Inclusive Israel

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu became the first prime minister to address the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial US gathering.

Netanyahu at IAF graduation (photo credit: Haim Zach / GPO)
Netanyahu at IAF graduation
(photo credit: Haim Zach / GPO)
For the first time in Israel’s history, non-Orthodox rabbis will begin receiving salaries from the state, just like their Orthodox counterparts. State funds will come from the Culture and Sports Ministry’s budget, not the Religious Service Ministry’s, because the Orthodox functionaries who run the latter refuse to cooperate. Nevertheless, the move is seen as an important concession from a state whose secular leaders have historically allocated all religious authority and state funding to the Orthodox.
This long-overdue change in policy is too little, too late. In 2005, the Reform Movement’s legal arm, the Israel Religious Action Center, filed a petition with the High Court of Justice arguing it was discriminatory that Rabbi Miri Gold of Kibbutz Gezer did not receive a state salary while Orthodox rabbis performing the functions – organizing prayers, preparing boys and girls for bar and bat mitzvot, visiting the sick, eulogizing the deceased – were remunerated with taxpayers’ money.
In May 2012, after seven years of hearings, delays on the part of the state and attempts to arbitrate outside court, the state finally caved in, realizing that if it did not reach a compromise the High Court would rule in the Reform Movement’s favor.
The Attorney-General’s Office announced it would begin paying salaries to non-Orthodox rabbis.
The government, however, continued to drag its feet.
Last February, the Israel Religious Action Center petitioned the High Court again. Meanwhile, Orthodox lawmakers and key people in the state-funded Chief Rabbinate – including former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar – made disparaging comments about non-Orthodox forms of Judaism. Finally this week, over a year and a half after the attorney-general’s announcement, the government began providing Gold and several other non-Orthodox rabbis with salaries via the Culture Ministry.
The move is long overdue. The way it was implemented – with many delays and via the Culture Ministry – gives the impression here and in the Diaspora that recognition has been conceded only begrudgingly. Nevertheless it is a step in the right direction.
For too long the State of Israel has unfairly alienated American Jews affiliated with Reform and Conservative communities by refusing to recognize their form of Judaism. And it has committed an injustice to dozens of non-Orthodox communities across the nation.
In America non-Orthodox Jews care passionately about the well-being of the Jewish state and support Israel in numerous ways, from lobbying the US government to providing financial support for Israeli institutions and causes.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has made recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people a centerpiece of his negotiations with the Palestinians. But how can Netanyahu expect such recognition as long as large swathes of the Jewish people feel the Jewish state is slighting their form of Judaism? To live up to this definition, Israel must strive to foster expressions of Jewish identity in the broadest and most inclusive way possible. Israel cannot afford to restrict Judaism to a narrow, strictly Orthodox conception of religious expression.
Just over two weeks ago, in an attempt to reach out to Reform Jews, Netanyahu became the first prime minister to address the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial US gathering. In a speech via satellite to the event in San Diego, he said, “Israel is, and it must continue to be, the homeland of the entire Jewish people, the entire Jewish people.
That’s the place where all Jews – including Reform Jews – experience nothing less than ‘audacious hospitality.’” Recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis was a positive, though long overdue, step toward making Israel a more inclusive society for all Jews.