An initiative by Israel’s ruling One Israel party to rally American Jewish supporters of its peace policies blew up in acrimony last week over the issue of religious pluralism in the Jewish state.
Haim Ramon, a senior cabinet minister and key adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, bluntly rejected concerns about religious and civil rights for non-Orthodox Jews raised at what was to be a private briefing on the peace process for centrist and dovish Jewish groups.
“Don’t give me this social justice business,” he reportedly told his audience impatiently at one point, when several participants pressed him on his government’s commitment to redressing inequities Conservative and Reform Jews experience in Israel. “I’m a politician. I know what this is about. This is about power.”
According to sources present at the meeting, Ramon explained that “simple arithmetic” required One Israel to bring various Orthodox parties into its ruling coalition. Those parties were needed, he said, to command a majority in the Knesset and advance One Israel’s peace policies. But their price was a promise of no change of status for non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel. So as long as advancing the peace process remains the absolute priority, grievances about pluralism would just have to wait, Ramon said.
At other points, however, according to those who were at the meeting, Ramon seemed to reject the idea of ever addressing the Americans’ concerns.
“Sometimes he was saying the status quo in Israel is a product of a legitimate democratic process. So stop meddling in our affairs,” related David Arnow of the New Israel Fund.
Participants complained that this attitude was at odds with One Israel’s open encouragement of American Jewish involvement in support of the peace process.
Ramon, the minister of Jerusalem affairs, also assured his audience that Orthodox power was in any event receding in Israel. He gave as an example the much wider availability of non-kosher food such as shrimp and pork. But this did not seem to placate many in the group.
“He kept browbeating us,” said Arnow, one of several participants to recount the meeting. “He kept shouting, ‘give me a coalition [without the Orthodox].’ I don’t think the meeting was constructive. It was more like shooting salvos back and forth than an exchange.”
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists in America, said of the issues raised, “We in the Reform movement are very eager to see the peace process succeed. And we’re prepared to endure certain statements that demonstrate a lack of full understanding of this issue for the sake of peace. But that does not imply that no progress of any kind can be made on any other issue.”
According to those present, the imbroglio over pluralism largely displaced the meeting’s original purpose: building active American support for the 4-month-old government’s peace policies after the recent signing of its first agreement with the Palestinians at Sharm El-Sheikh.
Several participants blamed the shift of focus on the meeting’s format. Ramon dispensed with introductory remarks that could have set the theme. Instead, the floor was simply opened up for questions. When the first one came from a representative of a Reform Judaism organization about pluralism, “We were off to the races,” said one participant.
Among other things, Ramon defended a statement he made several years ago blaming Reform and Conservative Jews in America for the deaths of hundreds of Israeli soldiers during the 1982 Lebanon War.
At the time, Ramon said the war never would have happened had the Labor Party not been prevented by Conservative and Reform American Jews from establishing a more dovish government in 1981. After close national elections that year, then-party leader Shimon Peres felt obliged to accede to pressure from them not to agree to Orthodox party demands that non-Orthodox converts from abroad be denied citizenship, said Ramon. Consequently, he said, the Orthodox factions joined with the more hawkish Likud Party — making the war and death that followed the American Jews’ fault.
At the meeting last week, Ramon explained that he meant to stress by his statements then that peace must take “absolute priority” over any other issues, said one attendee.
Arnow said Ramon’s truculence made it impossible to discuss alternatives to his “facile” claim that One Israel had to give in to the Orthodox to construct a ruling coalition. Noting that other factions, including the anti-clerical Shinui Party and several Arab parties were passed over as coalition partners, Arnow said, “This wasn’t just ‘I need 70 [Knesset] seats.’ It was specifically about bringing the Orthodox and Sephardic parties along.”
“I found it a sad meeting,” said Larry Rubin, executive director of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, who attended the confab. “It made it clear just how very serious the cultural gaps are between Israeli society and American Jewry.”
The meeting — the first between a senior Israeli official and American Jews since the Sharm El-Sheikh signing — was organized by Americans for Peace Now and attended by representatives of about 20 groups. Among these were organizations from the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, Israel Policy Forum and the New Israel Fund, a philanthropy devoted to funding socially progressive charity causes in Israel.
The informal coalition, which has come together on several other occasions, has been nurtured by its organizers as a kind of alternative support system for dovish Israeli leaders. Some of its participants view the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the establishment umbrella group for organized Jewry on Israel-related issues, as tepid in its support of dovish governments despite its avowals of evenhandedness.
In his only public appearance, Ramon also addressed a crowd of about 400 last week at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side. The event, sponsored by many of the same groups, was meant to rally grassroots support for the recently signed Sharm Agreement. But organizers voiced disappointment with the weak turnout.
Ramon did not meet with the Presidents Conference during his visit. “I don’t have time,” he told The Jewish Week.