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Commentary: Reason for Israel’s enemies to rejoice: Jews are fighting each other

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM –Currently the most pressing religious war in these surroundings is not between Jews and Muslims or Christians, but among the Jews.

As is typical of this recurring conflict, the weapons involved are not explosives. This round of conflict has not escalated beyond nastiness and disinformation. But those are sufficient to heat up the combatants, and to attract the attention of us outsiders, i.e., secular Jews without a dog in the fight.

Prominent participants are the Reform and Conservative Movements, strong in the United States and using their clout to affect things here. It looks like a community with fewer than 14 million people, and beset with serious hostility from others, can afford its own world war.

There are several armies on the battlefield, and their slogans do not always convince us that those, indeed, are at the center of their concerns. In other words, demands about religion may be masking something else, more important to the participants. To Reform and Conservative activists, it is an occasion to get some media exposure in Israel, and bolster their organizations. To one of the prominent other actors, it may be leverage to stay out of jail.

One contender is Knesset Member David Rotem. He is affiliated with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu party, and is currently chair of the Knesset Committee on Constitution, Law and Justice. Rotem is promoting a bill to concentrate the conversion to Judaism in Israel under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate. The Chief Rabbinate is at the peak of organizations that deal with marriage, divorce, and kashrut for most Israeli Jews, as well as conversion to Judaism in Israel. It is Orthodox, but always looking over its shoulder to ultra-Orthodox rabbis who have their own religious courts and inspectors of kashrut. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis decide issues for  members of their own congregations. They tangle with institutions of the Israeli State and accuse Orthodox rabbis of not being sufficiently observant.

It is common to estimate that ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews each represent about 10 percent of Israel’s Jewish population. Both have political representation in the Knesset and are usually involved in government coalitions. Israel Beitenu is the principal party of Russian speaking Israelis. They amount to about one million people who have arrived since the late 1980s. They are equivalent to about 20 percent of the Jewish population, but  perhaps as many as one-third of them do not pass muster with the Rabbinate as halachic Jews. Israel Beitenu, along with the ultra-Orthodox parties SHAS and Torah Judaism are important members of the current government. Without them, Prime Minister Netanyahu would be in trouble.

Among the issues that Israel Beitenu has promoted is a smoothing of what are often horrendous and unsuccessful efforts at conversion to Judaism.

Outside of the Israeli milieu of Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, and Russian immigrants are rabbis and other activists of liberal Judaism, mostly Reform and Conservative. These movements are dominant among American Jews, but are small enough to be overlooked in surveys of Israeli Jews. The Conservative Movement claims 50,000 members of its Israeli congregations. The Reform Movement provides no estimate of its adherents in Israel, but it has only about one-half the number of congregations as the Conservative. Neither the Reform nor the Conservative movements have a party to represent them in Israeli politics, and may hear only an occasional comment of support from an individual Knesset Member.

Both Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel have spoken forcefully against the proposal of David Rotem, and have energized their American allies to join the fray. Among the wildest of comments that have come to my mailbox from overseas are claims that the proposal would “disenfranchise” the majority of American Jews, and  delegitimize marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis.

Orthodox activists are neither more accurate nor polite. The Chief Sephardi Rabbi appeared on Israel radio, and did not soil his diction with the word, “Reform.” Instead he spoke about a cult that sought to change Judaism, and thereby introduce a dangerous schism in the midst of the Jewish people. To prevent that, he sees the enactment of Rotem’s proposal as essential.

It is far from clear that Rotem’s proposal would weaken the status of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, but that is what they are saying. And at a time when the Israeli government is being squeezed by the United States government on matters that have no direct connection to religious wars among the Jews, non-Orthodox activists have more power than their numbers in the Israeli electorate or the Knesset. The prime minister is taking a  course dictated by international politics, and saying that he will work to prevent the passage of Rotem’s proposal, which he says would introduce a dangerous schism among the Jews of the world.

Commentators are speculating that conversion is not all that important to the head of Israel Beitenu. Lieberman is an insider-outsider, or a man with enough votes to receive a senior position in the government, but not enough personal stature to move beyond the fringe of Israeli politics. He has acquired a reputation as an outspoken righist, and is the subject of a long-running police investigation dealing with various forms of corruption. A Russian speaking friend who says that Leiberman is correct on most things also admits that Lieberman is a thug. Lieberman gained the distinguished title of Foreign Minister, but Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak go to the most important places and speak for Israel to the key leaders of the United States, France, Germany, and Great Britain. Lieberman deals with capitals in Latin America, Kazakhstan, and Moldova, and visits Moscow to obtain what he can from a government that appears unfriendly. His deputy, Knesset Member and former career diplomat Daniel Ayalon, sometimes appears to be dealing with more important issues than Lieberman.

By one view, Lieberman is obsessed with staying in the limelight and demonstrating his political importance. Promoting what he claims is an easier road to conversion is one way of doing this, and advancing what may be his principal goal of claiming to be indispensable. The purpose of that would be to gain help with the police and other judicial authorities.

All this is happening while we approach the 9th of Av. The day has increased in importance in recent years. More institutions will be closed than in the past. The media is providing commentary about destruction and salvation, along with advice on who should avoid fasting for reasons of health.

According to the Passover story, we survived slavery in Egypt. According to the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, we overcame one disaster that occurred on the 9th of Av, and returned from Exile in Babylon. Josephus describes another rough time among the Jews that facilitated the Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem on another 9th of Av. We all know what happened a generation ago in Germany and Eastern Europe. Now it’s up to Benyamin Netanyahu to maneuver between excitable Jews from Russia and America, while President Obama and several of Obama’s allies want him to do something unpleasant. .
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University

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