In my column in our July 27 issue, I argued against the hegemony of the haredi Orthodox Chief Rabbinate in Jewish religious affairs – including such matters as marriage, divorce and conversion – and the control of Israel’s religious services ministry by the haredi Orthodox parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition.
I pointed out that we live in a religiously pluralistic Jewish world, that some of us are very religious, while others are not at all. I said we must respect all Jewish denominations – haredi Orthodox, modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform – as equally legitimate and that Israel, as the homeland of all Jewish people, needs to respect the legitimacy of each of our denominations.
I wrote that column in reaction to a shocking statement, “a Reform Jew, from the moment he stops following Jewish law, I cannot allow myself to say that he is a Jew,” that Religious Services Minister David Azoulay said in an interview on Israeli Army Radio.
The next day, Azoulay rose in the Knesset to clarify his opinion. Reform Jews, he admitted, while sinners, are still Jewish.
There have since been some steps – albeit very small steps – to begin the process of addressing Jewish religious pluralism in Israel. In a speech to the Jewish Federations of North America annual General Assembly, November 10, in Washington, D.C., Netanyahu said he would strengthen the rights of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel.
“As prime minister of Israel, I will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel – Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews – all Jews,” he said.
Netanyahu said the government had formed a roundtable group of representatives of the different religious movements and government ministries in order to address the movements’ concerns. (JTA, the Bulletin’s wire service, reports the roundtable, though first announced months ago, has yet to meet formally.)
A couple of days after Netanyahu’s speech at the General Assembly, it was announced that the Jewish Agency for Israel’s annual funding to the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel – $1.09 million each – would be matched by funds from the Prime Minister’s Office.
It’s a beginning, but there is still a long way to go before the non-Orthodox movements attain equal legitimacy in Israel’s religious affairs. Despite being doubled, the funding for the non-Orthodox movements is still very modest and it is coming from the Jewish Agency and the Prime Minister’s Office, not from the religious affairs ministry. But at least Netanyahu recognizes there is a problem that must be addressed.
However, Netanyahu heads Israel’s government by virtue of a numerically weak coalition and, as long as the Knesset seats (currently 13 of 120) controlled by the religious parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – are enough to put a coalition into power, the government will not take the big steps necessary to effect real change.
We welcome your opinions
At the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, we take our unique and important role in the community seriously. The Bulletin is a venue for our community organizations to tell their stories and it is a place for reasoned and civil discussion and debate on issues of concern to the Jewish community.
We are a diverse community – both religiously and politically – and we respect diverse opinions in our pages or online at www.ottawajewishbulletin.com. The columnists who contribute to the Bulletin represent some of that diversity, and we welcome your participation in the community conversation.
We encourage your constructive engagement via letters, guest columns and comments on our website (although we do not approve anonymous comments) or Facebook page. Please participate.
Just a word on our policy in regard to the State of Israel. As a mainstream Jewish community newspaper, the Bulletin is unquestionably pro-Israel. There is much to celebrate about Israel – and that we do. But that does not imply Israel or its government are beyond criticism. There is a wide variety of valid and reasonable views that can and should be expressed. We welcome that spectrum of opinion.
What the Bulletin definitely is not is a venue for organizations or individuals who seek to delegitimize the State of Israel. That’s our line in the sand.