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Israel Doesn’t Need Liberal Judaism. It Needs Liberalism.

This summer, we wrote an article in these pages in which we argued that Reform and Conservative American Jews should stop importing their brand of Judaism to Israel on the grounds that we already have too much religion. What Israelis need is not softer versions of Judaism, but rather help strengthening our liberalism, which is under threat from the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate and its enablers.

There is no greater proof of the main thesis of our essay than the four essays written in response.

The responses focused on the importance of the liberal streams of Judaism. And yet, contrary to what the response essays argue, we are not seeking to erase or eliminate Reform and Conservative Jewish life in Israel. Our claim is merely that the political and public impact of these movements is minimal, and that the only way all forms of Jewish religious practice, including Reform and Conservative Judaism, can thrive in the Israeli public sphere is through a more secular Israel. Essential to the core of our argument is the fundamental difference between how Americans view religion and how Israelis do.

Religion in America has historically developed as a matter of personal choice subject to the same kinds of competitive dynamics you find at work in a capitalist society. Think about a Jew in America who’s not pleased with their Rabbi’s High Holidays sermon. They have numerous other synagogues to go to, or they can start a new one, or not go at all. Most importantly, once they step out of the synagogue or community center, they live in a country that at least makes an ongoing effort to separate religion and state.

Jewish women (R), separated from men by a fence, look at a religious ceremony on the men’s side at the Western Wall, the holiest place for Jews, in Jerusalem’s Old City Image by Getty Images

Israelis have no such choice. We have one Jewish state, which means that Judaism in Israel is not a matter of personal expression. As much as some Israelis would like to, the option of seceding or creating other Jewish states that are more specifically catered to their worldview of how Judaism should be interpreted is not really an option. If we are to secure our freedom to practice Judaism however we want, we need to act politically and in the public sphere to do so. It is not a matter of individual choice. In the Jewish state, Judaism is a public and political matter.

This is hardly an argument for or against liberal Judaism, as some of the responses seemed to take it. We are sufficiently aware that Judaism, like all religious and ideological systems, is in the hands of its interpreters, and that its interpretation changes over times and geographies. As a millennia-old civilization, Judaism has produced enough texts, sayings, events and traditions to underpin a near infinite range of possibilities of personal expression, opinions and worldviews.

What we did argue was that American Jews, thinking in American terms are pursuing the wrong strategy in seeking to make Israel more “pluralistic” in the very narrow sense of attaining official recognition for Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israeli political public sphere. It would be far more effective, we argued, to join hands with secular Israelis to secure an Israeli Zionist secular public sphere. In such an Israel, we wrote, liberal American Jews will have no problem finding a home for their brand of Jewish practice:

”In an Israel of civil unions, their rabbis, just like anyone else, will be able to perform ceremonies for those who want them. In a national, secular Kotel, American Jews will be able to pray how they want and see fit, because there will be no Rabbi to regulate them. In an Israel that doesn’t fund rabbis and Mikvehs, any community that wants to fund their kind of religious services and practice would be able to do so. This is the only kind of Israel that would be a home to all Jews, from all around the world.”

Perhaps American Jews balk at the idea of going all in and backing secular Israeli struggles. Maybe they’re afraid to take on the Rabbinate directly and to call for its downfall, or feel uneasy supporting public transportation on Shabbat in Israel or fighting against religious edicts in the Israeli military. Maybe they don’t understand why it matters whether flour products may be brought into hospitals during Passover by individual patients.

And yet, even if our American Jewish brothers and sisters don’t understand the importance of these secular measures, at the minimum, we ask that American Jews refrain from trying to import more religion — of whatever kind — into Israel.

There is no greater disservice that American liberal Jews can do for Israeli liberal Jews than import their brand of religion into Israel. This is a clear case of good intentions leading to bad outcomes, and this is what we seek to point out.

For the truth of the matter is, in the Israeli context, more religion — of whatever kind — translates into greater illiberalism.

Perhaps it is necessary to point out that Israeli Jews, even the most secular and militantly atheist among them, are not in need of more Judaism of any kind.

And yet, it’s hard not to notice the missionary tone of some of the essays responding to ours, which lamented that we are “cultivating ignorance and disconnect as an answer to religious fanaticism.” Indeed, this is an argument that is no different than the one made by the most fanatic ultra-Orthodox about Zionist secularism. And the truth is, this is again to use an American paradigm to willfully misunderstand the Israeli context.

Ignorance and disconnect from Judaism is indeed possible and extant in the vast geographical and social planes of America. But it is a literal impossibility in Israel. It is practically impossible for any Jewish person (and most non-Jews too) to be ignorant of Judaism and disconnected from it in Israel.

Both of us wake up every morning, living our daily lives by the ancient Hebrew calendar. Shabbat is our day of rest. It is a day of national rest. Sunday is a day of work. Friday nights our respective families get together for dinner. Our holidays are the Jewish and Zionist holidays, and our families’ arguments are about who will host which Jewish holiday, or whether it is better to flee abroad to avoid the arguments.

Our children go to public state kindergartens and schools, where Jewish holidays are a major part of their curriculum. With every approaching Jewish holiday (and there are many more than American Jews suspect), our children learn songs, write essays, discuss meanings, go on excursions, and make papier-mâché structures related to that holiday. In fact, we have to wonder what kindergarten teachers teach children in other parts of the world without Jewish holidays.

Throughout their school years, our children learn the Hebrew Bible, medieval Hebrew poetry, ancient and modern history of the Jewish people (they always tried to kill us, even when they didn’t…), modern Zionist thought and history and Hebrew literature. When our children attend their after-school activities, their soccer team is called Maccabbi, and their youth movement discussions are about the essence and dilemmas of living in the Jewish state. Even if Israelis wanted to, and they indeed don’t, they could not send “their kids to schools devoid of Jewish culture and spirit”, as one response essay argues.

Indeed, while our children go to their public schools and kindergartens and after school activities, we browse the news, read our Twitter and Facebook feeds and engage in daily heated debates about the current iteration of what it means to be the Jewish state.

We debate the Nation State Bill, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, the closure of public construction on Shabbat. We ask whether the ultra-Orthodox should serve in the army, whether Israeli soldiers be allowed to use their cell phones on Shabbat, whether the occupation is justified if it’s in defense of Jewish life, or whether it’s an occupation at all, or the end of the Jewish state. We debate whether the new natural history museum in Israel should have exhibits about evolution.

And when we take a break from the news to entertain ourselves, we watch Fauda, a TV show about Israeli soldiers undercover as Arabs, or Autonomia, a series about a future where Israel splits into a Haredi autonomy and a Zionist state, or Shababnikim, a show about young Haredi Jews. Or we go out to see the film “Unorthodox”, about the rise of the Mizrahi Haredi movement Shas.

And, miracles of miracles, we do all that in Hebrew – reading, writing and speaking the modern iteration of the ancient language of our people.

All this is even without mentioning that in our professional lives we both spend all our time on Zionist and Jewish issues. In truth, even if we wanted to have “more Judaism” in our lives, as all of the response writers seem to imply we are lacking, we would hardly know when and where to insert it.

This is the essential difference between Jewish life in America and in Israel. In America, Jewish life has to be actively pursued, if it is to exist at all. If it is not actively pursued, the baseline is indeed on of “ignorance and disconnect.”

For Jews in Israel, Judaism is woven into the very fabric of our lives, in every second and every act. The fact that it may not resemble what Americans call Judaism doesn’t make it any less so; it just makes it different. As a colleague in Israel who made Aliyah from Canada likes to say, the day that he moved to Israel, he stopped keeping kosher. In the Israeli context, it became superfluous.

Liberal American Jews need exhibit no concern whatsoever for Judaism in Israel.

What they need to do is exhibit substantial concern for liberalism in Israel.

Israelis don’t need more Judaism, cultural, religious, historical, lingual, ritual or otherwise. What many Israelis need and want is more liberalism, and in the Israeli context more liberalism can only come with greater secularism.

And in the Israeli Zionist context greater liberalism will be secured only through greater secularism. Greater secularism doesn’t mean less Judaism, but rather, pushing back on the expansionist policies of illiberal Jewish Orthodoxy. It is a matter of power – not a matter of ritual or culture.

Once American Jews accept that the Israeli Zionist operating system is fundamentally different than the American one, and that they should abandon their proselytizing project of injecting more religion, in any form, into the Israeli public space, they will finally be able to tap into the most important resource of power that exists in Israel to oppose Orthodox illiberalism: Zionist secularism.

Despite the efforts of the response writers to depict a rise in Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel, absent an Aliyah of millions of American Jews, those are and will remain marginal phenomena.

It’s true that there’s a growing number of Israelis who support these movements. But it is mostly because secular Israelis view Reform and Conservative Judaism as doing battle against a shared enemy: illiberal Orthodoxy and the Chief Rabbinate.

Indeed, this affection for the liberal streams of Judaism should not be mistaken for adherence. For this sympathy and affection end when the religious aspects of these movements come into play.

Take, for example, a school in Tel Aviv which was always on the secular forefront, and threw out the Orthodox organization that used to teach Judaism in the school back in 2016, a full year before all the other schools in Tel Aviv did so. The school replaced the Orthodox teachers with an organization belonging to the Reform movement. But rather than solving the problem, this resulted in complaints by parents that the new solution was all too similar to the old one. It, too, highlighted religious, and even missionary, content.

After another year, the Reform organization was shown the door.

Only Zionist secularism can muster the numbers, intensity, and local historical resonance needed for a successful political struggle for liberal values. In independent polls, secular Israelis still represent over 40% of Israeli society. The fact that this plurality has been silent is the outcome of the fact that for many decades, secular Zionism was indeed the politically hegemonic force in Israel. With the growing realization that this is no longer the case, and that secular Zionists need to actively fight again for their way of life and values, secular Zionists are speaking up and acting.

Finally, the writers of the response essays suggest that we are ignoring the vast middle of Mizrahi Jews and Israeli Jews of Russian background, as if those groups could somehow be a resource of support for the Conservative and Reform brand of Judaism.

One should not make the mistake of taking the tolerance of Mizrahi Jews towards mild levels of Jewish ritual practice as any form of sympathy for Reform and Conservative Judaism. Quite the opposite: Traditional Mizrahi Jews, as a rule, are sometimes more vigorous than the strictly religious in sanctifying Orthodox Judaism and opposing pluralist movements, which they see as “left wing.” And Israeli Jews of Russian background are first and foremost Israeli. They do not identify with forms of Judaism that are not identifiably Israeli and will therefore operate within the Israeli Jewish Orthodox/secular dichotomy. They tend to be either firm atheists or worshippers of Orthodox Judaism, due to political reasons. Neither group is interested in the American import of liberal Judaism, which is as distant from them as Christianity.

In America, American Jews can be whatever kind of Jews they want. But when American Jews seek to have an impact in Israel, in a direction of greater liberal values, and especially greater acceptance and recognition of their own form of Jewish life and practice, their best political allies are secular Israelis.

Dr. Einat Wilf is a former member of the Israeli Knesset and author of “Telling Our Story”. Dr. Ram Vromen is the Chair of the Israeli Secular Forum.

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