On the crisis between American Jewry and Israel: Resetting priorities

Was it really worth making such a “crisis” recently between the most ultra-Orthodox and most ultra-right-wing nationalist government Israel has ever had and the leadership of North American Jewry over the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall and the excessive authority of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel — a corrupt medieval outdated institution if there ever was one — in matters of conversion?

I don’t think so. It was a tempest in a teapot. Let me explain why.

First of all, on a personal basis, as a liberal Jew who has lived in Israel for 38 years, I can sincerely say that I have no desire to pray at the Western Wall. It is not a holy site to me. It is a historical site. Besides, it has become an ultra-Orthodox place. What goes on there is more akin to idol worship than anything else.  I don’t need an egalitarian prayer space there. I belong to three synagogues in Jerusalem and I pray in them in complete freedom.

Secondly, while I am concerned about the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate — which many Orthodox Jews in Israel don’t like very much either, including many distinguished Modern Orthodox rabbis — I do not think that the matter of conversion is the issue that I would go to war about with the government. Rather, I would argue for more funding for Reform and Conservative institutions — synagogues and schools — all over the country, which I happen to know would be much more important to the few thousand Reform and Conservative Jews — and to their rabbis — who live here, and who are trying, against much constant opposition by the ultra-Orthodox establishment and their friends in right-wing political parties, to strengthen the liberal Jewish movements here.   From discussions with rabbis in the movements here, I know how important that this would be. In addition, I would work to create civil marriage, in an effort to take away the monopoly that the Rabbinate has on marriage in Israel today.

Instead of creating an overblown crisis with the government of Israel on this extremely tangential matter of  The Wall , which is irrelevant for most Jews in Israel — and probably for most Jews in the Diaspora who have no real idea what this big fuss is all about (since most of them have never been to Israel) — I would suggest that liberal Jews in North America should engage in strong opposition by raising their voices loud and clear about the existential issues that really matter here. Let me suggest a priority list for North American Jewish leadership:

  • Pursuing Peace. Nothing could be more vital for the future of the state of Israel. Liberal Jewish leadership should be outspoken on this issue. It will be far more worthwhile than banging their heads against walls!
  • Protecting Israel’s Democracy. This is essential for our survival as a modern liberal state. Israel’s democracy is in danger lately due to right-wing nationalists and ultra-orthodox “leaders” who prefer the religion of medieval Judaism to the democracy of contemporary Israel. Liberal Jews from North America should be taking the lead here.
  • Treating the Stranger within our midst fairly. Relations between Israel’s Jewish majority and its Arab minority — comprised of Muslim, Christian, Druze and Bedouin citizens of Israel who represent 20.7% of our population — are in serious decline due to ongoing neglect. This is a deeply moral issue for Israel. Since, as the Torah reminds us many times, “we were strangers in the land of Egypt,” we ought to know better and we need to act justly. But the right-wing doesn’t care about this issue. This too ought to be a central issue for Jewish liberals from the Diaspora.
  • Mitigating Poverty. Israel has one of the highest gaps between rich and poor in the Western World. It is disgraceful, especially for a Jewish state founded on the vision of the biblical prophets of Israel. It gets worse from year to year. But hardly anyone in the political establishment seems to care while they waste billions of shekels on illegal settlements and other pet projects. Progressive Jews should be speaking out about this!
  • Separating Religion from State. This is crucial. It would end religious coercion by the ultra-Orthodox by taking away their power in the areas of marriage, personal status, and public transportation on Shabbat. More and more voices in Israeli society are arguing persuasively for this. Liberal Jews from North America need to add their voices to this essential issue.

I could go on and on, but I think that the point is clear. Whether Diaspora Jews can pray at an egalitarian part of the West Wall is not a priority for Israel. Creating a caring, compassionate and peaceful liberal Jewish state is a much higher priority, deserving of the effective engagement of Diaspora Jews.

One more point is necessary to add here.

We need more liberal Jews to live here as citizens and to vote in our elections! This is existentially imperative. Without more liberal Jewish voters here, Israeli society will continue to drift to the right both politically and religiously. Even if Liberal Jews can’t live here full time, they can have second homes here and they can become citizens so that they can engage in serious and sustained social change here. Otherwise, they are letting the orthodox simply take over here by demographic developments.

Just to explain this concretely:  to get 1 seat in the Knesset today, one needs approximately 30,000 votes. In last week’s  poll released by the Channel Two television station, the renewed Labor party under Avi Gabay is only one seat behind Likud. According to this poll, Labor would get 24 seats and Likud 25. Imagine if we had 60,000 more liberal Jewish voters. Labor/ The Zionist Camp could form the government! Imagine if we had 180,000 liberal Jewish voters. Then a government could be formed without the extortionist ultra-Orthodox parties.

If Liberal/Progressive/Reform and Conservative Jews would stress these priorities in their interactions with the government of Israel — and make a serious crisis over these issues– and if they will come to live here in large enough numbers to make a difference, perhaps the slide to the ultra-nationalist and ultra-orthodox directions can be stemmed.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr Ron Kronish is the Founding Director the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), which he directed for 25 years. Now retired, he is an independent educator, author, lecturer, writer, speaker, blogger and consultant. He is the editor of 5 books, including Coexistence and Reconciliation in Israel--Voices for Interreligious Dialogue (Paulist Press, 2015). His new book, The Other Peace Process: Interreligious Dialogue, a View from Jerusalem, was published by Hamilton Books, an imprint of Rowman and LIttlefield, in September 2017. He is currently working on a new book about peacebuilders in Israel and Palestine.
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