By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
One difference between a politician and a statesman/woman is that the former says what the audience wants to hear whereas the latter tells it as it is. Binyamin Netanyahu is a politician.
To be able to have a majority government he, like most of his predecessors, has given the Orthodox coalition members most of what they’ve demanded, including a franchise on religion in Israel to the virtual exclusion of Conservative and Reform Jews. However, to make nice to American Jewry that has mostly non-Orthodox leaders he affirmed religious pluralism when he addressed them in Washington the other day. They were told what they wanted to hear.
The Reform movement in Israel has naturally welcomed the kind-of-pledge Netanyahu made in Washington. The Orthodox politicians in Israel have already reacted with vehemence against it insisting that the prime minister is contravening the coalition agreement and thus jeopardizing his government.
According to Ya’akov Litzman, the minister of health, Reform and Conservative Jews are tearing apart the Jewish people. Moshe Gafni, the chair of the finance committee of the Knesset (who I think once trampled on a Reform prayer book on the Knesset podium) accused Conservative and Reform Jews of brandishing a knife against the Torah of Israel. Another Orthodox Knesset member repeated a statement by the minister responsible for religious affairs that Reform Jews aren’t Jews.
The leaders of Israeli Reform are used to the invective. But they normally find it more difficult to admit that the majority of the Israeli public that keeps away from all forms of religious Judaism, including its Conservative and Reform manifestations while believing that Orthodoxy is the sole authentic exponent of the faith of Israel. That’s why Israelis put up with, perhaps implicitly encourage, Orthodox excesses even while mouthing support for religious pluralism.
Without the indifference/implied support from the Israeli public the Orthodox parties wouldn’t be able to dominate. It’s, therefore, worth repeating that that’s probably why some leaders of Reform believe that the movement should address itself to the secular Jews, even by symbolically moving its offices from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.
Those who disagree may argue that by turning to secular Israel, Reform would give credence to Orthodox canards and distance itself from the Conservative movement which still retains traditionalist ambitions (even though the traditionalists usually fail to differentiate between Reform and Conservative).
The underlying issue is, of course, the nature of Israel. Orthodox spokesmen maintain that it can only be a Jewish state if they’re allowed to shape its direction. Their opponents affirm that Israel must not only be Jewish but also democratic and democracy requires liberal religion and separation of religion and state. Current emergencies often obscure and delay the discussion, but sooner or later the matter will have to be resolved.
The founding prime minister of Israel David Ben Gurion was a statesman. He’s quoted to have stated that what matters isn’t what the Gentiles say but what the Jews do. To paraphrase him in this context: ultimately it doesn’t matter what the Orthodox say but what Reform and Conservative Jews do in Israel and everywhere else.