Middle Israel: Katsav's first mistake

The president uncharacteristically refused the other day to address a Reform rabbi by his rightful title: rabbi.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Since its inception, while the Jewish state repeatedly saw wars erupt and abate, peace dawn and diminish, and numerous social, economic and cultural crises flare up, wane, and then again explode, the Israeli presidency remained a sideshow. Moshe Katsav never planned on becoming president, but once he arrived there six years ago, under famously improbable circumstances, he did an admirable job restoring to that office the decorum, distance and caution it had lost in the days of his impulsive and quixotic predecessor Ezer Weizman. For the sake of proper disclosure, I should mention that I have been briefly involved recently with the presidential operation in a certain context. While at it, I got a close glimpse of, and emerged impressed with, Katsav's urge to not just symbolize but also impact, first by mandating a forum of distinguished Israelis to seek ideas for reforming the governmental system, and then by convening Diaspora leaders in order to conceive new strategies for the future of the Jewish people. On another occasion Katsav invited me to take part in a similarly refreshing initiative, a dialogue of Jewish and Arab journalists that took place in his residence, while this decade's terror war was still close to its peak. Such initiatives were on the whole the hallmark of a presidency that cleverly and delicately sought to affect without provoking, and to treat the contentious without abandoning the consensual. Now, as the jockeying for Katsav's succession next summer accelerates, few seem to have much negative to say about his handling of the presidency. His was not the politically detached performance of Ephraim Katzir, nor the excessively high-profile first lady that was Yitzhak Navon's Ofira. The Katsav presidency echoed Zalman Shazar's traditionalism and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi's concern for distant Jews, and it refreshingly contrasted with the aristocratic Chaim Herzog's lordliness. Yes, the frequent questioning of the very need for the presidency, which emerged the day the presidency was conceived, did not disappear during Katsav's term, nor did discussion about the need for charisma and initiative in that office. Yet even so, it has generally been a respectably scandal-free presidency. If there was anything unpleasant about the Katsav presidency it was not in his performance, but in its backdrop, particularly the thankless shiva calls he paid so frequently in the homes of terror victims and fallen soldiers. And if there has been a public tragedy in this tale, besides its having emerged amid yet another humiliating defeat for Shimon Peres, it was in the abrupt splitting and collapse during this presidency of the Likud, the party where Katsav was politically baptized, reared and crowned. In this regard, Katsav's orbiting in presidential outer space these days is much like the Mir cosmonauts' discovery before returning to this planet that the empire that had launched them no longer existed. Ordinarily, the time to discuss all this would have come a year from now, had it not been for Katsav's conscious, uncalled-for and uncharacteristically provocative refusal the other day to address a Reform rabbi by his rightful title: rabbi. THAT THE president has made a big mistake, both institutionally and politically, is almost needless to say. Institutionally, the presidency must remain well above the intra-Jewish fray, which certainly includes the tensions between Judaism's various denominations. Just like it would never cross Katsav's mind to discriminate, or even just insult, a particular Jewish ethnicity, it is inconceivable that he do so with a part of the Jewish nation that includes hundreds of synagogues and thousands of congregants around the world. Politically, a man whose ambitions include convening and presiding over the most high-powered Jewish gathering since the first Zionist congresses simply cannot afford such an affront to a movement as sizable and powerful as Reform Judaism. Understandably, then, Katsav's refusal is now generating a backlash that is likely to last and grow; were he to seek my advice on this one I would urge him to humbly apologize, preferably in a humorous and televised exchange with Rabbi Eric Yoffie. Having said this, the Reform movement would do well to take stock of what lurks behind Katsav's explanation for his refusal, namely that "where he was raised" rabbis were Orthodox, and the non-Orthodox were not rabbis. HISTORICALLY, Reform was a product of the Jewish experience in Europe and America. In the Middle East it was nowhere to be seen, mainly because back in those prewar generations this part of the world was inhabited by hardly one-tenth of world Jewry, and the Jewish condition in the Muslim world was not such that the Reform idea could either address pressing needs or capture Jewish imaginations. For its part, as long as most Jews lived in Europe and America, and as long as there was no Jewish state, the Reform movement made no effort to sink roots in this part of the world. Now, however, with Jewish demographics having transformed as dramatically as they have and with Israel emerging as the world's largest Jewish community, Reform Jewry must ask itself not only what Israelis like Katsav are doing wrong in keeping it at arm's length, but also what Reform Jews have been doing wrong that so many Israelis, secular and religious alike, treat them with such suspicion. Sadly, non-Orthodoxy's response to its occasional discrimination here in budget allocations and authorization to perform weddings, divorces and conversions has all too often been to go to the courts or the media rather than to the people. To be treated by Israelis not only fairly, but also naturally, Reform and Conservative Jews must simply be here in much greater numbers, and that will not be accomplished by passing this or that law, winning another Supreme Court ruling, or engaging in yet another feminist skirmish at the Wall, important though all these may be. To grow here, non-Orthodox Judaism must offer the Israeli middle class what Shas offered the working class, namely dozens upon dozens of day-care centers, kindergartens, elementary schools, high schools, teacher training colleges and community rabbis who will eagerly get involved, the way they do in America, in day-to-day situations like bereavement, divorce or domestic violence. These days, with Israel brimming with religiously virgin and often anti-Orthodox immigrants from the former East Bloc, all this just begs to be done; the people are out there, often thirsting for spiritual but liberal inspiration and consolation in a frequently menacing, chilly and alienating new land. Making the supply and demand meet can potentially reinvent Israeli spirituality, reinvigorate American Reform, and build between the two bridges so solid that in the future it will be unthinkable for an Israeli president to insult a Reform rabbi.