Time to expand dialogue and partnership with Israel

This week, I traveled from Israel to engage in discussions with Jewish community leaders and activists in Southern California. As a proud Israeli Zionist, I work to promote the flourishing ties between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. I came here as an Israeli who celebrates the link between our proud history and a present filled with unmatched innovation and growth, the Israel of the City of David, King Solomon’s Mines and the “Start-Up Nation.” A state of pioneers and the warriors.

But I also came recognizing that there are aspects of Israel that require correction. We must encourage a pluralistic society in Israel that guarantees religious freedom and equality for all. This goal must be part of our partnership with world Jewry, in the same way that we combine our strengths to advance other national priorities, such as the absorption of immigrants, building an infrastructure for cutting-edge technology, and supporting Israel as it defends its right for survival and security.

Repeated polls indicate an overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews share the same values as the majority of Jews in Los Angeles and the rest of the United States with regard to religious pluralism, freedom of choice and equality. Most Israelis reject the Orthodox monopoly on marriages currently mandated by law. Rather, they support free choice in marriage and conversion, including equal recognition of Reform, Conservative and civil alternatives. Most Israelis support public transportation on Shabbat and strongly oppose segregation of women on buses and in public places in the name of religion.

Our fight is not only about civil freedoms and pluralism, it is about the very survival of the State of Israel as a free and thriving democracy. In recent years, senior economists and military chiefs have pointed to the untenable and unsustainable consequences of the current demographic and political realities, stemming from the corrupt mix of religion and state in Israel. Only last week, the state controller published a scathing report on these very topics, focusing primarily on the economy, employment, education and the military. In fact, the debate recently reached a boiling point when the Supreme Court held unconstitutional the “Tal Bill” (sanctioning the mass exemption of Charedi youth from military service).  

Indeed, before last week’s dramatic move by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli elections were about to be pushed forward by more than a year for these very reasons. However, Netanyahu, whose coalition government depended on the support of the Charedi parties, recognized that his coalition might collapse before a compromise could be reached. He knew he could no longer maintain the scandalous and immoral arrangement whereby the number of yeshiva students eligible for automatic exemption from army service for Charedi grew from 400 in 1948 to more than 63,000 today. So, last week, Netanyahu dramatically eliminated the need for early elections and expanded his coalition base to include Kadima, thereby creating a base of 94 members of Knesset (out of 120). Kadima’s move was explained as necessary to effect a change in the law and to ensure equal shouldering of the civil and security burdens among all Israeli citizens, as well as an electoral reform to limit the extortionist power of small parties. This is the first glimmer in years of the possibility and viability of a much-supported civil coalition.

Stanley Gold, the Los Angeles philanthropist and businessman, and I co-founded Hiddush to create an Israel-Diaspora partnership dedicated to changing this broken reality. Israel’s future is too dear to us to leave it subject to the cynical political horse-trading we have witnessed so often. The unity of the Jewish people is too important for us to sit back and watch an absurd and unacceptable situation, where Israel poses such a significant threat to Jewish Peoplehood. Israelis resent this state of affairs, and while most members of the Diaspora Jewish community are not aware of it, those who are prefer to look the other way so as not to have to address it.

Now is the time for American Jewry to realize that change can happen. You can contribute by demonstrating your desire for an Israel that lives up to a vision of religious freedom and equality and stops the delegation to second-class status not only of women, but also Reform and Conservative Jews, and many Jews by Choice. Now is the time to offer support to the organizations and movements working to realize this vision, to raise a clear and unequivocal voice in communicating to Netanyahu: It is high time for religious freedom and equality for Jews in Israel.

Rabbi Uri Regev is the president of Hiddush — Freedom of Religion for Israel (hiddush.org).