In the closing decades of the last century, whenever Israeli politicians came to visit Reform congregations I served, we would quiz them about equal rights for non-Orthodox Jews in the Jewish state. The same would happen when groups of Reform Jews visited Israel and met with representatives of political parties there. The response was invariably the same: “When there’re enough of you in the country, you can form a political party and do what other parties, notably the haredim, are doing: get a piece of the pie in lieu of voting for the government.”
The counter-argument that a democracy shouldn’t only satisfy the majority but also cater for minorities didn’t cut much ice. Israeli politicians I encountered then weren’t impressed by the argument that, had it depended on majorities, Jews in Western countries, who now had equal rights and opportunities to pursue their own religious life, though there’re few of them, would never have gotten anywhere had they depended on political representation rather than on the moral responsibility of the majority to provide for minorities.
Some Reform and Conservative Jews were put off by the inane arguments by Israeli politicians, but most of us continued to persevere supporting Israel at home and visiting Israel as often as we could. Two decades into the 21st century, our stance seems to get some recognition.
I’m thinking of an editorial in today’s Jerusalem Post that takes off from the recent report by the Jewish People Policy Institute that 12-13% of Israel’s Jews – some 800 000 individuals – identify with Reform and Conservative Judaism. Though relatively few are actual dues-paying members of congregations (Orthodox or otherwise), many so-called secular Jews turn to Conservative and Reform synagogues for life-cycle events and other religious services.
This is in part due to the some 280 Conservative and Reform rabbis who now live and work in Israel – the overwhelming majority of whom have studied in Israel and been ordained in Israel – in some 125 communities across the country. But the real reason for the change has to do, I believe, with the intransigence, at times laced with corruption, of the Orthodox (haredi) official rabbinate.
Nowadays even Orthodox Jews tend to choose rabbis not recognized by the establishment for their lifecycle events. There’s now even an alternative Orthodox kashrut organization in the country that has distanced itself from the questionable – and, yes, at times corrupt – practices of the official supervisors. This new body supervises food that’s not only ritually but also ethically acceptable.
No, Israel isn’t likely to go Conservative or Reform, and haredim are likely to continue to grow because of their high birth rate, but it’s possible that those with political clout will have to meet the needs of non-Orthodox Jews, even when the Orthodox political parties that have propped up virtually every government since the state’s creation in 1948, will do their utmost to prevent it.
In the words of that Jerusalem Post editorial: “If Israel truly is a democracy, it should honor and respect not only the haredi minority, but also the growing non-Orthodox minority who identify with progressive Judaism. As the Jewish people faces increasing alienation and assimilation, their very survival may depend on it.”
To which we say: Amen!
Jerusalem 21.1018 Dow Marmur