By Stephen G. Donshik
The latest Israel-Diaspora religious crisis was caused by the Religious Services Minister of Israel, David Azoulay from the Shas Party, when he said during a recent radio interview that he could not refer to Reform Jews as Jews. As in the past, when these kinds of statements were made by Israeli leaders, this comment sparked a flood of phone calls and emails to Jewish leaders in communities in North America and other places. Their tone was a mixture of criticism and hurt. How could it be after all of these years and the ongoing support that Israel receives from Jews from all the streams of Judaism that there are still Israeli politicians who make such outrageous statements?
At the 1998 meeting of the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations (now the Jewish Federations of North America) in New Orleans the decision was made to send a number of delegations to Israel after an Israeli election. Negotiations were ongoing between Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres over forming a government. Following many elections, it is the religious parties that can make it possible or impossible for one of the larger parties to form a coalition of at least 61 votes in the Knesset. And one of the issues that would decide who would become prime minister after the 1988 election was a religious one: a change in the Law of Return, which allows Jews, the descendants of Jews, and converts to Judaism to come to Israel and become citizens. The definition of a convert has been one of the sticky and controversial issues that have challenged the formation of governments and rocked the stability of sitting governments since the founding of the state. (NOTE: The Law of Return uses the same definition of a Jew that the 1935 Nuremburg Laws utilized to define a Jew in Nazi Germany.)
In their negotiations over forming a coalition government, it became apparent that both Labor and Likud leaders were considering changing the wording of the Law of Return to say not converts but converts according to Jewish Law. This change would have prevented any convert who became a Jew by choice through a Reform or Conservative conversion from receiving Israeli citizenship.
In response, more than ten delegations of leaders from Diaspora communities came during the next few months for the express purpose of meeting with Members of Knesset from all of the political parties to convince them that such a change in the law would distance and alienate Jews around the world: it would clearly say, “Israel represents only Orthodox Jews and not those who identify with the Conservative, Reform, or other streams of Jewish life.”
At the time I was director of the Israel Office of the Council of Jewish Federations of North America and was responsible for planning and coordinating delegations from the United States and Canada. I made arrangements for the leaders to meet with Israeli politicians, business leaders, religious leaders (from all streams), journalists, media personalities, and other influential Israelis.
These meetings proved to be effective for several reasons. It was the first time that many community leaders had the opportunity to sit face to face with Israel political and civic leaders and discuss the meaning of their Jewish identity and their connection to Judaism. In the past those who visited Israel on community missions usually were part of a larger audience that heard Israelis speak to them, but not with them. Similarly, many Israelis had never had the opportunity to have a personal discussion with Jewish leaders from around the world and hear personal statements about their connection to the Jewish people and Judaism.
Following several intensive weeks of negotiations, the National Unity Government of Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres was formed and the Law of Return was not changed. No one can tell whether the delegations had an impact on that decision, but they certainly had an impact on the participants on both sides. Shortly afterward, the CJF evaluated and analyzed the experience. I wrote a memo calling for continuing meetings between community leaders coming to Israel and the Members of Knesset.
However, we have short memories, and once the crisis was over everyone went back to business as usual. My predictions of the continuing difficulties between the Reform and Conservative denominations and the Orthodox in Israel have come true: every few months or years the issue is raised again and again.
Sometimes it focuses on conversion and other times on marriage and divorce. Issues of personal status are a red flag for the religious establishment in Israel.
It is difficult for Israelis to really grasp the idea of streams of Judaism. For the religious this concept may be heretical, and others cannot conceive of a Judaism that is not Orthodox. Continuing dialogue and exposure to Jews who are strongly connected to Judaism and the Jewish community are the only ways that any change will take place.
Now back to the most recent flare-up caused by Minister Azoulay’s (Shas) comment about Reform Jews. So what has been the response? Prime Minister Netanyahu announces a “roundtable dialogue” between the government and non-Orthodox. He appoints Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit to chair the forum. This response misses the point and will be ineffective because change cannot take place in the vacuum of Israelis speaking to themselves.
If Israel is indeed the State of the Jewish people, then the Jewish people have to pick up the gauntlet and continue to raise the issue and its discussion on an ongoing basis. This means that visiting groups from Jewish communities around the world have to continue the dialogue and meet with members of Knesset from all the parties on a regular basis.
This continuing involvement of the Diaspora is essential because the Israeli government has a conflict of interest. On one hand the prime minister and his non-Orthodox coalition members understand that there has to be a pluralistic view toward Judaism in Israel. On the other hand, the prime minister has a tenuous at best coalition, and he cannot afford to alienate the Orthodox religious parties. It is precisely for this reason that Jewish communities cannot rely on this Israeli government or any Israeli government to press forward for the respect and recognition of the Jewish religious streams.
This effort must be carried out by the Jewish communities themselves, and coordinating it would be a perfect fit for the Jewish Federations of North America. Groups coming to Israel could arrange to meet with members of Knesset; beforehand a member of the JFNA Israel Office could brief and prepare them for the meeting with background information on the Knesset member they would be meeting, as well as suggested approaches for engaging with him or her on issues of religious pluralism and the importance it has not only for Jewish communities around the world but also for Israel and the entire Jewish people.
The muddling-through approach we have used for decades on religious pluralism in Israel has not been productive, as evidenced by the issue continuing to be raised on an annual basis if not more often. There must be a strategic approach that involves Jewish communities from around the globe. The issue is too important to be left in the hands of the Israeli establishment alone.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.