The quarrel that erupted this week between Moshe Katsav, president of Israel, and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, could easily be dismissed as a case of wounded pride, an inconsequential squabble over symbols without substance. But that would seriously understate the gravity of the dispute. In refusing to address the leader of Reform Judaism as “rabbi” — and in publicly stating that he would behave the same way toward any other rabbi who isn’t Orthodox — the president of Israel has deliberately and directly denied the legitimacy of the religion followed by the majority of American Jews. Symbolic it may be, but there’s nothing inconsequential about it.
Israelis have been going to the barricades for decades over precisely this sort of symbolic slight, and American Jews have turned out in force to back them every time. Just this week, a showdown took place in Geneva over the right of Israel to participate in the International Red Cross without being forced to bear a symbol — a cross or crescent — that offends Jewish religious sensibilities. Fights have erupted repeatedly in recent years with the government of Russia over its recognition of legitimate Jewish religious bodies. Here at home, American Jews have spent millions of dollars over the decades fighting for symbolic recognition of their religious legitimacy on dozens of fronts, from college campuses to prisons.
To accept such a slight from the titular head of the Jewish state is not conceivable. We don’t tolerate it from our enemies. There’s no reason to tolerate it from our own family.
It is true, of course, that Reform and Conservative Judaism face far more substantive burdens in Israel than the way their leaders are addressed by a man who is himself a figurehead. Reform and Conservative rabbis cannot perform legally valid marriages or divorces in Israel. They face rank discrimination in funding, zoning and a hundred smaller procedures. Even conducting their prayers at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, poses humiliating obstacles. These disputes have been going on for decades, and have become part of the very fabric of Israel-Diaspora relations. Successive Israeli prime ministers have acknowledged the distress caused to Diaspora Jews by the disenfranchisement of their leaders, but each has professed powerlessness in the face of Israel’s political realities. Commissions and task forces have risen and fallen. Israeli courts have handed down one deadline after another for their political system to address its own contradictions. All in vain.
Until now, however, the dispute usually was conducted with some measure of common courtesy. At the very least, the leaders of American Judaism could expect to be received by the leaders of Israel with a modicum of civility. The current president of Israel seems unable to summon even that.
As Vita Bekker reports on Page 1, Katsav has been consistently slighting Reform leaders since he became president in 2000, but he did it in a way he thought inconspicuous. Once the matter became public last fall, Yoffie decided to stop tolerating it, and he chose the high-profile event of the World Zionist Congress, where he heads the largest faction in the elected American delegation, for the showdown.
Some might call it media grandstanding. So be it. For too long, Israelis have been giving low priority to American Jewish religious complaints, assuming that they could count on Diaspora support regardless of what they dished out. That approach can’t continue. Close ties between Israeli and American Jewry are not a given; on the contrary, the emotional bonds have been weakening in recent years for various reasons. If American Jews are to continue rallying for Israel, as they must, the course must be set from the top, by the leaders of American Judaism. It doesn’t make sense for the Jewish state to start out by insulting them. Israelis must be made aware that their practices have consequences. That means talking through the media.
If there is an immediate lesson for Israeli leaders to draw from this episode, it has to do with Katsav’s successor. His term is up next year, and oddsmakers currently favor a former chief rabbi of Israel, Yisrael Meir Lau, as the next president. He is said to be the prime minister’s preferred candidate. He’s genial, graceful and popular with the Israeli public, and he could help heal some of the social rifts opened by the country’s bruising territorial debates.
He’s also a man of the religious right, closer to Haredi than to Modern Orthodoxy, known for his rigidity on most important religious questions. If Rabbi Lau becomes Israel’s public face at ceremonial moments — moments that matter deeply in the lives of faith communities — relations between Israel and the Diaspora will suffer a grievous wound.
The Knesset, which chooses Israel’s president by secret ballot, should take this week’s events as a wakeup call.