The avalanche of controversial events surrounding issues of religion and state in Israel and the attacks on liberal expressions of Judaism — even in Modern Orthodox form — have been unending in recent weeks, and there is no end in immediate sight.
First, there was the decision by President Reuven Rivlin to exclude a Conservative rabbi from a bar and bat mitzvah ceremony at his residence and the failed threat by the Chief Rabbinate not to reappoint Rabbi Shlomo Riskin as rabbi of Efrat. This was followed by a vote of the current Israeli cabinet to reverse the decision the previous cabinet made a year ago to ease the conversion process in Israel by allowing more lenient municipal Orthodox rabbis to perform conversions that the state would legally recognize.
A second cabinet resolution also transferred responsibility for the rabbinical courts from the Justice Ministry to the Religious Services Ministry; it is now under the control of a new minister, David Azoulay of Shas, who has now become infamous for his offensive remarks leveled at Reform Jews. Azoulay surely has a right to his views. However, he is not a private person. His polemics against Reform have unleashed a maelstrom of protests by North American and other Jewish leaders who view his continuation in office as an intolerable assault on their integrity.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is aware of how seriously the Conservative and Reform movements regard these frontal assaults on their legitimacy, and he has now convened a roundtable under the direction of Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky and cabinet secretary Avichai Mendelblit to deal with these ongoing crises.
The primary explanation for this kulturkampf that roils the Jewish people stems from the political power that Orthodox political parties have enjoyed since the inception of the state and that charedi political parties wield today — especially after the recent March elections — in the unruly world of Israeli coalition politics. There is surely a large element of truth in this explanation. However, it is not exhaustive, and North American and Israeli Jews both would do well to reflect on the demographic and historical divides that distinguish Israeli Jews from their brothers and sisters in North America as important factors in comprehending the current spate of contretemps that marks the Jewish world.
While Israel is a highly pluralistic society, with Jews coming from all parts of the world, and its citizenry inclined to define itself as ‘secularist,” most Israeli Jews, unlike Jews in virtually every other part of the Western world and certainly in the United States and Canada, are not familiar with Jewish religious pluralism as expressed through denominations. The overwhelming majority of Jewish immigrants to Palestine between 1918 and 1948 came from central and eastern European Jewish lands in which liberal expressions of Judaism were virtually nonexistent. Moreover, most Jewish immigrants to Israel in the years after the establishment of the State hailed from Eidot HaMizrach (North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia) where liberal varieties of Judaism also were not present.
Finally, the more than one million immigrants from the Former Soviet Union who have surged into Israel over the past decades emerged from a Communist background that knew virtually nothing of religious Judaism altogether. These more recent immigrants to Israeli shores are as unfamiliar with the modes of denominational religious identity that characterizes most American Jews as were earlier waves of olim from Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East.
Thus, almost all Israeli Jews emerged from backgrounds that knew nothing of denominational Jewish differences or liberal approaches to the Jewish religion.
In short, the modes of non-Orthodox religious identification and commitment that mark North American Jews and their institutions are largely absent from the experiences of most Israeli Jews. The stances and views most Israeli Jews adopt on Jewish religious denominationalism are thus naturally distinguished from the positions and outlooks that mark and inform American Jews on the topic. Most Israelis regard the coercive Judaism present in the Israeli public square as authentic even as they frequently decry its impacts on public life.
However, the recent expressions of anger that so many liberal Jewish religious leaders have unleashed reveal that understanding why the situation is as it is need not lead to acceptance. Non-Orthodox and many Orthodox North American Jews committed to the State of Israel are increasingly tired of this tolerance of Jewish religious discrimination against non-Orthodox varieties of Judaism on the part of our Israeli Jewish sisters and brothers and the Israeli government. Future linkages between Jews worldwide are surely in danger of increasing attenuation with long-term destructive consequences for the unity and strength of the Jewish people and the Jewish state itself in the face of an increasingly hostile world if this situation is not addressed now.
To be sure, not even a liberal Jewish Pollyanna anticipates such state recognition anywhere in the immediate future. However, this does not make the issue less pressing. The refusal of Israel to bestow legal recognition upon non-Orthodox and sometimes even Modern Orthodox expressions of Judaism in the public square means that tensions between Israeli and North American Jews will continue to erupt no matter how many commissions are convened to manage particular crises as they arise.
No one who loves Zion and our people can be sanguine about this. The time has come for all Jews to labor for the day that the State of Israel accords non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism and their leaders the same legal rights in Israel that a state-sponsored rabbinate and Orthodox religious institutions currently enjoy. This issue needs to be placed as a priority item on the agendas of Jewish organizations and groups in both Israel and the diaspora. Ahavat Yisrael — love of the State of Israel and of the Jewish people — demands no less.
Rabbi David Ellenson is acting director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University and chancellor emeritus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.