Democracy in Israel Cannot Exist Without a Pluralistic Judaism

by Charlie Kalech

Israel’s Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar of the Likud and the Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni of Kadima recently flew to the United States at the invitation of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly to attend the R.A. convention in Las Vegas. Their appearance together is indicative of a growing trend in Israel of partners working together for the greater good. In this case: religious pluralism.

Only a week earlier, marking the 90th anniversary of the Chief Rabbinate, Religious Services Minister Ya’acov Margi called for legislation backing his assertion “that there are no streams in Judaism, only one that has been passed down to us from generation to generation.

Countering this, Education Minister Sa’ar told the conference, “There is not one Jewish stream and there shouldn’t be one Jewish way of life that monopolizes Judaism.”

The teams are positioning themselves. Sides are being taken. Allies are being formed. Lines are being drawn. The future of the Jewish State and Judaism itself are being determined.

Livni echoed Sa’ar’s message saying, “When I heard these voices saying that there is a need to take some of the movements or streams outside the law, this is not acceptable to me or the State of Israel.”

Livni told the Conservative rabbis that these are days of decisions when “we need you.” She appealed for their support, but understood that there is a quid pro quo. “Our partnership is,” she said, “for the future … as the only way to safeguard Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

This came on the heels of the Rotem Conversion Bill that was frozen earlier this year after intense lobbying by non-Orthodox Jewish leaders. Sa’ar told the rabbis that such legislation “will destroy the unity of the Jewish people and also hurt the relationship between Jews in the Diaspora and Israel.”

Livni displayed an understanding to Diaspora Jewry demonstrating that she has come to appreciate that the Conversion Bill “was not only about Israelis, but also about you.” She noted, “It affects not only the lives of new immigrants to Israel, but also your lives and feeling or need to be connected to the State of Israel.”

Ironically, Livni connected to Judaism in a way never accessible to her previously when she was visibly moved attending Friday night services at Las Vegas’ Temple Beth Sholom. Noting this and thanking those in attendance, she questioned her own practices on Friday nights. Coming to a Conservative synagogue in America and participating in non-Orthodox services, it was evident that her experience allowed her to realize that there is more than one way to be a Jew.

Livni and Sa’ar also understand the importance of religious pluralism to the State of Israel. They are forming longterm policy and know the research and statistics that should frighten all of us.

According to statistics published by the University of Haifa, in 2010 slightly under 50% of first graders study in religious, mostly ultra-Orthodox, schools.

Moving beyond the Jewish bubble and looking at the demographic schism between Zionist and non-Zionist populations, there has been a steady decline in the percentage of pupils in the Zionist school system while students learning at ultra-Orthodox and Arab schools have crossed into the majority in the last decade. In 1960, 61% of students learned a Zionist, democratic curriculum while 15% studied in Arab and ultra- Orthodox schools. Today, according to data from Israel’s Central Bureau of statistics, the proportions have changed to 39% and 48% respectively. Forecasts for 2040 show that in 30 years 78% of pupils in Israeli schools will be in the non- Zionist systems while only 14% will be learning the values of a Jewish democratic state.

We are already feeling these changes in Israel’s political climate and in the way resources are allocated to our students. The average class size in Israel, for instance, is one indicator of a discriminatory policy. According to the Taub Center at Tel Aviv University, the average Israeli class size in 2009 according to sector was: Arab – 31 students; Secular – 28 students; Zionist Religious – 24 students; ultra-Orthodox – 20 students. Many ultra-Orthodox students have free transportation to and from school, hot lunches and a long school day into the late afternoon, while secular students have none of these benefits and finish around 1:30.

It is no wonder that according to the Taub Center, an astounding one-quarter of Israeli academics have left Israel and teach at American universities where their opportunities for progressive research and educational futures for their children are better than in the Israeli educational system that continues to decline in favor of ultra-Orthodox educational priorities.

This is just a small sample of what is yet to come. And this is the reason that Zionist leaders across the political spectrum who have vision and foresight are rallying around religious pluralism. It is a package deal. The Zionist and democratic nature of Israel is at stake.

Aryeh De’eri, former leader of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, understands that the ultra-Orthodox will be a political majority in the not too distant future. He told the ultra- Orthodox newspaper “Sha’ah Tovah” the following last May: “I promise [the secular public] that when we [the ultra- Orthodox] are the majority and the regime is in our hands, we will be more democratic than they are towards us. No one can force them what to eat nor how to live. Only public places will change. Education will not be ultra-Orthodox, but will be more Jewish … We want to tell you: we will not damage your lifestyle, and you will conduct your private lives any way you wish, but the nature of the public sphere will be more Jewish.”

From what we are already seeing, one may predict that Israel will be a country where men and women will not mix in public spaces; they will dress “modestly;” public transportation, restaurants and places of entertainment will be closed on the Sabbath; and public affairs will be conducted according to a politicized theocratic hierarchy.

Fortunately, I hear more and more leaders and organizations realizing the consequences of these demographics. By working together and redefining an alternative Judaism for the Israeli public, they are fighting for the future of the Jewish State as a democracy and for Judaism as a religion that can have meaning for all of us.

Charlie Kalech is the founding director of J-Town Productions Ltd., Jerusalem’s senior Internet consultancy which has helped NPOs and business succeed on the Web since 1994. This article is reprinted with the author’s permission from Jerusalem Journal, a regular column in the Jewish Community Voice of Southern NJ. Beyond his professional work with NPOs, the author has been writing about American and Israeli Jewry for over 25 years, has served as a shaliach for the Jewish Agency and the Conservative Movement and on the boards of several non-profit organizations.