Does the [Incoming] President of the State of Israel Really Care About Jewish Unity?
Recently Israel has made a demand of the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and, in essence, as the state of the Jewish people. I must admit I find this demand by a Likud government to be somewhat amusing. You may wonder why. It is because the Knesset just elected a president of the State of Israel, Reuben Rivlin, who does not recognize Jews who do not uphold the Orthodox line of Judaism. He will not recognize Conservative and Reform Jews or other Jews practicing their own, non-Orthodox form of Judaism.
In April 1989, following a visit to a Reform synagogue in the United States President Ruby Rivlin shared the following thoughts with a reporter from Yediot Aharonot: “As a Jew who does not observe 613 commandments and perhaps not even 13 … I discovered what kind of worshiping group was in front of me, such that any connection between it and Judaism didn’t even approach reality.… This is idol worship and not Judaism….. Total assimilation.” How can he possibly presume to represent all Israelis with his evident disrespect for the Jews who identify with the Progressive Movement around the world?
The president of Israel is supposed to play a unifying role in society. He or she is supposed to be above politics and make every effort to ameliorate societal tensions, whether they be in the realm of intragroup relations or intergroup relations. Before his election as president, JTA quoted Rabbi Uri Regev, CEO of Hiddush, as saying, “In terms of religious pluralism (the President) hasn’t demonstrated empathy or understanding of world Jewry.” Hiddush is a nonprofit organization whose vision is promoting religious freedom and diversity in order to realize the promise of Israel’s founders. How can President Rivlin play a unifying role when he rejects the right of committed and serious people and scholars to identify and practice Judaism in ways that differ from those of the Orthodox establishment?
At a time when we are witnessing an increase in anti-Jewish legislation – banning religious britei milah (ritual circumcision) and schita (ritual slaughtering) – in the United States and in Europe; at a time when there is a rise in anti-Semitic violent acts against Jews; at a time when the BDS movement is gaining traction around the world, we need more unity among a diverse Jewish people and less divisiveness within our ranks. There needs to be an alignment of Jews around the world with Israel and of Israel with Jews around the world. The role of the president of Israel is to represent this unity and to reinforce it so that there is a stronger connection among the diverse groups that make up the Jewish people.
The past few years, President Rivlin’s predecessor sponsored a “President’s Conference” that became an umbrella organization for a myriad of Jewish groups and communities around the world. Held in Israel it was an opportunity for representatives from throughout the Jewish world to gather and focus on issues confronting Israel and Jews globally. By rejecting and alienating all but one of the three major streams within Jewish life, President Rivlin is undoing the good done by the President’s Conference; instead he is reinforcing differences among Jews by not celebrating the strengths of each of the various religious and philosophical streams in Jewish life. It would be unfortunate if the legacy of his term in office is marked by his rejection of the plurality of Jewish life.
Whether or not the president recognizes and embraces pluralism these movements will continue to exist. They have a global presence, and in Israel, that presence is increasing, as indicated by the growing number of Reform and Conservative synagogues throughout the country. It would be a shame to see them pushed away from Israel rather than being brought closer to the Jewish state.
President Rivlin may not agree with either their ideology or their practice of Judaism. He may adhere to the famous bittersweet saying, “The synagogue I do not go to is Orthodox.” However, he must understand that now that he represents the State of Israel, he represents all of its citizens, including the variety of Christian, Moslem, and Jewish groups. Even though he does not personally accept either Protestantism, Catholicism, Greek Orthodox, or Russian Orthodox, I am sure he will address their religious leaders as either minister or priest.
Why does he not accord this sign of respect to the rabbis of the Progressive and Masorati movements in Israel? The presidential role requires that the officeholder be prepared to acknowledge the variations of Jewish belief and practices, just as he or she does with non-Jewish religious establishments and their leaders. This should be an accepted practice and not something that becomes the content of debates and discussions within the Jewish community.
In these first weeks of his first term as president of the State of Israel, I hope that President Rivlin will think about his role in working for Jewish unity and rethink how he wants to be perceived by pluralistic Jewish leaders in Israel and throughout the world. It would be a terrible shame for his term to be marred by alienating those who would like to strongly identify with the State of Israel and its leadership.
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.