Stop Making Excuses for ultra-Orthodox Extremism in Israel

Just as Jews in Europe and America are entitled to religious freedom no matter how many there are, so are non-Orthodox Jews in Israel.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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An ultra-Orthodox man votes on Election Day, March 17, 2015.
An ultra-Orthodox man votes on Election Day, March 17, 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

It is time for American Jewish conservatives to stop making excuses for ultra-Orthodox extremism in Israel. This excuse-making is offensive, hypocritical and bad for Israel. It ignores the fact that disgust with Israel’s religious monopoly will alienate far more young American Jews than anything else, including the ranting of BDS proponents.

To be sure, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is a cause for concern. But American Jewish organizations have battled it successfully because BDS contempt for Israel is manifestly apparent, and its arguments are both extreme and frequently anti-Semitic. The great majority of American Jewish students, even the ill-informed ones, want nothing to do with Israel haters.

But in my experience on campus, American Jewish students are deeply unhappy with the religious reality in Israel. Ask them what they think and you will hear varying degrees of anger, dismay and incomprehension. A professor who teaches Israel on campus recently told me that young Jews view Israel through the lens of church-state separation, a guiding constitutional principle of American democracy. Furthermore, the synagogue is the grassroots institution of American Jewish life, and congregational rabbis are the teachers and Jewish authority figures for American Jews. The intertwining of religion and state in Israel and the denial of recognition for Reform and Conservative rabbis are simply infuriating to young Jewish Americans.

All of this is relevant now because, as part of its coalition agreements with two ultra-Orthodox parties, Israel’s new government is about to begin rolling back the very modest religious reforms completed in the last two years. Expect to see the government easing up on its demand for ultra-Orthodox military service and increased allocations for yeshiva students who do not work. Expect the government to back off calls for ultra-Orthodox schools to teach English and math, and expect conversion procedures to return to the hands of the most fanatic ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

Not a single one of these measures enjoys broad support in Israel; they are happening only because two ultra-Orthodox parties with 13 Knesset members — out of 120 — are the swing parties in the coalition. And Diaspora Jews will be utterly outraged when these coalition promises go into effect.

Yet the American Jewish establishment that has fought BDS so skillfully will be silent, and will then wonder why Israel is losing support on campus. No plan will be offered to reverse these steps. And American Jewish conservatives will shamelessly provide justifications for Israel’s actions.

On the Commentary website, for example, Jonathan Tobin offers the usual tired litany of excuses for political cowardice. He notes that Isaac Herzog would have accepted the same concessions that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted. Very true, but so what? The fact that Israel’s left and right are equally indifferent to religious freedom offers no consolation. And liberal Jews have been scrupulously non-partisan in their approach to these issues, criticizing right and left for their inaction with equal fervor.

Tobin also argues that these concerns of Diaspora Jews “don’t mean much to most Israelis.” There is conflicting evidence on this point, but let’s say for the sake of argument that Tobin is right. Again, so what? Tobin concludes that the non-Orthodox movements must bring more people to Israel if they want recognition. But Jews did not argue for religious freedom and equality in Europe and America on the grounds that they constituted a given percentage of the population. If this had been their argument, they would have been denied recognition everywhere. They made the opposite claim — that they were entitled to religious rights regardless of numbers. And if this were so in Europe and America, it is true in Israel as well.

The thrust of the Tobin argument is that Diaspora Jews must be “realistic.” But realism points in the opposite direction. If Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, Diaspora Jews should expect that the great Diaspora religious movements will be treated with respect in the Jewish state. And in the interests of “realism,” there are things the prime minister of Israel could do right now, even if one accepts the limitations of the current situation. Three suggestions:

Open the Western Wall to all

Many Israelis don’t care about the Western Wall, but American Jews do. Will souls that for 2,000 years have longed for Zion and Jerusalem be denied the right to see the Western Wall as their own? Let Netanyahu proclaim that in a united Jerusalem, the holy sites of the Old City will be open to all, to pray according to their own traditions. Some ultra-Orthodox factions will squawk, but so be it. We have had enough of misogynists, bullies and intimidation at our holy places.

Intervene in religious matters at critical moments

When the ultra-Orthodox mayor of Rehovot canceled a bar/bat mitzvah for disabled children because it was to take place in a Conservative synagogue, the Jewish world was aghast. The prime minister could have issued a statement expressing his sorrow for the suffering inflicted on innocent children, and asked his education minister to resolve the issue — which could have been done with a single phone call.

Reach out to the Jewish world, Orthodox and non-Orthodox

In 1958, when facing a conversion crisis in the Knesset, David Ben-Gurion turned to 45 rabbis and scholars from around the world for guidance. Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis were included. Today, the prime minister could appeal to all segments of the Jewish world, religious and scholarly, for advice on the question of marriage equality and civil marriage, an urgent matter for the citizens of Israel.

If Netanyahu were to take steps such as this, he would demonstrate that he is not simply a captive of coalitions, committed to self-interest and survival, but a leader of the Jewish people and a bridge to all religious denominations. And Jonathan Tobin and other Jewish conservatives need to be making the case for just such a course, rather than offering a hundred reasons it will never be possible.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

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