Thursday, 2 May 2013

A less spoken about angle: The threat Israel presents to Jewish peoplehood

In a publication of the Center for Jewish Peoplehood, Rabbi Uri Regev focuses on the damage to the sense of Peoplehood brought about by the lack of religious pluralism in Israel

Over the years I've come to appreciate the amazing impact that visiting Israel has on visitors from the Diaspora, young and old alike. In Israel, like no other place in the world, they come to travel the country and experience a deep connection to thousands of years of Jewish history. Many visitors speak of feeling like “mishpacha” [family] with the countless representations of the world’s Jewish dispersions, who have come here from all corners of the earth, either by choice or necessity. In Israel, one feels the wings of Jewish fate and destiny hovering above with an unparalleled presence to anywhere else in the world. A trip to Israel has proven to be a source of existential discovery for so many. Participants often recommit not just to the identification with the Jewish past, but also to building the Jewish future.

This type of experience is widely discussed among Jewish community members and leaders alike. What is too often ignored, probably because it is not as pleasant, is the fact that Israel's policies on religion and state, because of their discriminatory, exclusionary, and coercive nature, undermine that very sense of Jewish peoplehood. As will be explained below, these policies will, for certain, alienate future generations of world Jewry from the Jewish state. They will further erode the interest and commitment of the current generation of Diaspora Jewry from Israel.

The unholy alliance of religion and state in Israel is not only distancing Diaspora Jews from Israel, but undermines the rare and precious opportunity to build a cohesive sense of Jewish solidarity and common identity in which Israel plays a constructive role. I sense this seemingly anomalous phenomenon for years, too often feeling disappointed by the conscious preference of Jewish communal leaders worldwide, to engage in damage-control rather than address the heart of the matter. The failure to fully realize Israel’s own promise, in our Declaration of Independence, for “freedom of religion and conscience” and for “full social and political equality regardless of religion” presents a major threat to Israel and to the relationship between the Jewish State and world Jewry.

The injustices of religion and state in Israel disadvantage citizens who belong to religious minorities and also effect many citizens on a day-to-day basis. Non-Orthodox conversions, marriages, and civil marriages are not recognized by the state, leaving hundreds of thousands of citizens in legal jeopardy because they cannot enjoy the basic right to marry and start a family in their home country. This is most painfully visible through the 350,000 Israeli citizens who immigrated from the Former Soviet Union, whose mothers are not halachically Jewish and who therefore cannot legally marry in Israel, nor are they able to enjoy the option of non-Orthodox conversions that would be equally recognized under Israeli law. The government discriminates against non-Orthodox rabbis, synagogues, and institutions. Such issues are real barriers when one looks to developing a stronger sense of Jewish peoplehood and solidarity if Israel is to play a major role in such an effort.

I fully grasped the depth of this threat to Jewish Peoplehood when I spoke at a mid-size Jewish community in the United States. At the conclusion of my lecture on the challenges of religious freedom, a prominent local rabbi stood up and connected my words to the reality of that community. He recounted that in their Jewish community, it is estimated that one third of the children were born to two Jewish parents, one third were born to an intermarried couple, and one third of the children were born into families in which one spouse was a Jew-by-choice (most often it is the mother, who goes through a non- Orthodox conversion). Essentially, he pointed out that two-thirds of their community's next generation would not be considered to be Jewish by the State of Israel, or would not be considered Jewish enough to be legally married in Israel.

Throughout my many subsequent travels across America, I quickly learned that this observation about the next generation of American Jewry is prevalent in most Jewish communities. The problem neither starts nor stops in the marriage or "Who is a Jew" arenas. The Women of the Wall and their battle against exclusion from the Western Wall, which is true of all non-Orthodox egalitarian communities, is just another one of many examples. This is clearly illustrated by Israel's Chief Sephardic Rabbi, Shlomo Amar, who famously declared that Jews should remain at home on the High Holidays rather than attend a Reform synagogue. Anyone who thinks that this type of sentiment can be the basis for Israel to build a sense of Jewish peoplehood must think again. Israel's institutional obstacles to religious freedom represent a strong departure from both the country's founding principles as well as the unequivocal support that the majority of Israelis demonstrate for these very values.

The gap between Israel's founding principles so strongly supported by the public, and the fundamentalist, anti-pluralistic monopoly of the Orthodox religious establishment, comes from decades of political horse trading that Israeli politicians from all sides have practiced, trading the dignity and basic liberties of both Israelis and Diaspora Jews in exchange for political spoils and support of the ultra-Orthodox parties. World Jewish leadership helped perpetuate the problem, preferring to applaud the governing party without challenging them with the tough questions that need to be asked.

There are a few organizations, such as American Jewish Committee and the National Council of Jewish women, who are re-engaging and confronting these issues, but hardly any of the major, non-denominational Jewish federations/organizations have seriously addressed this troubling reality. When the greater Jewish community occasionally takes interest in these issues, such as the "Who is a Jew" case and the phenomenon of genderseparation on public buses or Women of the Wall, they refrain from addressing the core challenge of religious freedom and equality. The “Who is a Jew” conflict specifically demonstrates how potent Diaspora engagement can be, if it chooses to enter the battlefield. Unfortunately, during the campaign to broaden the definition of “Who is a Jew”, world Jewish leadership stopped short of demanding full rights and recognition for the members of their communities who are Jews-by-choice.

They chose to withhold the disappointing information from their communities that all of these very Jews-by-choice, now granted rights under the Law of Return, would be treated as second-class Jews and denied the basic right of marriage. They also have not shared with their communities the support that most Israelis (albeit not Israel’s politicians) have for their full inclusion and recognition as Jews. They did not speak about how we all have yet to truly achieve our goal of religious freedom in Israel. Once the temporary threat subsided, the organizational leadership stepped back from striving for wider-reaching changes in Israel's policies. One cannot expect a band-aid to heal chronic pains.

If we are to truly view Israel as a source of inspiration for Jewish peoplehood, we must understand where we fell short of our vision for freedom of religion, and that it is incumbent upon us, together, to work to achieve this critical goal. If Jewish peoplehood is based on an emotional and intellectual connection, mutual responsibility and solidarity, we must work to shape Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state, which embraces all shapes and shades of Judaism in Israel and in the Diapsora and does not alienate them.

Israel is the only country among western democracies that practices religious discrimination against Jews. That fact alone is a major hindrance to enhancing a sense of Jewish peoplehood in Israel and around the world. Bringing change to the religious “status quo” in Israel is long overdue. The welcome shift in the Israeli elections put a government coalition in place that may be more responsive to these grave concerns. The jury is still out as to whether these expectations will be realized, but they will surely happen sooner if Jewish leaders and their communities around the world join Israeli activists and speak up for Israeli politicians to hear: Jewish peoplehood is too dear to us and too precious for the future of the Jewish community and the State of Israel to be sacrificed as a trading chip in the course of Israeli politics. We can achieve this earnest goal but only when we are willing to talk and act on these issues in a more serious manner.

A recent study of hundreds of immersive Jewish service-learning (IJSL) programs, concluded that 92% of these Diaspora youth who have been better educated about Israel’s internal struggles ended up feeling more attached to the Jewish state. They have developed a more serious and meaningful relationship to it. It is time to take our heads out of the sand and stop pretending the problem doesn't exist or is not in our backyard. If our relationship is about partnership in the global Jewish enterprise, then Israel’s exclusion of the overwhelming majority of the next generation of the world’s Jewish community cannot be allowed to fester any longer. Israelis want to see religious freedom and equality fully blossom; World Jewry deserves and supports it. Jewish Peoplehood will erode without it.


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