brazen move represents a vast gap between the Israeli realpolitik and the welcomed message that Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America last November in Washington, DC, which was greatly applauded. The prime minister’s public commitment was twofold: first, Netanyahu proclaimed his personal commitment to ensuring that all Jews – Reform, Conservative and Orthodox – feel at home in Israel. Secondly, he announced that the Israeli government would directly fund Reform and Conservative Jewish communities in Israel.
I suppose we in Israel should no longer be surprised that such encouraging promises are made overseas, for external consumption, and then forgotten and cynically disregarded upon return to Israel. The striking contradiction between this public promise and Netanyahu’s education minister cutting off financial support for the non-Orthodox movements is patently clear.
Why is Bennett doing this? First, because of his party’s deep-seated animosity toward the non-Orthodox movements in particular and religious pluralism in general. Secondly, there is likely an element of fear of the increasing impact that the non-Orthodox streams have been making in Israel, as they spread their message of Jewish renewal and their alternatives to the Orthodoxy of Minister Bennett and those on his religious Right.
Beyond the incongruence of the prime minister’s promise to Diaspora Jewry and the education’s minister’s discrimination against the non-Orthodox streams, there also lies an ugly hypocrisy in Minister Bennett’s own words and actions.
In his role as diaspora affairs minister, Naftali Bennett recently enjoyed recognition and appreciation throughout the Jewish communities of North America and beyond for visiting non-Orthodox Jewish day schools in the USA. In a tweet following his visit to the Conservative Schechter Day School of Manhattan, Minister Bennett acknowledged what he witnessed: “So much love of Israel, so much love of Judaism.”
However, just like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the light of truth has shone upon his other persona, as Israel’s powerful education minister. Nearly NIS 300m. were allocated for various Orthodox projects and crony entities in the 2015 and 2016 state budgets, aimed at brainwashing the minds of the student population with Bennett’s versions of Judaism and politics, but apparently that was not enough to satisfy him. He and his people saw the need to also suspend the meager allocations to the non-Orthodox programs. As diaspora affairs minister, Jekyll smiles lovingly upon non-Orthodox Jewry, which constitutes the overwhelming majority of America’s Jewish community and philanthropic and political supporters of Israel. However, as education minister, Hyde has pulled the rug out from under their counterparts in Israel.
We at Hiddush and like-minded organizations will do our utmost with our limited means to spread Jewish inclusiveness, tolerance and pluralism. But the challenge is not just ours. It is now up to the Diaspora Jewish leadership to demand that Netanyahu make good on his promise, that Minister Bennett cease discriminating against Israel’s non-Orthodox streams. They must let Bennett know that he will not be welcomed into their pluralistic communities, while he shuns pluralism and discriminates against their brothers and sisters in Israel. Further, Diaspora Jewry must turn directly to the prime minister, and insist that he appoint an emissary to world Jewry who genuinely respects the Diaspora and its Jewish diversity, and reaches out to them in good faith. Speeches in America and meetings with overseas Jewish dignitaries are not enough – the diaspora affairs minister must conduct his responsibilities in Israel in the same spirit as he does his outreach to world Jewry.
It is a sad statement that instead of Israel’s leadership celebrating the richness of the Jewish rainbow, as most Israeli Jews wish for and support, they let the religious politicians abuse their authority, as in the case of the Education Ministry, and put virtual blinders on the next generation’s Jewish horizons. Instead of appreciating the virtue of inviting Israel’s Jewish youth to find their places along the healthy Jewish continuum, religious politicians pour millions, extracted from public coffers, into narrow-minded, one-sided brainwashing efforts. Israel’s civil and secular coalition partners sit by passively, watching them, willing to sacrifice the rich tapestry of our Jewish heritage for their own political gains. It’s time for both Israeli and Diaspora leaderships to declare: Judaism, pluralism, Jewish Peoplehood and democracy are too important to be left at the mercy of sectarian interests and political horse-trading.
The author, a rabbi, heads Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel, an Israel- Diaspora partnership for religious freedom and equality.