In israelengagement, stories

By Mark S. Anshan.

Men and Women praying at Kotel early 20C

As Reform Jews, we have been working tirelessly in concert with colleagues and friends from the Israel Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism, the Conservative movement and other interested parties for decades to achieve the goal of establishing Israel as a state where all Jews can practise their form of Judaism in the manner they choose.

From the early days of the establishment of the Jewish state, Prime Minister Ben Gurion permitted the Orthodox community to have essentially a default control over all aspects of Jewish observance and personal status issues for Jews in Israel, such that marriage, divorce, conversion, recognition of non Orthodox rabbis and related questions became a host of challenges for liberal Jews.

We have been engaged in many efforts to deal constructively with these and related issues through participation in intensive negotiations (Neeman Commission, Rotem negotiations, Kotel Agreement, court challenges in the Israel Supreme Court, lobbying Knesset members etc.).  While there have been some interesting positive steps in the right direction, for the most part it feels that for every step we have achieved, we have taken two steps back.

Mixed prayer section

This ongoing frustrating and serious situation may have changed on June 25, 2017 in Jerusalem.  On that Sunday morning, while the Jewish Agency Board of Governors was holding its opening session at the David Citadel hotel, a short distance away in the government quarter where the Knesset and Prime Minister’s office are located, the Israeli Cabinet and it’s Committee on Legislation were making two decisions that were, at best surprising but at worst insulting to the greater Jewish world.

In order to avoid the risk of his coalition falling apart, Prime Minister Netanyahu allowed the Heredim (ultra Orthodox parties in the coalition) to successfully threaten to leave the coalition if (1) the Kotel Agreement signed in January 2016 (providing for a egalitarian prayer section at the Kotel) was not suspended from being implemented, and (2) the Conversion Bill introduced in May (providing for exclusive recognition of conversion only by the authorized Orthodox rabbinate) was not moved to the next stage of adoption by the Knesset.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs at the Knesset Meeting June 27

The Kotel Agreement provided for the physical expansion and connection of the existing egalitarian prayer section (in which our movement and others conduct services) and the creation of a committee to manage and oversee the maintenance of the section.  It is important to recall that with the liberation of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War, the Kotel became – for the first time since 1948 – accessible to all Jews.  But the Orthodox rabbinate, having been given exclusive control of the Kotel, erected a mechitzah, separating men and women in the newly constructed Kotel plaza.  Prior to that, men and women prayed together at the Kotel.

The Conversion Bill was introduced to solidify the control of the ultra Orthodox in respect of conversion with the intent of preventing a Supreme Court case regarding the conversions of several Israeli immigrants being confirmed (a case that has been before the Court since 2005, filed by our movement’s Israel Religious Action Center).  The Prime Minister, once again, showed how he chooses to serve as a leader.

The Jewish Agency for Israel cancelled a gala dinner scheduled for Monday evening, June 26, 2017 to be held in the Knesset with the Prime Minister addressing the JAFI Board of Governors.  The JAFI Board cancelled its committee meetings on the final day of our meetings (Tuesday, June 27, 2017) in order to participate in the hastily arranged meeting with the Knesset Diaspora Affairs caucus.  Twenty-five members of the Knesset came to the meeting to address our group, most of them offering clear and strong support for our position, indicating their intentions to defeat any efforts by the government and its ultra Orthodox coalition members to sustain the lock on Jewish personal status issues.  Rabbi Rick Jacobs, URJ President, Anat Hoffman IRAC Director and Chair of Women of the Wall and others spoke at this important and historic meeting.

Soldiers at the Western Wall 1967 (David Rubinger, photographer)

The importance of continuing to serve as Prime Minister far outweighed any principles or values he has publicly expressed to ensure that Israel becomes a Jewish state for all Jews.  The political structure of Israel continues to allow for minority views to control how Jews live as Jews in Israel, and permit the ultra Orthodox to exhort concessions (continuously) for their needs in exchange for their support that permits the Prime Minister to maintain political power.  In a free and democratic society like Israel, one expects political trade offs, power exchanges and compromises.  But the situation regarding the achievement of religious pluralism in Israel has gone well beyond any sense of reasonable accommodation to the extent that the essence of Israel society as a pluralistic religious state as envisioned in the Declaration of Establishment of Israel May 15, 1948 (ensuring “….complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; ….and guaranteeing “…. freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture..”) is in jeopardy.

The extent of media reporting, op ed writing, articles by Israeli writers associated with a number of well respected Israeli think tanks and exchanges among all interested parties, including our Reform movement leadership, is staggering.  This issue has elicited views and suggestions for responsive action from all quarters. In my 30 years of being part of the teams working on these issues, I have never seen such a strong and widespread response.  These recent decisions could be the tipping point if we and our organizational colleagues respond in a way that will move the needle.  Perhaps the Prime Minister and his ultra Orthodox colleagues in government have done us a big favour in the decisions they made on June 25th.  There is no clear consensus on what the best course of action should be to bring about the needed change to the current paradigm.  But there is a consensus that action is required to leverage the internal Israeli and diaspora responses to the Israeli government actions of June 25th and build a path to religious pluralism.

On Friday, June 30, the government announced that it would delay consideration of the Conversion Bill if the parties to the Supreme Court case agreed to seek a further delay from the court in its pending decision of the case.   While our leadership agreed to this request in the hope of ultimately having the Conversion Bill defeated or withdrawn from the legislative agenda, one hopes that this accommodation will be successful.  Past conduct of the government in seeking extensions and negotiating delays of pending actions (i.e. put off making troubling and controversial decisions) has, essentially, proven to be a good tactic on the government’s part but has hindered the advancement of achieving a religious pluralistic state.  Hopefully the Reform leadership has information that suggests past comparable end results will not be repeated.

In spite of our ongoing frustration with these critical issues that affect the personal status of many Jews in Israel, including the recognition of our rabbis, we must continue to support the State of Israel in ways that are consistent with our desire to see Israel become a religious pluralistic state.   We can be critical on issues of concern.  But our relationship with Israel is an essential element in our identification as Jews – our connection to our homeland and all that evolves from that relationship.

However, in the context of the political environment in Israel, we must also not back down from working for the achievement of a religious pluralistic state where all Jews may practice their Judaism in the mode that best suits them.

We can expect further information and guidance from the leadership teams in Israel and North America over the next many weeks as this drama continues to unfold.

Mark S. Anshan has served on the Jewish Agency Board of Governors as a Governor and continues to serve on the Board as a Committee member. He serves as a member of the World Zionist Organization Executive Council (Vaad Hapoel) and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Union for Reform Judaism (and several committees of the Board).  He has served as Chair of ARZENU (International Federation of Reform and Progressive Religious Zionists), Chair of ARZA Canada and President of Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto, Canada.

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