Michal Berman
Michal Berman
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How to keep Israelis away from Judaism

As long as the ultra-Orthodox have outsized political power, most citizens will remain indifferent
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely in Washington, November 2017. (Shmulik Almany/MFA)
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely in Washington, November 2017. (Shmulik Almany/MFA)

The recent cancellation of Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely’s lecture at Princeton University is worrisome. Her lecture last week at the Israeli-American Council is no less so.

Israel’s government must grapple with anti-Semitism, the BDS movement on American campuses, and efforts to de-legitimize Israel on an international scale. These are difficult and dangerous challenges; to face them, we must marshal all possible resources. It’s surprising therefore to find Hotovely shooting herself in the foot by antagonizing the Jewish American community, who should be a natural partner in the fight against anti-Israel movements.

In her lecture to the IAC on Sunday this week, Hotovely flung the monopolistic practices of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the faces of the audience, claiming that somehow, those practices still work.

“There are no streams of Judaism in Israel, because Israelis are not interested in streams.”

“The Conservative synagogues in my city, Rehovot, are empty.”

“The [left-wing religious] Meimad movement failed dramatically.”

Those and other statements perpetuate the perverse situation in which a minority controls the entire public, telling them how to live, how to marry, how to divorce, sometimes not even allowing people to divorce. The same powerful minority also determines how the public space is used, and what values children are taught in the public school system.

“You may ask yourselves why this doesn’t work in Israel,” Hotovely told an audience, composed largely of Israelis who had immigrated to the United States – secular Jews exposed to a wealth of Jewish thought, striving to form their Jewish identity in a non-Jewish country.

Having attended Hotovely’s Hebrew session, I too asked myself why Israel’s secular population is not interested in Judaism. The answer is clear. The State of Israel deliberately foments hatred for Judaism among the secular population. This serves the ultra-Orthodox parties’ interest, allowing them to continue to control the Rabbinate and the Kotel, and discouraging secular Jews from taking an active part in shaping their Jewish identity.

But over time, this harms the relationship of the state with its natural partner, the Jewish American community. This damage shouldn’t be underestimated or ignored. The danger is real. The cancellation of Hotovely’s Princeton lecture is a clear example.

The tremendous challenge of Jewish identity should be at the top of the state’s agenda. The majority of the Israeli public is secular or traditional, not Orthodox. These Israelis have become increasingly fed up with having to marry via the Rabbinate and finance a monopoly on a kashrut system that costs a fortune and merely provides a rubber stamp with no connection to kashrut. While the ultra-Orthodox continue to insist that they alone represent Judaism, they are causing the majority’s indifference and alienation. The cancellation of the mixed gender plaza at the Western Wall, without consulting the public, is one case in point.

If the spirit of the Jewish state matters to the government, it must find a way to neutralize the small ultra-Orthodox political parties and make room for a Judaism that is relevant to the majority, through the educational system, and by neutralizing the Rabbinate’s monopoly over kashrut, marriage, and the Kotel. Not only will this bring Israelis closer to a Judaism with which they can identify, it will strengthen Israel’s crucial strategic relationship with the most important Jewish community in the world – instead of spitting in its face.

This is in the interest of the entire Jewish people. It may even mean that when Tzipi Hotovely goes back to the United States, she will be received warmly at a prestigious university, rather than with boos and heckling.

Michal Berman is CEO of Panim, The Israeli-Judaism Network.


About the Author
Michal Berman is the CEO of The Lone Soldier Center in memory of Michael Levin.
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