Israel – a unifier or a divider?

My late friend, rabbi and teacher, Hugo Gryn z”l, who spent his teenage years in Auschwitz, used to say that the world is comprised of two kinds of people: those who polarize and those who seek to build bridges.

We prayed for two thousand years that the day would come when our exiles would be gathered in from the four corners of the earth to our land. Israel and the Jewish People have invested vast resources in the incredible and unique enterprise of absorbing Jews from all over the world – from the Yemen, from the former USSR, from Iraq, from Morocco, from Ethiopia and recently from France to name but a few.

However, Ephraim Kishon and Menahem Golan’s satirical film entitled Sallah Shabati – ostensibly a Yemenite Jewish name – showed how the reality of moving to Israel was frequently very different from the rosy images portrayed by the Jewish Agency’s Aliyah Department and the government’s Ministry of Absorption.

The very name Sallah Shabati is a play on the Hebrew words סליחה שבאתי – Sorry I came. I was reminded of that the other day while watching a documentary about the immigration of Ethiopian Jewry. One of them, who was a child at the time, described how they had been taken in a truck at night, lined up and told to undress in order to undergo hatafat dam brit, the shedding of a drop of blood from the location of their circumcision, in order to confirm their Jewish status.

What could be more embarrassing and demeaning for these immigrants from Ethiopia, who had suffered so much in their journey to Israel and whom the Radbaz (Rabbi David Zimra) had declared in the 16th century as being Jewish and descendants of the tribe of Dan? Four hundred years later, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi, following the Radbaz, had reaffirmed that they were Jewish!

Nevertheless, the religious establishment in Israel refused to recognize their revered religious authorities, the Kessim, in the same way as many challenged the very Jewishness of Beta Yisrael (Ethiopian Jewry).

The inability to accept the other on his or her own terms has been a curse that has accompanied the Jewish State ever since its inception. Moroccan and Yemenite Jews attended Ashkenazi yeshivot and learnt Yiddish in order to be accepted, at least in part, by the Litvaks. In spite of that, even as later as 1988, Rabbi Elazar Shach of the Ponovezh yeshivah in B’nei Brak was reported as having criticized Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and declared that “Sephardim are not yet ready for leadership positions” (Ha’aretz, November 2, 2001).

And if Beta Yisrael and the Sephardim are demeaned, what possible chance can there be for Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel? Even esteemed Orthodox rabbis such as Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of New York have had their conversions questioned!

Unfortunately, successive Israeli governments of the Left and the Right, culminating in those led by Benjamin Netanyahu, have repeatedly cowered to the demands of the charedim at the expense of the vast majority of Jews living both in Israel and in the Diaspora.

The unpreparedness of secular politicians to stand up to these pressures has not only damaged the very fabric of Israeli society and harmed its political process but has also created a growing wedge between Israel and the Diaspora.

Moshe Gafni MK, on the face of it, should have been delighted that there were non-orthodox converts who wanted to undergo tevilah in a ritual bath as part of their conversion process and that there were brides who wanted to use a mikveh even if they have chosen a Reform rabbi to officiate at their weddings. However, he has chosen instead to support legislation to deny them the right to use publicly funded mikva’ot, preferring instead to ostracize and polarize.

Last week I was leaving a banqueting suite at which I had officiated at a wedding. As I approached my car, a charedi rabbi, who had also officiated at a wedding at the same location, wound down the window of his car and reached out to shake my hand.

He had all the features of an Ashkenazi charedi rabbi (thick beard, long coat and Homburg hat) even though his family had immigrated to Israel from the Yemen. He told me that we were all Jews and that we should love one another. He emphasized that he lived in the heart of Bnei Brak and shared their religious values, but that did not stop him from reaching out to someone who was different from him.

Coming during the period of the three weeks between the 17th Tammuz and the 9th of Av recalling the destruction of the Temple when we are told that the Second Temple was destroyed because of “baseless hatred” (Yoma 9b), his simple gesture was a reminder that people can live together and accept one another even when they are different from one another.

About the Author
Rabbi Boyden was educated and received his rabbinical ordination in London, England. Having served as the rabbi of Cheshire Reform Congregation for thirteen years, he made aliyah with his family in 1985. He has established Reform congregations in Ra'anana and Hod Hasharon and previously served as director of the Israel Reform Movement's Beit Din.
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