Sadly enough, Israel seems to be the only country in the world where a pre-modern Orthodox rabbinate, in collusion with the government, delegitimizes the Conservative and Reform streams of Judaism.
It’s not only scandalous and shameful, but bound to widen the already growing rift between Israel and the Diaspora.
In recent years, the government of Israel has thrown some stale crumbs at Israeli Jews subscribing to these non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism, to which the vast majority of Diaspora Jews belong.
Predictably, the entrenched Orthodox rabbinate has fought these cosmetic concessions tenaciously and ferociously and arrogantly belittled and demeaned Conservative and Reform Jews.
And lamentably, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a secular Jew himself, has essentially acquiesced to their intolerable bullying tactics.
After assuring the Conservative and Reform movement that a section of the Western Wall, known as Robinson’s Arch, would be open to all branches of Judaism, Netanyahu shamelessly backtracked following a torrent of criticism from the Orthodox establishment.
Moshe Gafni, a leader of the haredi United Torah Judaism Party, a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition, denounced the plan to make the Western Wall prayer-friendly to all Jews and branded Reform Jews as “a group of clowns who stab the Holy Torah.”
In another disconcerting development which bodes badly for religious pluralism in Israel, the Knesset recently passed legislation to block Conservative and Reform Jews from using state-run ritual baths. To no one’s surprise, the minister for religious affairs, David Azoulay, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, praised the new law and archly described non-Orthodox denominations as “cults.”
To add insult to injury, state rabbinical courts in Israel refused to recognize a conversion supervised by Haskel Lookstein, a respected New York City-based Orthodox rabbi who converted Ivanka Trump, the daughter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
As the Forward reports, the rabbinate has also questioned conversions performed by Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan.
As a result of these disgraceful maneuvers, Israel has managed to anger and alienate some of its most important constituencies, at a time when Israel is increasingly under attack by the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which is gaining ground in the West.
At a minimum, Israel is obliged “to recognize all streams of Judaism,” demands Jerry Silverman, president and chief executive officer of Jewish Federations of North America. Silverman is no minor functionary. He represents and speaks for a considerable chunk of American Jews, who constitute a strategic asset for Israel. Israel cannot afford to upset and disillusion such Jews.
No less a person than Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, is also troubled by what has transpired of late. “What is happening now is the delegitimization of the State of Israel, not by our enemies, but by our own government,” he told reporter Eetta Prince-Gibson.
Sharansky, who brokered the now-defunct Western Wall agreement, has urged the government to come to its senses and recognize a basic fact. Most North American Jews “belong to non-Orthodox denominations, and the State of Israel belongs to everyone,” he said.
Is this so hard to understand?
Netanyahu surely grasps this imperative, but he has his priorities. In a nation where no political party has ever mustered a majority in the Knesset and coalition governments are the only game in town, he values his political survival over his duty to do the right thing.
Netanyahu should bear in mind that Israel cannot be a real democratic Jewish state unless all Jews are treated equally, a point made recently by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the North American-based Union for Reform Judaism.
Failure to do so will create deeper fissures in Israel and wider rifts between Israel and Jews in the Diaspora.
The Israeli government must cut the rabbinate down to size and, better still, separate synagogue and state so that Israel can become a normal country in the real Western sense of the word.