There are always political forces in any democracy whose views and values are outside democratic norms. History teaches that these forces grow, posing a threat to the nation itself, only if enabled by people who know better. While it is normative for politicians to concede cherished interests in exchange for political power, it is a balancing act. To concede too much is to enable extremism, and to enable extremism is to strengthen it.
The decision of the Israeli Supreme Court recognizing non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel brought to the fore, yet again, the extreme views of ultra-Orthodox parties. The threats and hatred expressed by some members of Knesset against fellow Jews in the aftermath of the decision is contrary to the highest commands of Judaism. “Do not hate your fellow Jew,” the Torah mandates. “All Jews are responsible one for the other,” the sages insisted.
Decades of excessive political power have corrupted the values of those who claim to be most loyal to Jewish values. “The Torah’s ways are pleasantness, and all its paths are peace,” the Bible teaches. The Talmud asks, “What is said of someone who studies Torah but does not deal honorably and does not speak pleasantly with people? Woe to that person who studies Torah. Woe to his father who taught him Torah. Woe to his teacher who taught him Torah.”
The monopoly granted to ultra-Orthodoxy over most matters of religion and state in Israel is damaging to Israel, damaging to Judaism, and is not even good for Orthodoxy. Most Israelis despise the brand of Judaism exhibited by Haredi parties. Ultra-Orthodox politicians represent the most radical, the least modern and least representative values in the entire Jewish world. They are not the mainstream. They are fringe. They are not even Zionists. The damage they cause to Israel-Diaspora relations is incalculable. Eighty-five percent of American Jews are not Orthodox. As long as ultra-Orthodox parties exert such control over Israeli policies, Israel will never have a healthy relationship with Diaspora Jewry.
The issue is not their right to believe whatever they want. Rather, it is the political power to coerce behavior, granted exclusively to unrepresentative ultra-Orthodoxy, which inflicts such damage on Israel and world Jewry.
The haredi parties’ response to the court decision will be furious. They will do everything in their power to compel the Knesset to legislate overturning the decision. I have firsthand knowledge of what will happen. The first time I met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in the late 1990s. The Supreme Court had recently ruled that the state must recognize non-Orthodox conversions from abroad, and the ultra-Orthodox parties were threatening to legislate circumventing this decision. I quickly mobilized a large delegation of Reform rabbis on an emergency mission to Israel. We landed five hours late. The prime minister waited for us. Our meeting started at midnight and lasted until 1:30 a.m.
WE CAUTIONED the prime minister not to give in – that it would open a chasm between the Jewish state and world Jewry. We made the point that as damaging as the disenfranchisement of our movement in Israel is, if the court recognized a right, to take it away would cause enormous harm that would grow year after year. It is one thing not to have a right recognized; it is another thing to take a recognized right away.
We made the same point to the prime minister several years ago on the Western Wall agreement. It is one thing to ignore egalitarian worship at the Wall – as damaging and as frustrating as that is. But to do what the Prime minister did – to propose a compromise, to have the government approve it, and then to walk away from your own proposal because of haredi political pressure – would cause grave harm to Israel-Diaspora relations. Sadly, but predictably, we were right. Most members of Knesset know we are right. The prime minister knows. In the aftermath of this month’s elections, once again, the temptation to concede too much to the haredi parties will be overwhelming.
American Jews also have a role to play. While Israeli voters properly decide domestic policies, Israel, by its own self-definition, is the national home of the Jewish people. It exists not only for its citizens, but for world Jewry as well. American Jews do not have a vote, but they have a voice. Therefore, it is distressing that the American-Jewish establishment has been largely silent. This, too, we have seen before. When it comes time to express themselves on a matter of such central importance to American Jews, its representative organizations lose their voice. “Let the Reform and Conservative movements fight this on their own,” they seem to think.
To all of our partners in the Jewish world: Federations, the Jewish Agency for Israel, AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents, and all the pro-Israel organizations that work to strengthen Israel’s international standing and deepen the Israel-Diaspora relationship: It is not only the Reform and Conservative movements’ fight. It is your fight as well. Most of your supporters and most of your financing come from the non-Orthodox community. You cannot sit this out. If our bond with Israel deteriorates further, it will weaken all of us.
To all our friends in Israel and worldwide: The reason we care so much in the first place is that we love Israel. We are committed to Israel, not uncritically, but unconditionally. We are Zionists, unlike most haredim.
We are about to experience another hate-filled campaign from ultra-Orthodox politicians, ranting about the harm that everyone but them is inflicting on the Jewish people.
This time, let us cease being enablers.
The writer is the senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a Reform congregation on New York’s Upper West Side.