There is something to be said about recognizing a pattern when it emerges. Over the past few months, the Jewish People around the world were awoken to the challenges facing Judaism in Israel stemming from the toxic mixture of religion and politics that has pitted Jewish denomination against denomination in a race to control the gateways and passageways of the Jewish People in Israel. Due to the hateful actions of extremists in Beit Shemesh, the topic of institutional discrimination against women, against new immigrants, and against the non-Orthodox, rose to the top of the Jewish communal agenda. Article after article was written on the challenges facing Judaism and Jewish Unity in Israel. Foundations, Federations and the Knesset itself started an open process of deliberation highlighting the threat this schism poses to Jewish Unity and the security and continuity of the State of Israel.
All of that was just a lead-up to the two weeks we are now experiencing. Last Saturday, the grassroots Israeli organization BeFreeIsrael (known as Israeli Hofsheet in Hebrew), led a protest in Tel Aviv where they ‘waited for the buses on Shabbat.’ The Tel Aviv municipality reacted by declaring that it will request the Government permit buses to run on Shabbat, challenging the Orthodox-oriented status-quo arrangements that govern public life in Israel. Quickly following this official declaration of Israel’s major city, the Israeli Supreme Court decided that the Tal Law, the law that legally exempts Haredi youth from serving in the IDF, is illegal, sending the Israeli political establishment into a period of regrouping and threatening early elections as coalition partners argue over what to do next.
But next week may prove to be even more important to the future of the Jewish People, and Judaism, in the Jewish State – and the relationship of the Diaspora to the State of Israel. Next Monday, February 27th, the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors will being a conversation in its Unity of the Jewish People Committee about the challenges facing the Jewish State due to the politicization of Judaism. It is this committee that deals with issues of tolerance and religious pluralism in Israel, and especially the challenges surrounding conversion and its implications for Jewish unity around the world.
Some have told me it is silly to imagine that this committee will be able to work with the Government of Israel to update the current religious status-quo. I would beg to differ, particularly because as the Jewish Agency has strengthened its focus on enhancing the identity of Jews around the world, recognizing that without identity Jews will not come or feel connected to Israel. And if the Jewish Agency would like to successfully complete its mission, it cannot ignore the fact that many Jews around the world are comfortable with their identity as (Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox) Jews, but are growing increasingly hostile towards the State of Israel due to the State’s official stance on pluralism and women’s issues.
Despite all of the budgetary difficulties facing the Jewish Agency, it still remains one of the most significant actors in the Jewish communal arena – and the only body with real political, communal legislative authority that includes Jews from around the world. This will not change. As many know, the Jewish Agency could lose every drop of philanthropic funding and it would still have revenues of upwards of one-hundred and eighty million dollars a year due to earnings that accrue from the properties under its ownership. So, as opposed to those who are sounding the Agency’s death knell, I am among those who believe that the best days of the Jewish Agency can be in front of it – if only the Agency shows it is a relevant actor in building the conditions for Jewish communal success in the 21st Century.
If the Jewish State does not provide the space for its citizens to celebrate Judaism, the Jewish People will lose their special connection to Israel. Many in the Jewish Agency recognize this challenge, and recognize that the majority of the Jews who donate to Jewish communal organizations, donate to Israel, and donate their time and political capital through lobbies such as AIPAC are being distanced by the radical Orthodoxy that the Jewish State has institutionalized in these first decades of its history. Whatever the solution, the Jewish Agency must be part of it if it would like to remain the convening body of leaders in Israel and the Diaspora.
Next week, Jewish leaders from around the world will gather in Jerusalem to discuss the future of the Jewish People and address the challenges we face. Let us pray that they understand the historic times they live in, and that the same Agency that created the State will be able to save the Jewish People’s connection to the Jewish State, and to Judaism.
Ariel Beery is co-director of the PresenTense Group.