What’s the current struggle in Israel all about?

July 2, 2017

As a consequence of the cacaphony provoked by the President’s tweets coupled with the introduction of the Republican Senate’s “wealth-care” bill that there is another story with major implications for the unity of the Jewish people and the well-being of Israeli democracy about which many American Jews seem to be unaware.

My colleague and the President of Association of Reform Zionists of America (Rabbi Josh Weinberg) in his weekly email to ARZA members got to the heart of the matter on Friday that expresses concisely what is happening and why it’s important for the American Jewish community (regardless of whether one is Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox) to be aware. Rabbi Weinberg wrote:

“In the world of the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel, rarely has there been a week like this.

On Sunday [June 25], the Government of Israel decided to cancel the already-agreed upon deal to build an egalitarian prayer section at the Kotel, with full signage and administrative authority by the liberal movements, JFNA [Jewish Federations of North America] and WoW  [Women of the Wall].  In addition it supported the passing of the conversion bill, which would place control of all conversions in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate and could have serious implications for already existing conversion programs as well as implications for Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jews in particular. Fortunately, as of this writing, the vote on the conversion bill has been stayed for 6 months due to significant pressure on the government from all sides and angles. We must acknowledge the tireless work of Rabbis Rick Jacobs [President of the Union for Reform Judaism in the United States and Canada], Gilad Kariv [Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Reform Judaism], Noa Sattat [Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center], Anat Hoffman [Chair of the Women of the Wall] and many more, who ably represent our [Reform] movement in Israel and abroad.

The week continued with the Jewish Agency for Israel, in an unprecedented move, canceling a dinner with the PM [Benjamin Netanyahu] and taking out ads in the Israeli media openly criticizing the decision beginning a wide spread response from mainstream Jewish organizations breaking stride and expressing their outrage to the PM and his government.

We all know that this essentially is about coalition politics. That PM Netanyahu made a calculated decision to renege on his promises to implement the [Western Wall Egalitarian Prayer Space Agreement] deal and at the same time take action that put his support firmly behind his ultra-Orthodox constituency, ensuring that he’ll last another day. This is neither shocking nor surprising, and the uproar is due to the coinciding events (The reneging on the Kotel agreement and the introduction of the Conversion bill into the Knesset) as well as the leadership of the organized Jewish community feeling the sting of this blatant betrayal.

Let’s be clear this is NOT about two things:

This is not just about the Diaspora. Many headlines read that this is a slap in the face to Diaspora Jews and it is important to note that this is an insult and a complete rejection of the growing trends of Israeli frustration and rejection of the Chief Rabbinate.

  1. This is not only about Reform and Conservative Jewry. The conversion bill was set to transfer power away from a great deal of modern Orthodox (National Religious) rabbis. This is bigger than just angry Reform and Conservative Jews. We are angry. We’re outraged, hurt and betrayed. But this has now risen to the level of a “Gog and Magog” style battle over who holds the keys to Judaism in the Jewish State. Make no mistake, the Haredim [Ultra-Orthodox religious political parties] see the inroads the liberal movements are making [in Israel], and are (justifiably) feeling threatened. The Prime Minister will do everything he can to maintain his coalition even if it means going back on deals and promises (pittance) compared to risking losing his [governing] Our [non-orthodox] movements are gaining strength and building coalitions – including with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman who is also considerably concerned about the conversion issue [Liberman represents a very large Russian Israeli community among whom are roughly 700,000 individuals who are not Jewish by traditional Jewish legal standards], but will unlikely risk his prize position over this issue.
  1. Many have asked why the Reform and Conservative movements have not expressed equal outrage over the Occupation [of Israel in the West Bank beyond the Green Line], the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Syria, and the list goes on. Those do continue to be ongoing issues that we care deeply about. Each organization, movement and individual has to engage in the struggles that it can and fight the good fights that it can. אלו ואלו דברי אלוהים חיים. “These and Those are words of the living God.” [A famous principle found in the Talmud said by Rav Shmuel who believed that it is important to find truth in all sides to an argument].

We hope you join us in the struggle and work wherever you are for a Jewish and democratic State.


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