The ad is striking, showing two trains converging onto the same track with the headline: “Are secular and religious Israelis on a collision course?” Beneath the picture are the words: “Not if we can help it.”
The ad, which appears in this week’s Jewish Week, launches a yearlong campaign in the U.S. and Israel by Bar-Ilan University designed to promote tolerance and stop the culture war. One line reads: “Isn’t it time for the rest of the Jewish people to stop pointing fingers and to start joining hands?”
“We have seen the tactics of the extremists on both sides,” Moshe Kaveh, president of the university in Ramat Gan, a Tel Aviv suburb, said in an interview during a visit to New York this week. “The secular are calling the Orthodox names that remind us of the darkest times in our history. On the other hand, the ultra-Orthodox are using insulting names against Supreme Court justices. If we don’t speak up now, we shall have a collision of the two trains.”
Along with the ads, Bar-Ilan will be sending to the United States some of its law school professors to speak about Judaism and democracy. Kaveh said he also plans several speaking engagements in the belief it is “time for the moderates to speak up.”
Bar-Ilan also has established an international competition on Jewish identity for students in Jewish schools in Israel and the diaspora.
Bar-Ilan is being joined in this effort by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, according to its president, Jeffrey Solomon.
“We’re working with a couple of other foundations and federations to see if we can get them to support only those institutions whose leaders believe in civil behavior among Jews,” said Solomon.
The Bar-Ilan campaign was praised by Stephen Solender, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York.
“Any steps that promote communication, tolerance and unity should be welcomed,” he said.
Solender noted that UJA-Federation was taking steps as well to “promote the concept of peoplehood and unity of the Jewish people.” He pointed out, too, that UJA-Federation is supporting the Institute for Jewish Studies, a conversion institute that begins classes Sunday under the auspices of the Israeli government and The Jewish Agency.
Established at the behest of the Neeman Commission to deal with non-Orthodox conversions in Israel, it will have 24 teachers drawn from Judaism’s three main streams. The institute, under the direction of Professor Binyamin Ish-Shalom, will have branches in Beersheva, Kiryat Yam and Raanana.
“There are serious underlying problems in Israel, but in focusing on them, we sometimes do not appreciate the steps being taken [to resolve them],” said Solender.
He noted that the real test of the institute would be known in 18 months, when the first graduates seek to be converted by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.
Kaveh pointed out that the 25,000 students at Bar-Ilan are split evenly between graduates of secular and religious Israeli high schools. He said his students and 1,300 faculty members support the university’s tolerance effort.
“After having an Oslo agreement between Arabs and Jews, it is time to find a new Oslo between Jew and Jew,” said Kaveh. “That will be much more difficult, and it is our most important task for the end of this century and the beginning of the next.”
The schools have contributed to the divide, Kaveh said, by not including Jewish content in the curriculum of secular schools and not insisting that secular culture be infused into religious schools. Often the secular and religious do not meet until they enter the university when they are 23 or older.
“Then it’s a little too late,” he said.
Bar-Ilan is “doing a lot,” Kaveh said, noting that the university requires students to participate in a religious-secular dialogue and study Jewish courses like history, culture and law — “everything he can be proud of [as a Jew].”
“Our graduates understand better that there is a Jewish culture, and they don’t dismiss the secular,” he said.
Noting that the assassin of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, Yigal Amir, was a Bar-Ilan student, Kaveh said that had he had a Bar-Ilan education from kindergarten, it might have minimized his extreme views.
Kaveh stressed that the university has been offering these courses throughout its 43-year history. But he said the latest friction in Israeli society — most recently the demonstration by 250,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews against Supreme Court rulings restricting ultra-Orthodox hegemony over life-cycle events — have convinced the university to go public.
He said his students held their own demonstration — for the advancement of a Jewish state that lives by democratic values. Kaveh said a similar campaign must also be waged in the United States.