Many Diaspora Jews are becoming disaffected by Israel

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told Israel’s president last week that “It cannot be that Israel will be the only democratic state in the world that formally does not grant equal rights to the majority of the Jewish people.”

His views were endorsed by Conservative Rabbi Steven Wernick, who, while applauding President Rivlin’s reference to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his remarks, nevertheless pointed out that Israel would not have “afforded (Heschel) the same rights as our Orthodox brethren – can’t do marriage, can’t do divorces, can’t do conversions.”

This was as far as I am aware the first time that non-Orthodox Jewish leaders finally took off their gloves and publicly castigated Israel for not promoting religious pluralism.

Michael Douglas was feted last June by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky and Knesset chairman Yuli Edelstein for his work in promoting “a more welcoming and inclusive Judaism”. While in Jerusalem to receive the Genesis Prize, Douglas proclaimed with glee “It’s good to be home.” However, as the child of a mixed marriage, the State of Israel would not recognize him as a Jew and its rabbinical authorities would not marry his children.

We have had enough of Israel’s government funding the religious establishment to the tune of $1 billion per annum while ignoring the needs of non-Orthodox Jews. We have had enough of the Women of the Wall being arrested and treated like criminals simply because they demand equal rights. We have had enough of our rabbis not enjoying the official status of their Orthodox counterparts.

Why should we find it difficult to raise $2m to build a center for Reform Judaism in Hod Hasharon while there are over 50 state-funded Orthodox synagogues in a town whose population is mainly “secular” and yearning for religious alternatives?

There was something symbolic in the fact that, while at the very time that President Rivlin was taking part in a Chanukah candle lighting ceremony at the White House led by Reform Rabbi Susan Talve, Israeli women were being denied the right to participate in a similar ceremony at the Western Wall.

As a consequence, many Diaspora Jews are becoming disaffected by Israel. In addition, they are disenchanted by the lack of vision and initiative on the part of Netanyahu’s coalition government when it comes to trying to make progress with the Palestinians.

As Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert discovered, it isn’t easy. In Netanyahu’s defense it will rightly be argued that Mahmoud Abbas has refused to meet him and has incited his own population against Israel, but that does not release us as the occupying power from our responsibility to make every effort to continue the dialogue.
Diaspora Jews live in societies that champion equal rights and opportunities for all of their citizens. Israel’s Declaration of Independence embodies similar aspirations. Therefore, our fellow Jews overseas find it difficult to accept the degree to which Israel has failed to live up to those ideals in its treatment of minorities. From Israel’s Druse citizens to the Bedouin tribes, from Jerusalem’s Palestinians to the immigrants from Ethiopia, the story is one of discrimination, incompetence and failure.

Of course, it can rightly be argued that Israel is a young country frequently fighting for its very survival in an incredibly hostile neighborhood, but that does not excuse or justify the lack of progress made to ameliorate the rights of its citizens.

Furthermore, while there are objective reasons that impede progress on many fronts, the treatment meted out to the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel is an affront to any democracy and particularly to one that claims to be Jewish.

No amount of Birthright Israel trips will make our fellow Jews in North America feel more attached to the Jewish State if our country does not embrace and embody the values that they espouse.

Rabbi Jacob’s and Rabbi Wernick’s remarks to President Rivlin must only be the beginning. Diaspora Jews must stop treating Israel’s political leaders with kid gloves. It is high time that Diaspora leaders told Prime Minister Netanyahu in no uncertain terms: “If you want our political and financial support, then stop talking platitudes. We insist on seeing changes on the ground.”

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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