Real religious freedom in Israel has a chance

Lee Chottiner

Human Resources
Lee Chottiner

Reform and Conservative Jews in the United States buy Israel Bonds, support foreign aid to Israel, send their children there for summer experiences and even make aliyah.
They defend Israel against cancel culture anti-Semites, even when they have serious differences with the Israeli government.
In other words, American progressive Jews have skin in the game. Not as much skin as Israelis who live, work, vote and serve in the military there, but skin nonetheless.
So we – I am a Reform Jew – should not be silent when our very identity as Jews comes under shockingly crude fire in Israel, by a small, yet powerful, ultra-religious minority mocking us as no better than dogs and Holocaust deniers.
Consider these examples:
• In March, according to the JTA news service, Israel’s two largest Orthodox political parties released ads attacking Reform Jews, including a video featuring dogs in kippahs with a voiceover saying “This is a Jew, and this is also a Jew. And this one? Obviously. His grandmother was a rabbi.”
• Another ad, according to JTA, featured a picture apparently of African asylum seekers in Israel with the caption, “Jews certified by the Supreme Court. Danger! Thousands of infiltrators and foreign workers will become Jewish through Reform conversion.”
• In 2016, according to Haaretz, Moshe Gafni, a Knesset member from the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party, described Reform Jews as “a group of clowns” who have “declared war on the Torah.”
• A member of the same party, Israel Eichler, according to Haaretz, compared Reform Jews to the mentally ill.
• Rabbi David Yosef of the Shas party has said that Reform Jews are “not Jewish” and are “literally idolaters.”
But the worst examples of abusive language by so-called “religious leaders” are those employing Holocaust references to attack progressive Jews. For instance, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, former Sephardi chief rabbi, has said that Reform Jews “deny more than Holocaust deniers.”
It’s not just progressive Jews that are targeted. Haredi leaders have turned their fire on the LGBTQ community and even Modern Orthodox Jews.
Such speech is intolerable, and yet it has been tolerated – at the highest levels. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while condemning such remarks, continued to lead a government with those parties in it.
(It is worth noting that the most recent election sent the head of the Reform movement in Israel, Rabbi Gilad Kariv (Labor) to the Knesset – the first progressive rabbi to sit in the parliament. That is progress, though United Torah Judaism MK Meir Porush compared Reform Jews in general, and Kariv in particular, to pigs during a speech he just gave, The Jerusalem Post reported.)
American Jews – Jews the world over – deserve better. Israel deserves better.
This is not an attack on Orthodox Jews, most of whom, I believe, do not hold these views. Some have told me so. Hopefully, more will speak up.
I am attacking a governing system in Israel, parts of which date back to the British mandate, that gives a minority power beyond its actual numbers to control religious life.
Until recently.
Two weeks ago, the Knesset voted confidence in the new government, sending the haredi parties into the opposition (for now, anyway). Progressive Jews finally got a down payment on what they are owed. Now, they are waiting on the balance.
That balance includes Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and unaffiliated Jews being treated equally with the Orthodox in Israel, their marriages and conversions recognized (wherever they take place), their right to worship freely at the Kotel respected, and their rabbis and cantors – women included – given the same recognition as their Orthodox counterparts.
These are not unreasonable demands. Orthodox Judaism has thrived in America, and not at the expense of progressive movements. Israel can’t do the same?
The fate of this new government is still very much up in the air; Netanyahu has vowed to scuttle it at the first opportunity, likely bringing haredi parties back into government.
For now, though, real religious freedom in Israel has a chance. Diaspora and Israeli Jews must make the most of it.

(Lee Chottiner is the editor of the Jewish Louisville Community.)

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