Opinion

Reform Jews in Exchange for Peace

From a secular perspective, ultra-Orthodox separatism is a better ally, because it doesn't ask to build a unified, pseudo secular-religious-nationalist identity

Ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Moshe Gafni speaks at Haaretz's Israel Conference on Peace in Tel Aviv, Israel, June 12, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Discourse in politics and the media is luxuriating on the rightward tip of the spectrum. Fifty years of political debate seem to have raised the bar for collective stimulation, and if the discussion doesn’t take place inside the bubble of fantasy about genocide – from the real Jewish past, or the imaginary Palestinian future – it just doesn’t do it for us anymore. That’s probably the reason that the most important statement made at the Israel Conference on Peace raised no political debate at all.

The chairman of Degel Hatorah, MK Moshe Gafni, asked to deliver an important message to the left: He is ready for a deal. In response to a question by Haaretz Editor in Chief Aluf Benn about the meaning of the historic alliance between the right and the ultra-Orthodox, despite the latter’s political moderation, Gafni explained: “It’s because you sit with the Reform Jews. We don’t recognize them at all, they hurt the Jewish people. The Reform Jews for me are the most serious problem. It’s the worst blow to the Jewish people.”

Gafni presented a very complex political position, ultra-Orthodox Jewish, leftist, almost “extreme”: “The Palestinians were here before us. The kibbutzim, even of the left, are on Arab lands. We removed them from here. We removed them, either in war or in peace, it doesn’t matter. Anything can be said [about it].”

But these realizations serve Gafni only to stress the importance of the historical, biblical right of the Jews to the Land of Israel, “In the boundaries of the Green Line,” he said, referring to the 1967 border, “if we don’t have the historic right of the Jewish people here, we have no rights,” he said. The first and most important thing is for the State of Israel to be a Jewish state, he continued, “otherwise we have no right to negotiate with the Palestinians.”

Gafni is aware of the danger threatening Israeli democracy. “Israel is not going to be a state of halakha [Jewish law],” he said, adding that people who fulfill the Jewish commandments are in the minority. “But in theory, if this were a halakhic state, it wouldn’t do to the Arab community what the government is doing here.” Furthermore, Gafni said, “I don’t like the legislation that this government is presenting on all sorts of right-wing issues. I really don’t. I would vote against a lot of things if I could. But I have no allies. On the left I have no one who’s willing to say, ‘What is the most vital thing for you? We’re with you through fire and water,’ and then I’d be prepared to go through fire and water for your issues.”

The alliance that Gafni proposes requires rethinking the relationship between secular people in the center and left toward the ultra-Orthodox. The symbiosis created in Israel between religion and state has led secular people to see in the demands of Reform Jews, that is, of American Judaism, as well as the religious Zionist way of life, a kind of life-preserving compromise between the secular and (Ashkenazi) ultra-Orthodox ways of life. But what does a secular person care about issues like the authority to conduct conversions to Judaism, control over the Western Wall plaza and the status of female rabbis?

When it comes to the issue of the ultra-Orthodox serving in the army, the secular position is also odd: What does the IDF get out of drafting the ultra-Orthodox and how will that benefit secular people? Wouldn’t it be better to work for a dramatic change of the universal draft system instead of insisting on “equal sharing of the burden,” which means increased sacralization of the army and of public space and pushing the ultra-Orthodox into the arms of the religious Zionists?

From a secular perspective, ultra-Orthodox separatism is a better ally, because it doesn’t ask to build a unified, pseudo secular-religious-nationalist identity. Thus will cease the desperate Israeli search for a core identity that somehow fuses the contradictions between civic and religious, and instead will perhaps even lay the foundation for separating a healthy concept of Israeli citizenship from a clearly religious identity. Moreover, the ultra-Orthodox might allow an alliance of interests that will break the political status quo – under the equation “Reform Jews in exchange for peace.”