Pitch For Pluralism

Pitch For Pluralism

For the first time, the Jewish Theological Seminary, which likes to be known as the spiritual center of Conservative Judaism, is involving itself ever so cautiously in next week’s Israeli elections. Just in time for the May17 vote, the seminary is advertising in two Israeli newspapers to gently remind Israeli voters not to forget the religious pluralism issue, which threatens to divide voters.
“VOTE WITH YOUR HEART — AND YOUR HEAD,” urges the ad slated for the May 14 edition of Haaretz and Maariv.
It is apparently the first time a Jewish center of higher education of any denomination has forayed into Israeli politics, observers said. And it could be the first in a continuing JTS media campaign advocating religious pluralism, said Chancellor Ismar Schorsch.
The ad depicts photos of 27 prominent Israelis and Jews, all of whom have received honorary doctorates from the seminary. The list includes former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, writer S.Y. Agnon, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the late Sen. Jacob Javits of New York and the late Israeli President Chaim Herzog.
The text states: “The Jewish Theological Seminary honored these men and women because what binds them together is greater than what pulls them apart. Concern for our future. It’s what we’re all about.”
It adds: “The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. The Jewish Theological Seminary. Sharing a commitment to tradition and pluralism through study and teaching.”
Schorsch said the ad is a last-minute wake-up call for Israeli voters about religious pluralism.
“This is the 11th hour of the campaign and we wanted to put the issue back before the Israeli public,” Schorsch said. “We thought it appropriate to reintroduce it.”
Schorsch said the ads, which he called a “considerable expense” without saying how much they cost, are being paid for from “unsolicited funds for continuing our political activity in Israel.”
“There is a lot of anger across America, and that anger expresses itself in contributions to us,” he said.
Because of concerns about Israel’s campaign finance and election law, the ad was carefully worded. It does not endorse any political party or candidate.
“It’s understated,” Schorsch said. “We did not want to appear intrusive or one-sided.”
Israeli political science professor Menachem Hofnung, an expert on Israel’s campaign finance laws, said the ad is within the limits of the law, adding however that “it may not be with the spirit of the law, and it may annoy people.”
But, he said, “as long as it is not directly coordinated with a candidate or a party, you can’t do much about it. If you try, it is a violation of freedom of speech.”
The concept of the ad received mixed reviews from Jewish educational leaders. Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, said he would never allow his institution to place a political ad.
While refusing to comment on the JTS ad, Rabbi Lamm said that “Yeshiva University scrupulously avoids any endorsement of candidates or parties or intrusion into political partisan affairs whether in this country or elsewhere, nor would I allow it.”
Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, also spoke against the ad.
“I don’t see the point. I think Israelis know exactly where we stand [on religious pluralism] and they are still going to vote where their concerns are,” he said. “I don’t think that ads make such a significant difference one way or the other. Ultimately the money must go not into ads but into programs in Israel that will win their hearts.”
But David Teutsch, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, said the ad is appropriate because pluralism in Israel is a critical issue for the future of the country and is “a question of civil rights” and not merely politics.
“We should be using every bit of influence we can on issues that concern us,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the Union of Conservative Synagogues. “This is a moral and human rights issue..”

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