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Why Should North American Jews Care About Religious Pluralism in Israel?

In travelling around North America and giving lectures on Israel and the Middle East, I have discovered an interesting paradox: Some North American Jews are obsessed with the subject of religious pluralism in Israel while others are reluctant to discuss the subject at all.

For those who care about it, I am happy to give my views. But what do I say to those who feel that this issue is not really important at the moment?

I have met these people at Federation and community meetings, but sometimes in Reform congregations as well. And I have come to understand their reluctance to hear about matters of pluralism and religious freedom. They point out to me that Israel now faces threats from every direction. In the south, Hamas controls Gaza and remains committed to Israel’s destruction. In the north, the dominant force in Lebanon is Hezbollah, armed and largely controlled by Iran. Syria has descended into chaos, and the civil war there has destabilized Jordan and the Gulf states. And Iranian forces foment revolution everywhere and see Israel as their most despised enemy.

And so, I am asked, does it really make sense to bother about the religious rights of Reform Jews when Israel’s very existence is on the line? Shouldn’t religious questions wait until Israel’s security is assured?

There are two answers to these questions. The first is that Israel is threatened but not fragile. On security issues, of course, utmost vigilance is always required, as every Israeli leader knows. But Israel is by far the strongest military power in the region. Yoram Cohen, in his first public interview since his recent retirement as head of Israel’s intelligence services, warned his fellow citizens against alarmism and unnecessary fears. “Our enemies should be afraid of us,” he said, “and not us of them. Their situation is more difficult than ours in every respect, including the Iranians.”

The second answer is that Israelis themselves, as their vibrant democracy attests, are concerned about a range of issues that impact their daily lives. And religion is among their top priorities. Debates about religion and public life are prominently featured in the news media virtually every day of the year.

And it is natural that this is so. The founders of Israel intended to create a Jewish state that would both offer a physical refuge for the Jews of the world and bring about a moral and spiritual renaissance of the Jewish people. The refuge exists, secure and strong despite the dangers. But the spiritual part of the mission has yet to be realized. In fact, Israel’s religious situation is a mess.

Even though more than three out of four Israelis are Jewish, Israel’s Jewish vitality is stunted by religious institutions and laws left over from the days of the British mandate, which preceded the establishment of Israel. Instead of offering a religious free market, in which all Jewish groups enjoy the same privileges, Israel has a coercive, monopolistic Orthodox Chief Rabbinate; and this Rabbinate grants government recognition only to marriages and conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis. Instead of providing equitable funding for all religious groups, Israel offers extravagant support to Orthodox institutions and a pittance to non-Orthodox programs. Instead of granting equal access for all to Israel’s Jewish holy places, sites such as the Western Wall in Jerusalem prohibit prayer according to Reform and Conservative practice.

And the result, of course, is that Israel’s original mission to nurture the soul of the Jewish people and to enrich Israel’s spiritual life is made far more difficult. Jewish Israelis are searching for spirituality as enthusiastically as Jews everywhere else in the world. But a thriving spirituality is impossible in the absence of religious freedom. The current system, in fact, succeeds mostly in demeaning Judaism and bringing Torah into disrepute.

In addition, the intent of Israel’s founders was to create a partnership with the Jews of the world. They wanted to work with Jews everywhere in promoting new and creative approaches to Jewish living. But how can you do that if Israel is sending the message that Reform and Conservative Jews are not fully welcome in the Jewish state? How can you proclaim a partnership with the Reform and Conservative movements throughout the world at the same time you say that their Jewish way of life is devoid of legitimacy?

Some North American Jews, even if they agree with me, will suggest that these problems must be solved by Israelis and not by us. But they are wrong, and they misunderstand what Israel is all about. Israel was created as the State of the Jewish people – even though, of course, one quarter of its citizens are non-Jews and their rights, too, must be respected. As the State of the Jewish people, Israel invites Jews in every country of the Diaspora to visit frequently, engage in its affairs, participate in its debates, generate support for its policies, and offer criticism of its actions. Final decisions on all matters, religious and otherwise, will be made by Israel’s citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike. But the right of Jews of the world to join in the debate is inherent in Israel’s Jewish identity and mission.

In fact, not only do we North Americans have the right, we have a profound obligation both to care about such matters and to make our voices heard. The fact is that Israel needs our experience with pluralism, our knowledge of bridge building, our religious energy, and our commitment to tolerance and Jewish religious diversity. The fact is that Israel’s Jewish citizens are entitled to an experience of Judaism that embraces Jews of every variety and that does not discriminate against women, immigrants from Ethiopia, or immigrants from the former Soviet Union. And the fact is that Reform and Conservative Jews, in both Israel and the Diaspora, are entitled to the partnership that the Zionist founders promised, based on the premise that Israel is the spiritual home for us no less than it is for others.

I want to be clear: We Reform Jews will never let the actions of Israel’s religious establishment – and the excuse-makers in the government who justify its actions – become a reason to distance ourselves from Israel. To abandon Israel is to do exactly what the religious parties want us to do – which is to leave the State of Israel to them. To abandon Israel is to betray a total lack of understanding of just how important Israel is to our lives. And to abandon Israel is to leave the majority of Israelis – who are sensible and modern – with no Judaism at all.

And so, we will do exactly the opposite: We will remain steadfast lovers of Zion. And we will restate and reinforce our connection to Israel at every opportunity. But, at the same time, we will demand legitimacy and recognition for Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel. We will stand up to the extremists and the fanatics who make and implement the policies of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. We will carry on the fight against the misogynists and the bullies who want to keep us from the Western Wall and other holy sites. In short, we will do what the founders of Zionism intended: We will proudly continue the struggle, not only for Israel’s physical presence but also for her spiritual essence.

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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism.