What’s Missing from Real Dialogue between Israel and Diaspora Jewry?

by Rabbi Uri Regev

Yonatan Ariel’s detailed response to my op-ed regarding the Global Jewish Forum’s seminar about Haredim and the Jewish Collective almost had me convinced. I might have accepted his assessment that the matter had been fairly considered, had I not had close acquaintance with the Jewish Agency’s dealing with religion and state in Israel, or had I not read Robbie Gringras’ praiseworthy post regarding the considerations which shaped the JGF seminar. But, I did have the benefit of these things, as well as the State Comptroller’s recent report, and therefore remain unconvinced.

In some sense, Ariel’s reply further confirms my feeling of unease with this program and others like it; it exemplified the reluctance of broad Jewish leadership to touch this hot potato in a meaningful way, a way that would reflect the depth of the controversy in Israel and the desire of the majority of Israeli Jews for change.

Let me make my position clear: I think that Makom is a commendable development in the workings of the Jewish Agency. My reservations go more towards the “marching orders” given by most Jewish organizations and Federations in addressing the existential conflict of religion and state in Israel, whether implicitly or explicitly.

Ariel disregards Gringras’ acknowledgment that they consciously “ chose a little bit too much light rather than a little bit too much darkness”. He writes that “interventions, in Rabbi Regev’s view, are urgent”. For better or worse, these are not my views alone. I am confident Ariel is familiar with such experts as the former head of the Mossad, who views the process of “haredization” as more dangerous than the Iranian threat, or the Governor of the Bank of Israel, Stanley Fischer, who describes this situation is absolutely unsustainable, or Rabbi Donniel Hartman who fears for a halachic state as the end to a Jewish one.

He may have also seen, a few days after his response was published, that the State Comptroller concluded that “the low participation rate in the workforce, especially among ultra-Orthodox and Arabs, threatens the economic development of Israel” and “if substantial change does not occur in the participation of ultra-Orthodox in the workforce, poverty rate in Israel will constantly grow and bring about severe damage to the Israel’s economy altogether” in his annual report. He summed up that “integrating the ultra-Orthodox in the workforce is an economic-social challenge and leverage of the first order”, while blasting the existing programs run by the government, JDC and others. As I mentioned in my original article, those who have wide influence in the charitable giving of their communities in supporting important social welfare projects in Israel must be made aware the Israeli government uses comparable sums to fund ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, nurturing a generation of yeshiva students who neither see a need to share in the security of the State nor in Israel’s workforce.

With all respect, the fact that other voices were briefly heard in the video and the round tables is not equivalent to framing the day’s discussion through the sole prism of Dr. Neri Horowitz. That choice resulted, as I heard from a number of the participants, with a sense of non-urgency, being encouraged by the approach presented as well as satisfied with the steps taken to date.

In a recent visit to an active Midwestern Jewish community, one of the rabbis offered a local context: “Roughly speaking, an estimated third of the community’s members are married to Jews, one third are intermarried, and one third are married to converts.” “This”, he stressed,“results with two-thirds of the children in the Jewish community not being eligible for marriage in Israel. “ One should wonder what percentage of Birthright and Masa participants fall into that category; the numbers are likely very similar.

This chilling reminder gives context to Jewish leadership’s unsatisfactory handling not only of the haredi crisis but of Who is a Jew and related dilemmas. Our action and discussion must encompass fighting for the right of Jews by Choice to enjoy full citizens’ rights. We must ensure them the dignity of their Jewish identity, allowing them to marry in the Jewish State rather than forcing them to go back to America to have a legal marriage or leave Israel altogether out of desperation and trauma.

There are hundreds of thousands of olim from the Former Soviet Union who were united with their brothers and sisters in Israel through American Jewish intervention, but that intervention ceased at the point that these very individuals found they were denied the basic right of marriage in their new home.

Ariel knows just as well as I do that currently no Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist Jew by Choice are allowed to marry in Israel, nor are their children. How can one expect to advance the critical cause of “Jewish Peoplehood” and enhance the ties of the “next generation” to Israel without confronting the exclusion they will face in Israel?

Ariel shifts responsibility for the policy of such questions onto the Unity of the Jewish People Committee “resourced with the analytic power of the Jewish People Policy Institute.” However, having served on the Unity Committee for years it is entirely clear to me that they, along with the JPPI, are among those who refuse to confront these striking facts. JPPI dedicates only seven lines of their 170 page report on “strengthening the relationship of young Diaspora Jews to Israel” to the matter of religion and state, acknowledging that it is both “divisive” and “has adverse effects”; furthermore, they give not a single policy recommendation on how to mend this inequity. They do not address that the Jewish Homeland is quickly coming to exclude the vast majority of the Jewish People. These issues are ignored or toned down in programming of most Federations as well as the annual General Assembly, and it’s time to take off the blindfold.

As the majority of Israelis favor a vision of a pluralistic and inclusive Israel, the current policies are based on petty coalition politics, rather than considerations of public will, public interest, or Jewish Peoplehood. While fully understanding and accepting that the GJF is not “a policy making body”, and neither is Makom, they nevertheless see themselves as the igniter of novel conversation. Such conversation requires bold and open addressing of all key topics which affect Diaspora Jews’ relationship with Israel, understanding that our unity can only be based on a celebration of diversity, even when it involves difficult controversy.

Rabbi Uri Regev heads Hiddush, Freedom of Religion for Israel, an Israel-Diaspora partnership.