US Jews hope Joe Biden could challenge Israel's Orthodox monopoly

DIASPORA AFFAIRS: American Jewish leaders see religious pluralism in Israel potentially on the docket under US President-elect Joe Biden

A BAT MITZVAH is held at the Kotel. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A BAT MITZVAH is held at the Kotel.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
NEW YORK – As leaders in Israel and the American Jewish community begin to ponder changes under US President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration, some predict that long-standing controversies around religious pluralism will receive newfound attention.
Liberal segments of American Jewry, who overwhelmingly backed the former vice president, have for decades rebuked the Israeli government for yielding too much power to the Orthodox Jews on issues including prayer at the Western Wall and the power to perform conversions to Judaism.
“It’s a very sad moment for me, as a progressive rabbi, when Jews don’t recognize each other’s legitimacy. It’s a moment of senseless hatred,” said Rabbi Joshua Stanton, who leads East End Temple, a Reform synagogue in Manhattan. “Members of other denominations not only ignore my own, but actually claim that it’s illegitimate and doesn’t have a stake in Israel.
“As much as the Orthodox maintain a monopoly on state funding, resources and norms at the Kotel [Western Wall], the Reform movement is starting to chip away at that monopoly,” Stanton continued. “If Israel is really to support Jewish life and all of its manifestations, it’s going to have to pay attention.”
Stanton told The Jerusalem Post he expects the Biden administration to include advocacy for religious pluralism in Israel, bringing the changes he has been promoting since becoming a Reform rabbi a decade ago.
“Given the number of Jewish family members that both Joe Biden and [US Vice President-elect] Kamala Harris have, they understand with nuance the realities of Jewish life. They are probably disheartened that their own family members are disenfranchised from spiritual practice in their own homeland. Their family members could go visit Israel and be denied equal religious rights,” Stanton continued.
“Biden and Harris understand as insiders. As people deeply connected themselves to Jewish people, they are going to understand the pain of exclusion that progressive denominations feel. I think they are going to advocate for the vast majority of American Jews, in terms of pluralism and wanting a two-state solution,” he said.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, also noted that he anticipates the Biden administration will foster a change of environment.
“We’re ready for [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s government to work together with the Biden administration to rebuild bipartisan trust. It’s naive to say that this will be simple to do,” said Jacobs.
The Reform Movement is the largest Jewish denomination in North America. Jacobs said the movement will continue working with Israel to promote their values of “democracy, equality, religious freedom and Jewish unity.”
But Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, said he does not foresee a new administration in the US soothing friction between Israel and American Jewry.
“That’s not an area that the US administration needs to be concerned about. It’s an internal Jewish conversation between Diaspora Jews and Israel’s leadership,” Blumenthal told the Post.
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, echoed Blumenthal’s presumption that advocacy and religious pluralism in Israel will not be a priority for the Biden administration.
“I would think no US administrations have ever really had that as a priority. They typically deal with political issues, like Judea and Samara and Palestinian statehood. Their policies when it comes to Israel are almost always based on politics, not religion,” Klein told the Post.
THE REFORM and Conservative denominations in America together claim about five times as many domestic members as the Orthodox. But the liberal denominations both have significantly smaller footprints in Israel. According to a Pew Research Center survey in 2016, very few Jews in Israel identify with Conservative (2%) or Reform (3%) Judaism, while half (50%) identify with Orthodoxy – including many Jews who are not highly observant but may still be most familiar with Orthodox Judaism.
Blumenthal said the current public policy challenges facing the Masorti Movement (Conservative Judaism in Israel) include equal funding and the ability of clergy to be able to fully function as rabbis in Israel.
“In general, we’re always interested in strengthening our communities with the state of Israel and its people,” he said.
Blumenthal and Jacobs both noted that a good start to guaranteeing representation for all streams of Judaism was the compromise agreed upon in October at the 38th World Zionist Congress, a democratically elected global Jewish forum.
“The Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements, along with our partners in our international and progressive Zionist organizations, have successfully mobilized our movements in Israel and around the world to prevent the marginalization of progressive voices at the WZC. That effort toward marginalization... reflected by leaders of the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties, would have weakened the World Zionist Organization and the Israeli national institutions. This new agreement specifies the important roles our Reform leaders will hold in the Zionist institutions and will continue funding for our movement’s critical work in Israel and around the world,” stated URJ immediately following the October 20-22 WZC conference, which was conducted virtually due to pandemic restrictions.
“There is no question that the current agreement, which reflects the current Israeli political reality, grants significant power to the right-wing parties,” the statement continued. “However as a result of our negotiations, there will be more pluralistic leadership that will enable important checks and balances and help enforce the critical need for transparency and accountability.”
A substantial majority of Israelis – 70%, according to an October Israeli Voice Index survey – supported US President Donald Trump’s reelection, while roughly the same percentages of American Reform and Conservative Jews voted for Biden. Furthermore, a 2019 Pew study found surprisingly that a candidate’s support for Israel is a lower priority for the American Jewish electorate than it is for Christians.
When asked whether he thinks these trends could dampen support by Israelis for the Reform and Conservative movements in their country, Blumenthal said no.
“I think [the divide] more reflects an important cultural difference between Israelis who live in a majority Jewish society, and Jews outside of Israel who live as minorities. I don’t think it’s based so much on religious difference as it is a difference in experience. Israel was established as a Jewish country and so their understanding of the relationship between religion and state does feel different than it does for us as American Jews,” said Blumenthal.
“Our experience as a religious minority is one where we want to make sure pluralism is a high value. Israel would create a better society if it embraced religious pluralism because within Judaism there are many ways to express our values.”