Prime Minister Netanyahu, “Audacious Hospitality” and Real Jewish Unity

Netanyahu’s message regarding Jewish unity left much to be desired. Will American Jewry buy Netanyahu’s shiny wrapping, or look inside to find a disturbingly bare box…

by Rabbi Uri Regev

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently addressed the largest movement of American Jewry. Speaking via satellite to the 5,000 delegates to the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial, Netanyahu focused on the “challenges of peace in three crucial areas: … Iran’s nuclear weapons; …. peace with our Palestinian neighbors; and third – …a different kind of peace, what we call in Hebrew ‘shlom bayit’, peace among ourselves”.

Netanyahu understands the strategic importance of American Jewry better than any of his predecessors. He recently launched an ambitious initiative with the Jewish Agency and other Jewish leaders to bond the “next generation” with Israel and strengthen their Jewish identity. The unprecedented price tag of $300,000,000 demonstrates how critical he views this front.

Hence the importance of his address: “For me, the question of the Kotel is about more than finding a modus vivendi at Judaism’s most sacred site. It’s about what Israel has always stood for and what it must always stand for. Israel is, and it must continue to be the homeland of the entire Jewish people. That’s the place where all Jews – including Reform Jews – experience nothing less than audacious hospitality.”

I fully embrace Netanyahu’s noble goal, which is Israel’s raison d’être. But he knows the Kotel is but a speck, albeit an important one, in the larger picture of religious freedom and equality for all Jews in Israel. Clearly, the majority of American, and world Jewry will not “feel at home,” or “welcomed” in Israel until the stranglehold of Israel’s fundamentalist Chief Rabbinate’s over all marriages of Jews and exclusion of non-Orthodox and civil marriages will end. This is but one example of many hurdles facing American Jewry and the non-Orthodox movements.

Most children raised in the American Jewish community will be told by Israel: “you are not Jewish enough for us”, “you will not enjoy equal rights here.” All children of Reform or Conservative converts, intermarried couples, and those who cannot satisfy the rigid Chief Rabbinate of their Jewish status, have no legal avenue for marriage in Israel [recently even confirmation of Jewish status by such important modern Orthodox rabbi as Avi Weiss was rejected].

Netanyahu’s message regarding Jewish unity left much to be desired. Will American Jewry buy Netanyahu’s shiny wrapping, or look inside to find a disturbingly bare box and engage in active partnership with like-minded Israeli organizations to ensure that all Jews can indeed feel at home in Israel.

This issue is clearly a priority for American Jews, as affirmed by the loudest and enthusiastic applause given to this section of Rabbi Jacobs’ Presidential Address. Non-denominational Jewish leadership, including modern Orthodox activists and major Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee and the National Council of Jewish Women, have already stepped up to the plate. This was further evidenced by the recent General Assembly (GA) in Jerusalem.

While referring to Iran, Netanyahu revealed an important aspect of his own decision-making process. He stressed the importance of applying pressure. If pressure does not yield the necessary outcome, he asserted, more pressure is needed. It is unfortunate, but the recent example of Women of the Wall that Netanyahu proudly mentioned was achieved solely by pressure. This was similarly true over the Who Is a Jew battles. Once pressure from Jewish communities, especially American, was generated, Netanyahu did the right thing.

Netanyahu fully understands the importance of the non-Orthodox movements and the pluralistic nature of American Jewry. He demonstrated it in creating the Neeman Commission over “Who is a Jew”, and deserves much credit for it. It was the first high-level public commission initiated by a Prime Minister with formal membership of the non-Orthodox movements. But today, it will require more pressure to help Netanyahu breathe further life and substance into his abstract statement to the URJ Biennial. He means well and is far from adverse to religious freedom and pluralism, but the Prime Minister is under counter-pressures from Haredi parties as well as the Modern Orthodox Habayit Hayehudi party. Constructive pressure by American Jewry will help Netanyahu fulfill Israel’s promise for democracy, civil liberties, human dignity and religious diversity.

The overwhelming majority of Israelis and world Jews support this critical pro-Israel cause. These values will finally align Israel with all other western democracies and will release its Jewish character from the straits of coercion.

Israel’s soul as a Jewish-democratic state and Jewish Peoplehood are too important to be left to political tactics. Just as Netanyahu declared, “Israel is, and it must continue to be, the homeland of the entire Jewish people, the entire Jewish people. That’s the place where all Jews – including Reform Jews – experience nothing less than ‘audacious hospitality’.” We should settle for nothing less.

The time to move audaciously towards religious freedom and equality is long overdue! There will never be “shlom bayit” if all family members are not equally respected. We have to move beyond platitudes to ensure religious diversity and equality in Israel. The freedom to marry should be at the forefront. Israel’s current religion/state alliance undermines Jewish unity and alienates world Jewry. For the sake of Israel and the Jewish People – let there be religious freedom and equality now!

Rabbi Uri Regev, Esq. heads Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel, a non-partisan, trans-denominatinal Israel/Diaspora partnership for religious freedom and equality.