American Jewish Leaders Only Care About Themselves

American Jewish leaders aren’t showing concern for Israel and ordinary Israelis when they badmouth the country's dark Orthodox 'fiefdom.' Their only concern is themselves.

David Landau
David Landau
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David Landau
David Landau

Well, another round of U.S. Jewish leaders libeling Israel and bad-mouthing its democracy has wound down in Jerusalem with the end of the GA, the annual General Assembly of American Jewish federations. Now the leaders go back home and spread the word among their flocks: Israel is a backward and benighted country, captive in the hegemonic hands of the ultra-Orthodox, centuries behind American Jewry in its enlightenment and in its emancipation from dark Middle Ages fanaticism.

The next stage is mass hand-wringing by these same leaders, rabbinic and lay, over research and reports showing that the younger generation of American Jews are less committed to Israel than their elders. That makes sense; why be committed to or care about an undemocratic, unpluralistic dictatorship of cruel, bearded men in long black coats?

The ultimate chutzpah of these people is that, while here, they “warned” Knesset Members of the damage, to Israel and to Judaism, that the Orthodox hegemony in Israel was doing. [Haaretz English Edition, November 13: “U.S. Jewish leaders warn MKs about Orthodox hegemony”.] It is a fair bet that every one of those MKs was elected by more people than any one of the U.S. Jewish leaders. The MKs’ involvement in the wheeling and dealing of party politics and in daily Knesset give-and-take is the very essence of democracy in a sovereign state. The leaders, on the other hand, hail from Jewish organizations or federations famously lacking – indeed rejecting – any genuine grass-roots representation, and run by shadowy, dictatorial power-play.

Yet they slander our democracy?!

Certainly Reform and Conservative rabbis, who seek equal status in Israel with Orthodox ones, are perennial victims of this democracy. Since Ben-Gurion’s first status quo agreement, every deal between secular and Orthodox parties has been predicated on an unstated but unchanging provision: That the non-Orthodox theologies have no place in determining the laws of personal status which the State assigns to the rabbinical courts. Reform and Conservative rabbis are welcome to worship, lead and teach their communities; but they cannot participate in shaping the legal foundation of the Jewish state. In other words, the official state religion of the Jewish state, in effect, is not Judaism, with its confusing pluralism, but exclusively Jewish Orthodoxy.

That is an upshot of 65 years of Israeli domestic democracy and parliamentarianism, which are as legitimate as any on earth. (It is the unending occupation that gives the lie to Israel’s democratic accomplishment; not rabbinical rules.) If you live in Israel, you have to accept this upshot; that is what democracy and the rule of law are about. Israelis understand this, and those who nevertheless want to duck the all-Orthodox rabbinate find awkward ways of doing so. That, too, is democracy in action.

There is no space here to discuss the historical and sociological reasons why secularism is strong in Israel yet non-Orthodox Judaism is weak. But there has to be space to lament and bemoan the tragic failure of the Chief Rabbinate, and indeed of all the Orthodox rabbinate over decades, to take account, in their halachic interpretation, of the state’s and its people’s needs. Jewish history will not forgive them for their inaction and pusillanimity.

In the 1970s, Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef recognized the Ethiopian diaspora as Jews. Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren spoke of himself leading masses of ex-Soviet immigrants into the sea as immersion for conversion, but he never got round to it. Since then – nothing. Just rabbi-clerks making things difficult and miserable for immigrants who were invited or actually brought in by the State under the Law of Return. Any consciousness of this seminal moment in our national history seems to have escaped most Orthodox rabbis.

After a century and a half of religious schism, Jewry survived the Holocaust and emerged with its own (democratic – yes, that is a key part of the miracle) state. Judaism faces the challenge of the ages.

But who cares? Who is it that truly cares about the many thousands of Israeli citizens who are discriminated against in the present situation, whose lives are needlessly marred by it?

The answer is, some Orthodox rabbis care; the non-Orthodox movements don’t care. They care solely about discrimination against themselves, not truly about the welfare and progress of Israel and Israelis.

The most recent evidence of this: New legislation inspired by Tzohar, a group of liberal-minded Zionist-Orthodox rabbis, enables marrying couples to choose their rabbi from all around the country. They are no longer restricted to the local rabbi in the town where they live. This can sometimes mean the difference between eligibility to marry and disqualification. The measure was pushed through the Knesset mainly by secular parties. It has been warmly and widely welcomed by Israelis of all religious and political stripes. It is seen as an encouraging albeit modest reform in the right direction.

Who sniffed at it disapprovingly despite its self-evident benefits? The non-Orthodox movements, deploring it because it brings their rabbis no nearer to official recognition. Ultimately, their rabbis’ fight is not for a better Israel, not for better lives for Israelis in crisis, but for better status for themselves.

Participants at GA in Jerusalem schmoozing between panelsCredit: Amnon Gutman for JFNA

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