Jewish Legitimacy

Given the hysteria and defiance that characterized much of the American Jewish response to the provocative “conversion bill” now stalled somewhere in the Knesset, what we’re about to say may sound counter-intuitive. But bear with us. For it is possible that the high-stakes drama caused by an Israeli lawmaker’s ham-handed attempt to liberalize the conversion process could bring about just the sort of powerful shock to the system that relations between Israel and Diaspora Jewry desperately need.

Think of what’s been revealed: In the passionate outcry of Diaspora leaders, we’ve learned how deep is their fear that non-Orthodox Judaism lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the country they work hard to love and support. In the baffled response by many Israelis — who argue that the bill only puts in writing what’s been in practice for decades — we’ve learned of the enormous disconnect between those who are Jewish by virtue of where they live, and the rest of us who struggle to decide daily what kind of Jew to be.

And we’ve learned that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can, when pushed, finally stand up to the reactionary elements in his governing coalition by opposing the bill in its current form and, we hope, doom its chances of final passage.

Like any good crisis, this has the potential for opportunity. Israel must assert its fealty to religious pluralism and recognize the absolute necessity for the Jewish state to act as a state for all Jews, to live up to its founding ideals and its contemporary promise. And it must do so out of real conviction, not just as a cynical response to placate wealthy Diaspora donors and politically powerful supporters who live a Jewish life that would scarcely be recognized by the ultra-Orthodox monopoly now in control.

Why herald Israel as the only true democracy in the Middle East when a woman is thrown in jail for holding a Torah? Never mind the hurt feelings of a few liberals; Israel has a strategic imperative to behave as a modern, pluralistic state if it is to maintain the high ground in the ongoing global struggle against religious fanaticism.

Diaspora Jewry can rightly claim victory in this latest standoff, but to what end? If this becomes merely a pretext for already disaffected Jews to walk further away from Israel, then the hysteria by American Jewish communal and religious leaders will have done more harm than good. The fury and anxiety unleashed during this drama has to be channeled into a positive commitment to genuinely engage with Israel.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute, one of the saner voices during this emotional dispute, put it best: “It requires a commitment to Israel not as it is, but as it ought to be, and a willingness to invest in creating such an Israel.” And, he wrote recently, “it requires a deep caring.”

To care deeply doesn’t obligate us to swear blind loyalty and suppress disagreement. But it doesn’t allow us to turn our backs, either. With all the worried talk about the demise of “liberal Zionism,” here is a chance for Jews in Israel and the Diaspora to resurrect its future.

More than one Diaspora leader expressed fear that this conversion bill would eventually lead to a delegitimizing of non-Orthodox Judaism. Interesting choice of words, because the vocabulary of anxiety surrounding Israel often focuses on the efforts to “delegitimize” the Jewish state. Just as Israelis long to be legitimated by the world-at-large, so too do Diaspora Jews ache to be included in Israel’s definition of Judaism. And they should be.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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Jewish Legitimacy

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