Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu:
American Jews are exceedingly agitated about issues of religious freedom, and there are things that you—acting on your own—can do about it.
I write to you now because after the election, which I am sure that you will win, you will be immersed in the politics of putting together a new coalition. Everyone, including the Orthodox parties, will be making demands of you, and it will be easy to forget that the citizens of Israel are not your only constituency. The Jews of the Diaspora—and of America in particular—also look to you, as the Prime Minister of the Jewish State, for leadership. And what they need right now is your help in creating a new alliance between the Diaspora and Israel built on trust and mutual respect.
And the starting point must be a new approach on Israel’s part to issues of religious pluralism. Peace, settlements and the Iranian threat are all matters of deep concern, in the Diaspora as they are in Israel. But the simple fact is that the failure of Israel to offer recognition and support for the streams of Judaism with which the great majority of American Jews identify is nothing less than a disgrace—and an obstacle to engaging fully on all the other issues on Israel’s agenda.
Let me say it directly: American Jews are fed up. They have had enough. They are finished being understanding and patient. They will no longer accept that Reform and Conservative Judaism are ostracized by Israel’s government bureaucracy; they will no longer tolerate that Reform and Conservative rabbis are scorned and despised in Israel; they will no longer sit silently while Israel’s official representatives offend them and denigrate their religious practices. You have seen some of this newly aroused anger in the reaction of Diaspora Jewry to the arrests and detentions at the Western Wall; and this is only the beginning. And make no mistake: The angry voices are not coming from the ranks of the indifferent or the fringe left. They are coming from the heart of American Jewish leadership.
As to what must happen now, American Jews understand your coalition politics; they are not ignorant or naive when it comes to such things. They are fully aware of what it is that you cannot do. But they are furious that Israel’s leaders have not done what they can do.
And what you could do, Mr. Prime Minister, is the following: When you present your new government to the Knesset, you could say that the time has come for a new national dialogue in Israel on religious pluralism. You could point out that only 2 million of the 13.5 million Jews in the world are Orthodox, and that the overwhelming majority of American Jews come from the Reform and Conservative streams. You could say that these streams are the heart of our Jewish family and the core of Jewish support for Israel. You could recognize that Orthodox Jewish leaders in Israel and elsewhere profoundly disagree with the positions taken by these streams, but whether one agrees with them or not, it is the intention of the State of Israel to embrace them and draw them near—because it is the right thing to do, our Jewish future depends on it, and it is also serves the vital interests of the Jewish State.
Then you could say that you will use the authority of the Prime Minister’s office to assure that allocations will be made available to synagogues and rabbis of the Reform and Conservative streams on the same basis as the Orthodox stream. (Since the two movements are small, the allocations will be modest). You could make it clear that you will no longer wait until you are forced to act by the courts.
You could announce your intention to invite Israeli Reform and Conservative rabbis to participate in state events, and mention that you will personally ask Reform and Conservative rabbis and scholars to teach the Bible study group that you conduct in your home.
And you could ask a prominent member of your Cabinet to chair a Commission intended to study how the Reform and Conservative streams, in Israel and the Diaspora, can be brought into a new relationship with the Jewish State.
You need not sweep away the Orthodox religious bureaucracy. You need not solve the problems of conversion and civil marriage—as welcome as such a solution would be. Such things may not be possible now. But you do need to speak out strongly and publicly in favor of a new initiative by the State of Israel to connect with the non-Orthodox religious movements. And if Shas and United Torah Judaism are unhappy, so be it.
Mr. Prime Minister, this is a time for you to inspire American Jews and to demonstrate that the State of Israel values the religious choices that they make. This is a time for daring, and creating a new partnership that will be an essential element of your legacy.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.
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