Ofer Bavly

Deri Should Unite, Not Divide

In the ever-present rhetoric of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel against Reform and Conservative Judaism, Minister of the Interior and head of the Shas party Aryeh Deri has upped the ante once again, saying that non-Orthodox Jews “cause incredible damage to Judaism.” He added that the practices of Reform Jews are an imitation, “not the Jewish religion.”

Deri’s diatribe against liberal Jews came in reply to a question asked in the Knesset about the Wailing Wall compromise, now blocked by the Orthodox in Israel despite a Supreme Court decision. Asked why he would not honor the agreement brokered by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, Deri replied: “what do they (reform Jews – O.B.) have to do with the Wall? They don’t believe in the Temple, they are only looking for provocation and rifts among the people.”

Were Deri a private citizen, he might have been excused for expressing a personal view, even though it sows discord among Jews and presents a world view that is close-minded, insular and even primitive. But as a government Minister and head of a major Knesset party, Deri‘s words need to be taken more seriously and addressed, taking into consideration that he has thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands of followers. In his contempt and even blatant hatred towards Reform and Conservative Jewry, he leads the way for his own followers and for many others who share his view of the different streams in Judaism.

In his attitude towards non-Orthodox Judaism and in his public statements, Deri offends millions of Israelis who would like to see a more open, liberal, inclusive Judaism at the Wall and in all walks of life. But even worse, he offends – and pushes away – millions of Reform and Conservative Jews (and liberal Orthodox) in the United States and around the world, de-legitimizing them and branding them as “lesser Jews” while placing himself and his brand of Orthodox Judaism not only as the unique “true” religion but also as the supreme arbitrators of who is to be considered a legitimate Jew. The implications go far beyond the question of the Wall, important as it is.

There are local Israeli issues, and there are global Jewish issues, and sometimes there is overlap between them. Israeli leadership must be very mindful of the fact that prayers at the wall are not merely a local topic of discussion. The Wall is a Jewish site, the target of prayers and worship for all Jews, wherever they may live, and whatever is done at the Wall affects the whole Jewish People. The needs and the voice of all Jews should therefore be heard and taken into consideration – not only that of one sector of Israeli Orthodoxy.

In classifying non-Orthodox Judaism on a lower rung on the religious ladder, Deri in fact alienates the very people he should be trying to embrace and engage. Instead of seeking ways to bring more Jews into the fold, instead of looking for new and creative ways to keep Jews from marrying “outside the tribe”, instead of promoting Jewish education in the diaspora (even if it isn’t strictly Orthodox), Deri pushes millions away, telling them that they are not even legitimate Jews. His desire to keep the “exclusivity” of Orthodox Judaism runs the risk of creating irreparable rifts among the very people he seeks to protect from outside influences. His narrow view of religion sows discord and hatred instead of bringing a message of tolerance, dialogue and brotherhood – once staples of Judaism.

At a critical time in which world Jewry is fighting Antisemitism, when anti-Zionist movements rally under the banner of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel), when small Jewish communities around the world are struggling to keep young people “Jewishly engaged” and connected to Israel, Deri is doing all that he can to prevent unity and to separate Orthodox Judaism from the rest of our people. While he may think that his opinions only refer to the local issue of the Wailing Wall, the effects of his words actually carry ramifications that extend far and wide beyond the borders of Israel and are dangerous to the Jewish People as a whole.

About the Author
Ofer Bavly was a diplomat with the Israeli Foreign Service from 1991 to 2014, serving in Israel's Embassies in Madrid and Rome. He was Policy Advisor to two Foreign Ministers and was Israel's Consul General to Florida and Puerto Rico. He currently heads the Israel office of the Jewish Federation of Chicago / Jewish United Fund