Keep Dreaming: Not my Jewish state

Callousness to Arab sensitivities and institutionalized delegitimization of non-Orthodox Judaism belie our claims to be building a state that is both democratic and home to the entire Jewish people

Border Police officers in Jerusalem's Old City (photo credit: COURTESY ISRAEL POLICE)
Border Police officers in Jerusalem's Old City
The image of ultra-Orthodox extremists burning effigies of Israeli soldiers at Lag Ba’omer bonfires last week should be scorched into our collective memory. Far from being dismissed as isolated incidents, these acts need be understood as endemic to an escalating and increasingly violent campaign orchestrated by haredim in protest of their accountability to the Israel Defense Forces, however negligible that might be.
This reached its apex last Friday when dozens of zealots demonstrated outside the home of Brig.-Gen. Moti Almoz, head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate, comparing him to Hitler and equating army service with the crematoria of Auschwitz.
Their crusade tops my list of 10 writings-on- the-wall which we had better begin reading in earnest if we are to contain the growing threat to the very existence of the sort of Jewish state I came here to help build 44 years ago.
While a modicum of comfort might be found in MK Arye Deri’s condemnation of this abhorrent episode, as head of the Shas Party he must be held personally accountable for fostering discord within Israel and a rupture between Israel and Jewish communities around the world.
That’s No. 2 on my list. His party recently introduced a bill that would abrogate the recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions abroad, following another draft law that would make the wearing of prayer shawls by women at the Western Wall a crime punishable by imprisonment.
Which brings me to No. 3. What was last year hailed as an historic government decision to create a space for egalitarian prayer alongside the Kotel has yet to be implemented. Nor are there any signs that it will be any time soon. With more than two-thirds of Diaspora Jewry unable to pray as they wish at Judaism’s holiest site, none of us should be surprised by the emerging sense of alienation from Israel they are feeling.
This is compounded by items four to seven on my list, grouped together due only to constraints of space. A recent news broadcast documented the widespread refusal of hotels to allow their guests access to Torah scrolls for egalitarian services, due to a fear of losing their kashrut certification.
Israel’s Chief Rabbinate holds a state-sanctioned monopoly over the granting of these certificates and, having successfully prevented anyone else from competing in this arena, has been enabled to hold a vast array of businesses hostage to demands that have nothing to do with kitchens.
The same rabbinic establishment has consistently denied non-Orthodox candidates for conversion access to state-funded ritual baths, and is now obstructing the construction of “pluralist” mikvaot (ritual baths) that might have resolved the matter. The same authorities have also made it all but impossible to convert even under Orthodox supervision, thus leaving some 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their more than 100,000 offspring in a state of identity limbo, alongside those who would wish to convert through the progressive streams of Judaism.
How ironic, then, that the “Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people” bill that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put on the fast-track for Knesset enactment explicitly stipulates that “the state will act to strengthen the connection between Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora.”
This piece of imprudently resurrected legislation is No. 8 on my register. It includes articles that are as innocuous as equally unnecessary. Those which are objectionable are potentially incendiary, causing discomfort among Jewish citizens who believe it undermines Israel’s democratic character. They also gratuitously provoke the minorities in our midst, causing disaffection among the vast majority who seek nothing more than to feel welcome and at home in this country.
No. 9 is last week’s flare-up over the Hebrew University’s practice of not playing Hatikva at its commencement exercises should be seen in this context. Rather than excoriating the institution, which affirmed that the national anthem would continue to be sung at state ceremonies held under its auspices, indignant people would be better advised to consider the sensitivities of our non-Jewish citizens. President Reuven Rivlin, hardly a rabid leftist, has repeatedly urged us to take them into consideration over the past several years, recognizing that we can’t expect Israel’s minorities to identify with the lyrics of “a Jewish soul yearning.”
Perhaps the inclusive Israel our head of state advocates might be advanced by adding a verse to the anthem expressing the aspirations of all who live here to building a society encompassing our multiple cultures, religions and ethnicities. But even if not, what possible benefit could there be in outlawing the long-established, inoffensive customs of some of them?
No. 10 is the so-called “Muezzin Bill” restricting the use of loudspeakers calling the Muslim faithful to prayer – a further example of irresponsible legislation whose primary practical effect will be deepening the sense of disaffection on the part of our Muslim neighbors. The “noise pollution” it was purportedly meant to curtail is not nearly as injurious to the fabric of our society as the toxic resentment it has already emitted.
The bottom line: Neither nationalism nor religion can be legislated or imposed and every effort at coercion in either sphere is going to have an effect contrary to that wished for by those who would foist either upon us – here and abroad. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That’s a rule no less true in the social domain as in the realm of physics.
We are witnessing its ramifications on a daily basis; everything described here is happening now. As a consequence, many are already whispering “not my Jewish state.” Unless enough of us learn to read the writing on the wall and keep dreaming the Zionist dream, I expect we will soon hear them saying so out loud.
The writer is the deputy chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a member of the Zionist Executive, and the senior representative to Israel’s National Institutions on behalf of the worldwide Masorti/Conservative movement. The views expressed are his own.