As Israel’s fourth prime minister in four years begins to stitch together a new parliamentary coalition, some American Jewish leaders are cautiously optimistic that Ehud Barak will fulfill campaign promises and usher in a new era of religious pluralism in the Jewish state.
While realizing that the pluralism issue is surely not Barak’s top priority — the peace process, the country’s deep internal rifts and the economy are more immediate concerns — Reform and Conservative American leaders nevertheless were clearly pleased by Barak’s huge victory over Benjamin Netanyahu.
“We acknowledge and rejoice in the clear victory of Gen. Ehud Barak. This election represents a sea change in Israeli society,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Reform movement’s Association of Reform Zionists of America.
Rabbi Hirsch contends that despite the statements of those some who argue that Israelis do not care about religious pluralism, “the election results demonstrate that Israelis care about pluralism realizing that it is crucial to the health of their own democracy.
“We look forward to an era of greater tranquility and anticipate that there will be no further legislative assaults against the Reform and Conservative movements. This will free the Reform movement to concentrate on building our institutions in Israel.”
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (the Reform movement), noted the importance of the composition of Barak’s coalition, whether the new prime minister will include Orthodox religious parties vehemently opposed to giving the non-Orthodox equal say in conversions, marriages, and other life-cycle and educational areas. While the non-Orthodox movements have made gains in the Israeli courts regarding conversion and participation on religious councils, the Knesset under Netanyahu, dominated by the religious parties, threatened to overturn those gains.
“[Barak] has been a strong supporter of religious pluralism, religious freedom, and religious understanding among all elements of the Jewish people, both in Israel and in the diaspora,” Rabbi Yoffie said.
“In the upcoming negotiations to form a new government, we are confident that Barak will not retreat from his commitment to ensuring religious freedom for all Israelis. We look forward to warm and cooperative relations between Barak’s government and the North American Jewish community.”
Former UJA-Federation president Stephen Shalom, sitting in a sparsely attended election results video conference at United Jewish Communities headquarters in Chelsea, said: “I’m ecstatic.”
He expected Barak to “begin to bring balance back to the secular side in the pluralism issue. In my discussion with him, he sees Bibi as playing politics with the conversion issue by giving in to the religious parties and creating a complete imbalance with religious pluralism, by handing over millions of shekels to the religious parties for education. Barak wants to see a greater sense of proportion. The question is, will he be able to pull it off?”
Norman Rosenberg, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based New Israel Fund, a progressive philanthropy that supports pluralism in Israel said, “the landslide victory of Ehud Barak signifies a deep desire for change among Israelis. In his campaign for prime minister, Barak spoke forcefully for the need to respect religious freedom, the importance of generating economic opportunities much more broadly, and the need to create a more tolerant society. We hope he will fulfill the promise of his campaign by providing the leadership to bridge the religious, ethnic, cultural, economic and social gaps facing Israel.”
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, took a more cautious approach.
“The question now is will he be able to lead. He has the opportunity to put salve on a lot of wounds that were opened under Netanyahu. The issues of conversion and religious councils were symptoms, not the real problem.
“What we are hoping for is for Barak to speak for Conservatives and a lot of other Jews and let us make Israel our homeland not in words but in practice.”
But while saying he expects Barak to keep his promise, Rabbi Epstein added a warning: “The trap I hope he doesn’t fall into is forming a coalition with people who are against these platforms. That would be a shame. It would be a demonstration of a lack of integrity.”
The American non-Orthodox were referring to the success of Israel’s Shas Party, which sharply increased its strength in the Knesset. Shas jumped from 10 to 17 seats, and together with United Torah Judaism, the haredim or ultra-Orthodox now command 22 seats in the incoming parliament, compared to 14 in the outgoing Knesset.
Arik Carmon, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said he believes Barak can form a coalition without the Orthodox religious parties, who have less power than ever.
“The power of the religious parties when we compare it to 1996, and ’92 and ’88 and all the years before has very dramatically decreased,” Carmon said. “They will definitely not have the same kind of power that they used to have in the past. This is the first time after a long time that a coalition could be established without even one single religious party.”
But he added: “I do believe that it will be smart on the part of Barak to include them.”
Carmon predicted that Israel’s next minister of the Interior will be Yisrael B’Aliyah (Russian) Party head Natan Sharansky or someone from his party.
“This ministry is the core of the all the [pluralism] problems with the conversion law — conversion being a theme that relates to over 200,00 immigrants from the former Soviet Union,” some of whom desire a non-Orthodox conversion.
“I think we are on a different road,” Carmon said. “It’s a new road, too early to assess, but definitely we’re not going backward.”
But Dr. Mandel Ganchrow, president of the Union of American Orthodox Congregations, argued that pluralism will not be a factor because “pluralism as we define it in America is a non-issue in Israel as far as I can see. The issue of pluralism is a manufactured American issue.
“The divide in Israel has nothing to do with Reform and Conservative. It has to do with religious coercion. … It’s a religious-secular conflict.”
Ganchrow noted that Barak’s plan to have a broad-based coalition means the inclusion of Shas and the [United Torah Judaism] party , “and they are not going to come in to destroy the status quo,” of Orthodox control over religious affairs.
“Barak is not out to divide and destroy the Orthodox establishment,” he said, noting the prime minister-elect’s trip to Judaism’s symbolic holiest site, the Western Wall, after his election victory.
Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said that while there was much discussion about the religious parties, “it’s important to share with Israeli officials the urgency of not permitting the religious status issues to be enmeshed in this coalition building process, or at least to let them know about the impact that would have on Israeli-diaspora relations should they move into that territory.
“That’s something we’ll be finding opportunities to do in weeks ahead.”