By Ira Sharkansky
JERUSALEM–One of the attractions of living in Israel is the feeling of participation in the wider world of the Jewish people. It is also one of the problems.
An American friend sent me the following, which came to him from a non-Orthodox rabbi:
. . . send a message to BIBI telling him that we LIBERAL JEWS in AMERICA are furious about this anti-Jewish Bill that will disenfranchise tens of thousands of American/Non-Israeli Jews who may not be able to prove that they have a Jewish mother (or, in fact don’t have one) or have had a conversion including Mikveh officiated by a Liberal Rabbi, who live strong Jewish lives and support Israel in peace and war; with their children and (l’havdil) their money.
This Rottem (sic) Law is a travesty.
PLEASE LOG ON TO THE LETTER TO PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU and let him and all Israel know that we LIBERALS are just as “HAREDI-in awe before God” as the Black Hats! We will fight this law “with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our might”.
Oy gevalt is an appropriate response. Not to the abomination that the letter wants to prevent, but to the letter itself as a symptom of yet another brouhaha among the Jews. And one that focuses on what a rational assessment (i.e., mine) indicates is nothing at all.
The issue is a draft of a law promoted by an Orthodox Knesset Member, which does not change the status quo or touch the issues raised by excitable Americans, and has already been assigned to a burial plot by the prime minister as something that does not merit even a symbolic annoyance of overseas friends.
As best as I can understand this murky corner of Jewish politics, what is happening is another expression of Jewish paranoia, this time touching a segment of religious leaders who either want to expand their authority or fear that a competing segment of religious leaders want to expand their authority.
If it’s not 100,000 Haredim clogging the streets of Jerusalem in defense of ethnic segregation, it is God knows how many non-Orthodox rabbis clogging Jewish mailboxes in defense of what they want, but do not understand. Not only would the bill change little or nothing in Israel, but it could not “disenfranchise tens of thousands of American/Non-Israeli Jews.” Those Jews have never been franchised in Israel. Presumably they are franchised in their home countries, well beyond the jurisdiction of the Israeli Knesset.
Next in line are non-Orthodox women wanting to dance with the Torah at the Western Wall, against Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox rabbis charged with keeping order at the Wall as they see fit.
Meanwhile it is the secular majority of Israeli Jews who pay most of the taxes and do much of the military service to keep this place available as a site for disputes among religious Jews who feel they know the word of the Lord.
(It is true that the Orthodox Religious Zionists are doing a disproportionate amount of national defense, but they have a political agenda that adds to our problems.)
We welcome the feeling of overseas Jews that they are part of us, appreciate their help with other governments, and the money they contribute. My own preference is for donations to universities and hospitals rather than Jewish settlement in Arab neighborhoods. However, there are different interests and Israel’s own rules of the game. As a democracy, numbers compete with the substance of arguments for officials’ attention. Non-Orthodox religious Jews are a small minority here, without their own party in the Knesset. They should not count on the help of secular Israeli Jews. Some secular Jews may identify with the non-Orthodox, but others have no interest in any religious arguments, whether they are Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, Reform, or Conservative.
Former Knesset Member Haim Ramon said that Israelis are either religious or secular, and that the religious are Orthodox. He said that non-Orthodox religious Jews should not expect to influence Israel without moving here in their hundreds of thousands. A secular friend said pretty much the same thing, “The synagogue that I do not go to is an Orthodox synagogue.”
Israelis generally oppose one or another policy followed by the government currently in power, but put up with the balance of interests that prevails.
Secular Israelis must tolerate the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox because they have the numbers. However, secular Israelis have enough numbers to keep the religious in check.
The proposed legislation that provoked the latest campaign by non-Orthodox rabbis deals with the authority of conversion to Judaism in Israel. It would continue the status quo by giving that authority to the Official Rabbinate, which is Orthodox. Individuals converted outside of Israel by non-Orthodox rabbis would be recognized as Jews by the State, and given all the rights of Jews with respect to immigration. They might have trouble marrying in Israel, insofar as the Rabbinate deals with that process, but Cyprus is a short flight away. Lots of secular Israelis live well, despite having to choose, or wanting to choose, a secular marriage performed outside of Israel. It may not be ideal, and even annoying or insulting, but it is manageable. And the country is generous with respect to the rights provided to couples who do not bother with any ceremony. Those in the know might remember the provision of religious law that considers a couple married who are known by their neighbors to live together.
Israel is a good place, without meeting all the criteria of Paradise. I welcome the nomination of countries that do qualify.
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University