Israel Eichler, a veteran parliamentarian for the Haredi party United Torah Judaism, wasn’t going to waste any time. He chose the day the Knesset was sworn in last week to issue a frantic warning about the dangers posed by one of the legislature’s newest members.
When asked in an interview with a Haredi news site if he would greet Gilad Kariv, the first Reform rabbi ever to serve in the Knesset, when they crossed paths in the building, Eichler responded: “God forbid. You don’t greet wicked people.”
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Reform Jews, Eichler went on to explain, “falsify Judaism like Christians.” In fact, he said, they are even worse than Christians “because they lie and don’t observe any of the mitzvahs.”
With these remarks, Kariv received a taste of what he can expect in his new career as a lawmaker. But they came as no surprise. After all, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies have already let it be known they would prefer a coalition with an Islamist party – if that’s what it takes to keep the religious right in power – to a government that includes a proud representative of the Reform movement.
The campaign to delegitimize Kariv did not begin with his recent election to the Knesset. The new Labor Party lawmaker spent the past 12 years serving as executive director of the Reform movement in Israel. Whenever he showed up to a Knesset committee session – and that happened quite regularly – the Haredi lawmakers in attendance would, as a matter of practice, walk out in protest.
In an interview last week in his new Knesset office, Kariv said he would not stoop to their level. “Orthodoxy is definitely not my Jewish choice, but I don’t delegitimize it,” he told Haaretz. “Boycotting someone because of their religious practices and beliefs is just not something I do. In fact, I hope that through our joint work in the Knesset, through the public debates and the small talk in the corridors, perhaps these Haredi lawmakers will come to realize that we have many things in common.”
Whatever could you have in common with ultra-Orthodox lawmakers?
“Well, I hope that they’re as disturbed by the poverty rate in Israel as I am, for example, and I hope that they are as troubled by the living conditions of thousands of Holocaust survivors in this country as I am. That doesn’t mean, though, that I plan to make special efforts to reach out to them.”
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Where his tolerance ends is with the far-right Religious Zionism party, known for its anti-Arab and anti-LGBTQ platform.
“That’s where I draw the red line,” says Kariv. “While I’m not going to leave the Knesset hall every time the Kahanists get up to make a speech, I will do whatever I can to block their policies and their philosophy, and I will never ever sign my name onto any bills that carry their names, even if it’s something I believe in, because I cannot fathom any cooperation with them whatsoever.”
Fifth time's a charm
This was Kariv’s fifth try at getting elected to the Knesset – he ran four times with Labor and once with the more left-wing Meretz. Thanks to an impressive showing in the primary, he placed high enough on the slate this time to finally get in. Labor, under the new leadership of Merav Michaeli, won seven Knesset seats in the March 23 election.
Kariv’s introduction to Reform Judaism was not very typical. He grew up in Tel Aviv in a very secular family, but as a young boy in grade school he found himself drawn to the synagogue experience and began attending services on his own at the neighborhood congregation, which was Modern Orthodox. These visits sparked a broader interest in Judaism, and he began studying Jewish texts on his own.
As a teenager, he spent a summer in Memphis, Tennessee, as a delegate of the Israeli Scouts movement, and it was there he got his first taste of non-Orthodox Judaism and learned, as he likes to put it, that “there is more than one way of being an active Jew.”
Kariv was one of the original members of Tel Aviv’s Beit Daniel — the flagship congregation of the Reform movement in Israel – when it opened in the early 1990s. He began his rabbinical studies at the Jerusalem branch of Hebrew Union College while studying law. He was eventually able to use his legal expertise when he served as director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel.
But he certainly doesn’t see Reform Jews as his only constituents. “I’m here in order to represent a large Israeli audience that I believe is the vast majority of Israeli Jews who embrace the concept that there is more than one way to be Jewish,” he says. “That is how I see my main role.”
But it is not only the obvious issues of religion and state that will concern him in this role, he says. “The way we in the Reform movement understand and experience Judaism is relevant to many other issues, whether it be immigration policy, relations between the Jewish majority and Arab minority in this country or the question of our claim to the territories. I see my role as presenting a progressive, inclusive and egalitarian Jewish perspective to all these core issues that concern Israeli society.”
The Labor Party drew criticism in certain leftist circles in the recent election campaign for steering clear of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and avoiding the fraught issue of the settlements. “I don’t think Labor set these issues aside,” says Kariv, coming to his party’s defense. “We identify as a center-left Zionist party, and in this regard we are deeply committed both to national security and to finding a reasonable and sustainable solution to the conflict.”
While he strongly supports a two-state solution (“I think it’s a catastrophe that there haven’t been any real negotiations with the Palestinians in recent years”), Kariv doesn’t delude himself into believing that any real progress will be made in the near future. “But in the meantime, we have to avoid creating obstacles, such as expanding the settlements and recognizing illegal outposts, that could prevent a future solution,” he says.
As past leader of the Israeli Reform movement, Kariv served as the chief representative in Israel of the largest Jewish denomination in the United States. It was a denomination that increasingly found itself at odds with the governments headed by Netanyahu, especially during the Trump years. But he doesn’t believe relations will necessarily improve under the new Democratic administration. “That’s because the ultranationalists and ultra-Orthodox in Israel have Netanyahu by the throat,” he says. “He can’t move without them, and world Jewry needs to understand that if there is another Netanyahu government, things will only get worse. One of the first things that Netanyahu will do – because there won’t be anyone standing in his way now – is to pass a law that will overturn the recent [Israeli] Supreme Court decision to recognize non-Orthodox conversions. That will be a precondition of the Haredim” for joining the government.
Busy first days in office
His first days in office have been incredibly busy, he says. Kariv has already submitted formal requests to establish two new Knesset caucuses: one devoted to promoting religious freedom and Jewish pluralism and the other devoted to promoting the triangular relationship among Israel, the United States and American Jewry.
“There’s always been a tendency on the right to separate Israel’s relations with the U.S. from Israel’s relations with American Jewry,” he says. “The message of this new caucus will be that this is a trilateral, rather than a bilateral, issue. You can’t talk about cultivating relations with American Jewry but close your eyes to the fact that 70 percent of these Jews support a progressive administration that wants to see something new when it comes to relations with the Palestinians.”
Since the new Knesset was sworn in last week, the Labor Party has already submitted 17 legislative proposals. They include bills to legalize civil marriage and divorce, to permit public transportation to operate on Shabbat and to prohibit the Chief Rabbinate from invalidating conversions.
“I know that there’s little chance of passing such bills into law without a center-left coalition in power, but at the same time it’s important to put out the message that there is, indeed, an alternative Zionist vision for this country,” Kariv says.