I am as concerned as the next guy (and probably more concerned than most) about the complex relationship between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. It is complex because there is a huge gulf between Jewish life in the State of Israel and Jewish life overseas. The types of hot-button issues and challenges in one are not the same as the other, and whilst Israel must make life and death decisions on a regular basis in a very real way, we cannot ignore that these decisions correlate very closely to life for Jews around the world.
This week there has erupted a row between the office of the President of Israel and the Conservative movement in the US. It centers on a barmitzva for disabled boys that did not take place in Rehovot, due to the Mayor’s insistence that it not be presided over by a Masorti Rabbi (Israel’s Conservative movement).
In an effort to resolve the situation the Diaspora Ministry and the President’s staff worked with the Masorti movement to find a solution. What happened next is unclear, but what is clear is that the outcome is not helping anybody IMHO.
The questions that occur to me are the following:
1. Why would the President (or his staff) volunteer to intervene in this matter and then score a huge own goal but pulling out at the last minute?
2. Why after making very conciliatory noises to the non-Orthodox movements as recently as January would he then go out of his way to snub them?
I was not party to any of the discussions that went on and I am sure that there has been a misunderstanding (maybe a horrible and offensive one) between the parties involved. From there to making this into a global fight about the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, doesn’t seem to add up.
For those reading overseas, it is important to understand that there is a major imbalance between the structure of the Israel society and the makeup of American Jewry. Whereas in the US the non-Orthodox denominations represent the majority of Jewry, here in Israel that is abundantly not the case. On the other hand, whereas Israeli leaders, political and otherwise, are constantly asking Jews around the world to speak up on behalf of Israel, they do not recognize their denomination here in Israel, as the officialdom here is totally controlled by Orthodoxy. Even those Israeli Jews that do not identify as religious themselves, do not tend to identify as Conservative or Reform Jews. They are either traditional or secular.
This great imbalance leads to some very strange situations. Whereas Rabbi Rick Jacobs (the president of the Union for Reform Judaism) is an ardent Zionist and a great activist against BDS in the US, in Israel he has a miniscule following. Whereas Rabbi Steve Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is an ardent Zionist who together with Reform and Orthodox and Reform counterparts lead a joint prayer service at AIPAC, in Israel there are about 100 Conservative and Reform communities, representing a pin-prick of Israeli society. It is hard to nearly impossible in Israel to find an Orthodox Rabbi, even from the more left-leaning end of the Orthodox camp, to share a platform with a non-Orthodox counterpart, whereas overseas I know of several Israeli Rabbis who have no problem appearing in Conservative Synagogues or meeting with Conservative or Reform Rabbis and indeed as recently as last week communities of all denominations across the world joined to support the Unity Day initiative (the center-piece event was hosted by Rivlin).
Let’s get back to the President. The new President hails from the right-wing Likud party. Albeit Rivlin comes from the liberal wing of that party on civil matters, but he has surprised many, indeed most in Israel and overseas by setting out a very different agenda to the one more closely associated with his recent political past.
In both speeches and deeds he has raised important questions around Israeli and Jewish identity; he has reached out and visited Israeli Arab communities and talked about sensitive and historic tensions; he has opened the President’s residence to Israelis from every walk of life, and even his own staff reflects the diverse nature of Israeli society, with religious and secular working together in harmony.
On the complex issue of Israel-Diaspora relations, Rivlin had barely been sworn in, when the press reminded everyone of comments he made 25 years ago that were certainly disparaging towards non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, but it is clear that he is trying his best to build relations across the Jewish world, outside of his own personal comfort zone.
The previous incumbent of the office of President was all about the New Middle East and continuing his career as international statesman. This was Shimon Peres’ forte. President Rivlin is playing to a different tune, making a real attempt to look at the rifts inside of Israeli society and beyond in the wider Jewish world. Indeed the speech that he gave only this week at the Herzliya Conference was a bold statement, setting out major challenges to the country’s leadership on social shifts well underway in Israel, both with the various Jewish sectors (Secular, Religious and Haredi) but also between Jews and Arabs and beyond.
Israel and Israelis need a better and more open relationship with Diaspora Jewry. This is not because of BDS and AIPAC (although it undoubtedly helps) but because we are all part of one Jewish people.
This is the type of agenda that should be music to the ears of mainstream American Jewry and a platform for meaningful dialogue. Coming from a Likud member makes it all the more important and even surprising, and should lead to the type of consensus between Israel and the Diaspora so important and needed, both for Israel as a country and society, but no less so for the Diaspora.
Whatever the facts on the barmitzva foul-up, it would seem to be a classic case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face to use this to launch a full frontal attack on the one person in Israel public life who can actually build the common ground between different groups in Israel and between Israel and the Diaspora.
It goes without saying that kids with special needs who have prepared so long for their barmitzva ceremony should not become a political football, but this also applies to those seeking to make this event a casus belli on behalf of non-Orthodox Jewry in Israel and overseas.
I firmly believe that we need a new paradigm in this relationship, but shooting a key player that can bring change would seem a very odd way of going about it.