Rightist Minister Bridges Religious Divide, for Tourism

By Eric Marx

Published October 10, 2003, issue of October 10, 2003.
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To most observers in this country, Israeli Tourism Minister Benny Elon does not readily conjure up images of pluralism and tolerance.

Leader of the far-right Moledet Party, which advocates the “transfer” of Palestinians from the West Bank to nearby Arab countries, Elon is seen as one of the most politically extreme figures in Prime Minister Sharon’s right-wing coalition.

This year, however, American Jewish liberals had an opportunity to see another face of Elon. In a groundbreaking initiative, the Orthodox rabbi helped forge a partnership between the Jewish state and the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States to promote tourism to Israel. This fall hundreds of American synagogues across the denominational spectrum are taking part in a new program coordinated by Elon’s ministry, “Project Go Israel,” urging worshippers to pledge to visit Israel during the coming year. And some observers say the successful launch is partly due to Elon’s longstanding commitment to intramural Jewish religious tolerance.

As part of the program, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox congregations have been distributing upwards of 1 million High Holy Day “pledge cards” at holiday services — but instead of soliciting financial donations, these handouts ask that congregants pledge to visit. The campaign is just the latest in a series of initiatives by Elon’s ministry to resuscitate Israel’s ailing tourism industry. After receiving 2.67 million visitors in 2000, Israeli tourism plummeted the next year by more than 300% following the outbreak of the intifada. With Elon running the ministry for most of the last 18 months, the figure climbed to 800,000 in 2002 and is expected to reach 1.2 million this year.

News reports in the United States often focus on Elon’s political ties to Evangelical Christians, who in the past have comprised a majority of American visitors to Israel. But Elon says American Jews now make up about 60% of visitors from North America, compared to only 40% before the intifada.

“People say Jews don’t come,” Elon said during a recent briefing at the Forward’s offices in New York, during the launch of the new campaign. “This is not true. They came under very bad circumstances, all of them: Conservative, Orthodox, Reform.”

While Israeli politicians have been known to set aside certain ideological differences in their courting of American Jewish support, Elon has — even when out of the spotlight — developed a reputation for reaching out across the religious boundaries that normally divide Orthodox politicians and liberal rabbis in Israel.

“Of all the right-wing politicians, he is the most aware of the problems of pluralism,” said Levi Weiman-Kelman, a Reform rabbi who serves as religious leader of Kehilat Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem and describes himself as a longtime friend of Elon’s.

Reform and Conservative leaders in Israel say that in Elon they have a willing dialogue partner and a politician willing to help smooth the path when their congregations run up against bureaucratic walls in Israel. Elon’s brother, Ari, has served as a teacher at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia and is active in liberal religious causes in Israel.

But such credentials, Weiman-Kelman said, tell only one side of the story: Despite Elon’s willingness to cross religious boundaries, the tourism minister has often joined his party and government in voting to preserve the Orthodox monopoly in Israel.

In a recent interview at the offices of the Forward, Elon attempted to explain his views on religious pluralism and the role of the non-Orthodox in Israel.

“If a community wants to have Reform and wants my assistance, they will get it like everybody else,” Elon said. “If it will be natural, if the majority … in Israel feel more at home in this type of synagogue, then that’s what will be.”

Elon, however, said that he doubted whether Reform or Conservative Judaism would ever catch on in Israel, where the bulk of Jews tend to identify as either Orthodox or secular. But the tourism minister also criticized Israel’s Orthodox political parties, arguing that they have been bad for both religion and politics in Israel. He noted that his political home, Moledet, is a secular right-wing movement.

“We have enough [problems] and because of it, frankly, I will not encourage one of the ways, even the Orthodox,” Elon said. “Time will show in which phase the Jewish people will have in Israel. It won’t be like the shtetl [in Europe], it won’t be like it was in Yemen, and it won’t be like it is in America. It will be something new.”

Elon received praise for his work on the new travel campaign from Reform and Conservative leaders in the United States, though several downplayed the relevance of pluralism issues.

“When it comes to love for the State of Israel and support of American Jews for the state and the people of Israel, the minister of tourism and our movement agree,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He added that his movement’s support for the “Go Israel” campaign would not preclude vocal opposition to Israeli policies upholding Orthodox supremacy.

Hirsch estimated that Reform congregations would reach approximately 100,000 families through the pledge card campaign. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said that he expected all 775 of his group’s member congregations to participate.

Epstein said Elon’s efforts were critically important to the success of the program, but added that “he’s not uniting the different movements.” The idea for the program, Epstein added, originated in the United States.

Despite such caveats, Epstein and Hirsch described the Israeli government’s partnership with the synagogue movements as an important precedent that bodes well for future interdenominational efforts.

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