Rattling the Cage: Thank you, Mr. President

After 29 years as a national political figure, Moshe Katsav has said something.

katsav 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
katsav 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
On the extremely rare occasions when political bull sessions would turn to the subject of President Moshe Katsav, I used to enjoy asking the question: Can any of you think of a single thing this man has ever said or done? I don't remember that anyone ever could. Which was a pretty striking thing because here he was, president of the State of Israel, with a career as a national politician going back to 1977 when he was first elected to the Knesset, yet his record not only of deeds, but even of words, was a mystery. This says something about the Israeli presidency. What says even more about it is that probably 98 percent or so of Israelis, including myself, would agree that Katsav has done a great job as president. In this purely decorative job, he is as perfect a decoration as Israel could hope to find. He's both dignified with that silver hair and likable with his winning smile, crinkly eyes and warm voice. He's smart and well-spoken, and handles on-the-spot questions effortlessly. For sheer presentability, a basic requirement of the job, he scores off the charts. Plus, in what may be his most presidential quality, Katsav seems incapable of holding an opinion, maybe even of thinking a thought, that could possibly upset anyone. He is the national unifier on issues that most everyone is already unified over, at least in polite company - law and order, "Jewish values," democracy, tolerance, patriotism, the IDF, the Holocaust, traffic safety. He decorates the Israeli consensus. As for the country's controversial, divisive issues, he skates around them like Hans Brinker. UNTIL NOW. Can you believe this? After 29 years as a national political figure, Moshe Katsav has said something that not only caught people's attention, it made some of them mad! The storm is over his refusal to address non-Orthodox rabbis as "rabbi." When some of the offended parties began to notice this, he explained in a pre-Rosh Hashana TV interview: "From growing up in my father's house, I am used to calling someone a rabbi if he has been ordained according to the [Orthodox] way of life that I observe." When the interviewers asked whether he wasn't violating his role as president of everyone in the Jewish state and a symbol to all Jews everywhere, Katsav replied: "As soon as the State of Israel decides to recognize a Reform rabbi as a rabbi, then the president of the state will also be required to do so." Katsav was skating again, but for once he fell on his presidential seal. The dispute took on a high profile this week because the World Zionist Congress is in Jerusalem, and Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the largely North American movement, has refused to visit the President's Residence with the rest of the Zionist delegates because Katsav insulted him and the 1.5 million Reform Jews he represents. You can't blame Yoffie. Would Katsav put up with anyone who refused to address him as "President"? WHAT KATSAV has done is remind everyone that Israel is the one country in the world where Jews fight each other and hate each other over religion. This is what the State of Israel has to export to the Diaspora in the field of Judaism: sectarian strife. All because, as Katsav noted, the state hasn't recognized non-Orthodox rabbis as rabbis. Thus, Judaism in Israel, alone among the 30 or so countries in the world with a sizable Jewish population, becomes a power struggle between the Orthodox establishment and non-Orthodox insurgents. Katsav is the new symbol of Israeli Orthodox arrogance, the new lightning rod for Reform and Conservative religious-rights activism. Now a lot of people will say he's done a great disservice to Jewish unity, to Israeli-Diaspora unity, that he's insulted millions of American and Canadian Jews who are among Israel's strongest supporters, etc. etc. But I really don't think these people are all that insulted, because they've come to expect this sort of idiocy from Israel, certainly from Israelis like Katsav who identify with the Orthodox establishment. Besides, I'm not sure they ever put much store in the words of any Israeli president, certainly not one as unknown to them as this one, so I don't see that Katsav has disillusioned anybody because I don't think anybody had any illusions about him, the Israeli presidency or Israeli-style Judaism in the first place. Actually, I think the president has done Reform and Conservative Jewry in America a favor. Let's face it - they're bored. They can do or not do anything they want in their synagogues, and nobody will even raise their voices at them. They go their way and the Orthodox go theirs. Between America's separation of religion and state, and all that tolerance, the Reform and Conservative over there, unlike those over here, can't get into a fight to save their lives. In Israel, the Reform and Conservative are on the barricades. In America, they're on the golf course. But this week in Jerusalem they're protesting and their rabbis are giving interviews. They're underdogs fighting for a noble cause. It's terribly exciting, and this could only happen to them in Israel. And the man they have to thank is President Moshe Katsav. Whoever the hell he is.