Confront Ignorance of Diaspora Movements

By Eric Yoffie

Published July 07, 2006, issue of July 07, 2006.
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It is stunning how little some of Israel’s leaders know about Diaspora Jewry in general, and about American Jewry in particular. Almost six decades after the establishment of the Jewish state, many of Israel’s senior politicians have had little contact with Diaspora Jews, and they know virtually nothing about the grassroots religious movements that are home to most American Jews.

Israeli leaders who have a total command of English and travel regularly to the United States, such as Ehud Olmert, Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu, are the exception. President Moshe Katsav, to his credit, seems genuinely curious about non-Orthodox Judaism, and has asked many questions during our meetings in recent years. His knowledge of Diaspora realities and sensibilities, however, remains limited — as illustrated by our recent, widely reported difference of opinion.

Surely it is not unreasonable to expect that Israel’s leaders will make more than a token effort to get to know us. Of course, these events also remind us that the obligation works both ways. If we want Israelis to understand us, we have a responsibility to be more assertive in our educational work in Israel, to raise the profile of our public message, and to promote more aggressively the growth of Israel’s non-Orthodox religious movements.

More broadly, this incident suggests that when the circumstances are right, there is value in American Jews taking a more confrontational approach to matters of religious pluralism in Israel. After Katsav’s sharp attacks on me last month, he proclaimed emphatically in an interview that he would not call either Reform or Conservative rabbis by their rabbinic title in Hebrew. Nonetheless, the very next day he invited a Conservative leader to his official residence and announced that he had changed his mind about Conservative rabbis — although not about Reform ones, apparently.

While I have no doubt that my Conservative colleague made a compelling argument, I also have no doubt that the president was responding to the overwhelmingly negative press that he had received the previous week and was looking for a way to temper his stand.

The incident showed yet again that today’s media in both Israel and North America are not inclined to ignore tensions in Israel-Diaspora relations. Negative comments or actions by Israeli leaders about Diaspora Jewry are far less likely to be brushed aside. Both A.B. Yehoshua and Katsav have discovered as much in recent months, and both subsequently made an effort to adjust their positions.

I am not suggesting that confrontation be sought or encouraged; the task of American Jewish leaders remains to strengthen in every way possible ties between Israel and American Jews. But I am suggesting that the best way to serve that goal may be to speak out far more vigorously than we have in the past in those instances when our dignity is attacked and our integrity questioned.

My dispute with Katsav is also a reminder of how important the choice of Israel’s next president is to relations between Diaspora Jewry and the Jewish state. Katsav’s term is up next year, and as noted in these pages last month, former chief rabbi Israel Meir Lau is now seen as the frontrunner for the position.

While choosing Katsav’s successor is a task for the Knesset, the president’s role as a unifying force in the Jewish world gives American Jewry a considerable stake in the matter. It is emphatically not in Israel’s interest to elect a president who will be ignorant or indifferent to Diaspora concerns and who will widen rather than narrow whatever gaps exist between world Jewry and the Jewish state.

Some Israelis have argued that the symbolic head of a secular state should never be a rabbi. Others, however, have made the case that there are advantages in having a relatively moderate Haredi president who would concern himself with the distress of foreign workers and the cries of battered women. Such a president, it is argued, would strengthen the sense of belonging of the Haredi community to the State of Israel, and would also be a positive Jewish role model for secular Israelis who think of Haredi Jews as caring exclusively about the intricacies of ritual law.

Lau himself is a complicated man. A Holocaust survivor, author and superb orator, he is popular in Israeli high society and well connected politically. He has been the frequent subject of gossip columnists, and various personal and political scandals have been insinuated over the years but never proven. Along with most of the Orthodox world, he has moved to the right on religious matters in recent years. But most important, he is a close friend of both Olmert and Netanyahu — the prime minister and the leader of the opposition — and it is not impossible to imagine him emerging as a consensus candidate for president.

While it is not appropriate for Diaspora Jews to support or oppose Israeli presidential candidates, it is appropriate to suggest to Israel’s political leaders that they take into account certain factors before making their decision. The Reform movement, both in Israel and the Diaspora, recommends that Lau and any other candidate for the presidency be asked the following questions:

Will Reform, Conservative and Reconstructions delegations be received at the president’s house? Will Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis be referred to by you, in Hebrew, as “rabbis”? Will you be prepared to visit regularly Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist institutions in both Israel and the Diaspora? And will you use the office of the presidency to encourage dialogue among all streams of Judaism, similar to the way in which presidents have encouraged dialogues among other groups in years past?

The president of Israel plays a unique role in both Israel and the Jewish world. Above politics in a deeply politicized society, he or she binds up the wounds of a nation at war, reaches out to those who are often ignored or forgotten, and gives voice to Israel’s desire for security and peace. Among Jews, the president is a symbolic leader and unifier, embracing all segments of the Jewish people and drawing them closer to Zion. Surely there are candidates who can fulfill that role while unequivocally and enthusiastically answering “yes” to each of the questions above.

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

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