One Thing We Won’t Hear about in the Elections

The April 9 elections in Israel are shaping up to be an interesting battle between over a dozen different parties fighting for voters’ hearts – and votes. The issues that are already being debated range from the strategic (should Israel fight Hamas to the bitter end? Was Operation Protective Edge a victory or a tie?) to the more mundane topics of health care, public transportation on Shabbat and the cost of living. As multiple parties on each side of the political spectrum try to differentiate themselves from one another and create their own, unique “brand,” they form a platform that includes positions on a dozen topics and more. But there is one topic that you will not hear about from the parties and their candidates: the tolerance, or lack thereof, of the Israeli government and establishment towards the Reform and Conservative movements. Indeed, the mistreatment of every stream of Judaism except the Ultra-Orthodox, is one subject that will remain unspoken in the present electoral campaign.

There are many reasons to talk about this issue. It is of very high importance to the majority of Jews living in the Diaspora. With just about half the Jewish people living outside Israel, the majority of whom are not Orthodox, the issue of acceptance of different types of Jews is of almost existential importance to those not living in Israel. Issues which relate to the entire Jewish world such as conversion, the Nation-State Law, the Western Wall prayer area and more, come under the sovereignty of the State of Israel but have wide-ranging impact on the entire Jewish people. As the Jewish State, Israel has multiple obligations towards the entire people, wherever communities happen to exist.

And yet, the issue will not be part of our political dialogue as we decide which party to vote for in April. The reason for this omission is as simple as it is infuriating: Israelis, and their elected officials, do not care. Or rather, they do not care enough to make it an issue of debate. Israelis by and large are used to the Orthodox establishment and the Chief Rabbinate controlling our religious life (from cradle to grave, as they like to put it). And when most Israelis either don’t bother to visit the Western Wall or do not care about the partition between the men’s and women’s section, the issue of an egalitarian prayer area is simply not on their radar. When Israelis do not have to deal with the intolerant rabbinic establishment for conversion, they do not see it as problematic. When the Israeli government consistently disregards the fact that Reform and Conservative Jews are equally legitimate, Israelis (who rarely self-define as either Reform or Conservative) don’t even realize there is a problem. The failure to have a meaningful educational curriculum on the diaspora is both a reflection of and a cause of much of this Israeli indifference and ignorance.

And when Israeli citizens do not realize that by their very ignorance or negligence they are creating a chasm between the Jewish state and the Jewish people, they fail to understand the long-term damage they are causing to the very future of the Jewish people. A future that depends on such over-used terms as unity and peoplehood, the very characteristics of our people which have enabled us to survive and overcome two millennia of anti-Semitism and persecution in the diaspora, and countless genocides and ravages.

And when the people don’t care, their elected officials do not care. For Israel is many things, but it is mostly a very sensitive democracy where representatives are always very attune to the concerns and thoughts of their electorate. When people take to the streets to protest the treatment of the Druze or the rising cost of living, politicians rush to include a paragraph on the topic of the day into their stump speeches. Sadly, there is no grassroots movement in Israel calling attention to the fact that Jews come in many different stripes and colors and that there are multiple ways of practicing Judaism – and being Jewish. As long as there is no mass movement of Israelis protesting the damage done by the government to Jewish unity, the topic will not be mentioned by elected officials or candidates – whether from the government or the opposition.

It may be not be too late and some of the damage done in recent years to our people’s unity may still be rolled back, but as long as the issue is not debated by candidates and parties vying for votes, the chance of any change in the near future is, unfortunately, slim. And that is bad for Diaspora Jews, for Israeli Jews, for us.

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
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