Israel Could Learn a Thing or Two From British Jewry

Prejudice is tearing apart the fabric of Israeli society, but, as I learned at the induction of the U.K.’s new chief rabbi last week, it need not be this way.

You can't trust Palestinians, they're our enemies. The refugees from Eritrea and Sudan have no loyalty, they just come here come to make money. Settlers and ultra-Orthodox Jews prefer their rabbis over the democratically-elected government. The Russians aren't really Jewish, and secular Jews are more interested in having a good time than building the country.

Prejudices like these are common in contemporary Israel and they tear apart the fabric of society. The great Biblical commentator, The Netziv (1817-1893) identified similar mistrust as a cause of the destruction of the Temple. Catastrophe came to a community when it was pious in performing ritual commandments, but intolerant of others.

"Anyone whose way was different was labeled a non-believer and considered cut off from authentic Judaism." (The Netziv, Haamek Davar, Introduction to Sefer Bereishit).

It need not be this way. On my recent visit to England, I was privileged to attend the induction of new Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. It was a beautiful ceremony; proudly Jewish, highly English. It was a tribute to how Britain's Orthodox community combines steadfast loyalty to Jewish tradition and strong allegiance to Israel with a warm relationship to its host country. Orthodox Jews who are often seen as the archetypal "other" have nonetheless found ways to fit in to Britain and their embrace of their host country and their tolerance of those who do not share their beliefs has been warmly reciprocated.

The magnificent St John's Wood synagogue was packed with representatives of the entire Jewish community from Lubavitch Hassidic Jews to the heads of the Reform movement. There was no attempt to whitewash profound theological differences, nor was there triumphalism or intolerance. Instead, the new Chief Rabbi spoke of the need for unity rather than uniformity, condemning the “totally unnecessary in-fighting” which has dogged the community.

Alongside the hundreds of rabbis sat the leaders of other major faith communities, resplendent in colorful costumes. At their head was Prince Charles – future king and head of the Church of England, who has pledged himself to work not only as "defender of the faith," as his office demands, but "defender of faiths," working to ensure that every citizen feels comfortable practicing their own religious traditions.

One might expect that Anglo Jewry's connections to Israel would arouse suspicion and accusations of dual loyalty. But the guest list, the program and the speeches spoke directly to the theme of good citizenship, so there could be no quibble that everyone was on the same side; supporting a democracy where each person is entitled to their beliefs. When the choir sang Israel's national anthem, the heir to the throne, the leaders of the Christian Church and the Muslim community stood respectfully side by side with religious-Zionist youth leaders and ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

This wonderful culture of tolerance and mutual respect reflects British broad-mindedness and decades of hard work by the former chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks. His Chief Rabbinate of some 22 years was distinguished by generous engagement with the wider community, so it was no wonder that his final blessing to his successor was to be a voice of "tolerance, gentleness, and generosity of spirit.”

Here in Israel, many of our leaders do not recognize the benefits of a tolerant society, so they seek to perfect the country by "making it more Jewish," with little regard to how this affects religious and ethnic minorities.

This is divisive, dangerous and destructive. It is not Jewish. The messianic vision of the prophets could not be further from vile, jingoistic politics of some of our leaders and their followers

As an Orthodox rabbi, I do not want to compromise my faith or my practice, and I would love others to share my beliefs, but I recognize that people of other faiths and backgrounds must have room to practice their religions. I want my country to be a peaceful place and I want Jews to be respected for their generosity rather than resented for our intolerance.

The Netziv shows that our biblical ancestors were driven by a love of humanity and graciousness to those who were different. Maimonides rules that in messianic times, Israel will live peacefully the rest of the world.

Perhaps tolerance comes with age and maturity. We are a young democracy under constant fire, but we are also an ancient religion and a nuclear power. Our responsibilities to Bedouins, Palestinians, Christians, Muslims and Jews of other persuasions are vast. The time has come to root out racism, showing not only tolerance but a loving embrace of everyone who lives in our land.

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's rabbi in Israel and Senior Rabbinic Educator in Israel for T'ruah – The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Prior to making aliyah, he was rabbi of Radlett United Synagogue, Britain's fastest growing Modern Orthodox synagogue. Rabbi Gideon has also worked as an adviser at the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel and directed the Beit Midrash for Human Rights at the Hillel House of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Follow him on Twitter @GideonDSylveste

AFP