Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu: U.S. Jews are fed up with not being valued
Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu:
American Jews are exceedingly agitated about issues of religious freedom, and there are things that you—acting on your own—can do about it.
I write to you now because after the election, which I am sure that you will win, you will be immersed in the politics of putting together a new coalition. Everyone, including the Orthodox parties, will be making demands of you, and it will be easy to forget that the citizens of Israel are not your only constituency. The Jews of the Diaspora—and of America in particular—also look to you, as the Prime Minister of the Jewish State, for leadership. And what they need right now is your help in creating a new alliance between the Diaspora and Israel built on trust and mutual respect.
And the starting point must be a new approach on Israel’s part to issues of religious pluralism. Peace, settlements and the Iranian threat are all matters of deep concern, in the Diaspora as they are in Israel. But the simple fact is that the failure of Israel to offer recognition and support for the streams of Judaism with which the great majority of American Jews identify is nothing less than a disgrace—and an obstacle to engaging fully on all the other issues on Israel’s agenda.
Let me say it directly: American Jews are fed up. They have had enough. They are finished being understanding and patient. They will no longer accept that Reform and Conservative Judaism are ostracized by Israel’s government bureaucracy; they will no longer tolerate that Reform and Conservative rabbis are scorned and despised in Israel; they will no longer sit silently while Israel’s official representatives offend them and denigrate their religious practices. You have seen some of this newly aroused anger in the reaction of Diaspora Jewry to the arrests and detentions at the Western Wall; and this is only the beginning. And make no mistake: The angry voices are not coming from the ranks of the indifferent or the fringe left. They are coming from the heart of American Jewish leadership.
As to what must happen now, American Jews understand your coalition politics; they are not ignorant or naive when it comes to such things. They are fully aware of what it is that you cannot do. But they are furious that Israel’s leaders have not done what they can do.
And what you could do, Mr. Prime Minister, is the following: When you present your new government to the Knesset, you could say that the time has come for a new national dialogue in Israel on religious pluralism. You could point out that only 2 million of the 13.5 million Jews in the world are Orthodox, and that the overwhelming majority of American Jews come from the Reform and Conservative streams. You could say that these streams are the heart of our Jewish family and the core of Jewish support for Israel. You could recognize that Orthodox Jewish leaders in Israel and elsewhere profoundly disagree with the positions taken by these streams, but whether one agrees with them or not, it is the intention of the State of Israel to embrace them and draw them near—because it is the right thing to do, our Jewish future depends on it, and it is also serves the vital interests of the Jewish State.
Then you could say that you will use the authority of the Prime Minister’s office to assure that allocations will be made available to synagogues and rabbis of the Reform and Conservative streams on the same basis as the Orthodox stream. (Since the two movements are small, the allocations will be modest). You could make it clear that you will no longer wait until you are forced to act by the courts.
You could announce your intention to invite Israeli Reform and Conservative rabbis to participate in state events, and mention that you will personally ask Reform and Conservative rabbis and scholars to teach the Bible study group that you conduct in your home.
And you could ask a prominent member of your Cabinet to chair a Commission intended to study how the Reform and Conservative streams, in Israel and the Diaspora, can be brought into a new relationship with the Jewish State.
You need not sweep away the Orthodox religious bureaucracy. You need not solve the problems of conversion and civil marriage—as welcome as such a solution would be. Such things may not be possible now. But you do need to speak out strongly and publicly in favor of a new initiative by the State of Israel to connect with the non-Orthodox religious movements. And if Shas and United Torah Judaism are unhappy, so be it.
Mr. Prime Minister, this is a time for you to inspire American Jews and to demonstrate that the State of Israel values the religious choices that they make. This is a time for daring, and creating a new partnership that will be an essential element of your legacy.
Dear Rabbi Yoffie:
American Jews who sit silently while Jews in other nations are denied their God given right to religious freedom and equality are betraying their fellow Jews. Government interference with religious freedom and government discrimination on the basis of religion is morally unjustifiable. When the denial of religious liberty is perpetrated by a government that bills itself as a “Jewish state” it is particularly our responsibility to say that these violations are intolerable and must cease.
Thank you for pointing out the growing recognition in our country of the serious religious injustices faced every day by the people of Israel and the need for immediate action to restore and protect the rights of its people.
Rabbi Yoffie your words find a home in my heart and soul. They give me strength. Thank you. Those in Israel who practice discrimination and use secular law to enforce their traditions, customs and opinions weaken Israel as a nation and alienate those of us in the diaspora. The Orthodox are too severe in their judgments. Did Moses not include in the Exodus all those who claimed to be Jewish? Did Israel not take in all Jews, regardless of their traditions, following the Holocaust? Who are these people to determine who is and who is not Jewish? Discrimination is a word that should be alien to Jews; we are the world’s greatest victims of discrimination. Yet, even in my own Conservative synagogue we discriminate when calling people to the Torah – as if those who say they are Koheins and Levites could prove any such thing through a blood test. Get it? A blood test, now who else in the 20th century practiced such racism to our detriment? Did God give a blood test to King David, a descendent of a non-Jew? Even if I could claim kohein status, I would not do it. Why? Am I to be Pinchas?
In Parashat Bo we read, “When a proselyte sojourns among you he shall make the pesach-offering for Hashem, each of his males shall be circumcised, and then he may draw near to perform it and he shall be like the native of the land; no uncircumcised male may eat of it. One law shall there be for the native and the proselyte who lives among you.” (Shemot 12:48-49)
If one law is commanded for proselyte and native born, how much more should one law apply to all native born?
David ben Israel v’Rena
I heartily agree
From time to time, just, admirable, hat-in-hand, humble appeals such as your recent article appear primarily in the Israel press. This appeal is especially timely as Israelis go to the polls this Tuesday to determine Israel’s course over the next 4 years. Based on the polls, the forecast for Reform expression in Israel is bleak with only a glimmer of hope, now and then, from judicial initiatives and an occasional legal victory in one of the many battles in a war for equal expression and equal rights.
Rare, bold initiatives can influence our Jewish future such as our reform camps, the decision to create ARZA or the phenomenally successful Birthright program.
It is time for our movement to realize that Reform rights and expression in Israel can only occur through compelling influence of Israeli politics. Our movement has shied away from confrontation with this reality for years. Gilad Kariv’s (Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism Executive Director) forray and appointment in the Labor Party (albeit in an unlikely position of #28 in which no more than 17-25 candidates will likely be chosen), is a small step in the right direction however it did not benefit from the strategic support of a carefully planned & orchestrated action, such as proposed by Plurismagenda.org in which political party members influence party platforms and their slate from within.
If we Reform Jews truly want to be able to freely practice our Jewishness in Israel, to enjoy the equal benefits that we deserve, we are going to have to organize a very serious, concerted effort.
We are going to have to mobilize Reform Jews in Israel, Israelis living in Reform communities in the U.S. and abroad, and those Reform Jews who live outside of Israel who are willing and able to take part in and shape the outcome of the Israeli electoral process.
Massive undertaking? Yes! Impossible-No!
All depends on our level of commitment to achieve equality for Reform Jewish Expression in Israel for Israelis and for each Jew who wants to feel at home when they visit their Jewish Homeland.
We need to start now if we want to have an impact in the next election.
Hadas (Howie) Levin
(Made Aliyah from Chicago in ’77, child of the Reform Movement; Temple B’nai Yehuda, OSRUI, Kibbutz Yahel, Har Halutz, married in the only Reform officiated marriage in Israel, and Chairman of Kehilat Halev in Tel Aviv)
I am 73 yrs. old, have been a proud Reform Jew all of my life; have been to Israel; have donated money every year;
and have always felt that the Israeli govt. and citizens wanted my money and nothing else. I would not like to
cancel my donations — we need the State of Israel — but not the men who keep their heads in the sand!
Your affection is obviously very shallow, if you threaten to cut off “donations” because of the composition of the government. Expected as much from the Reform movement.
THANK YOU. It’s high time to speak up in regards to the Israel “theocracy”; and to back up Anat Hoffman and the IRAC efforts.
Anne Elman, Temple Isaiah, Los Angeles, CA
Very well stated. Kudos to Rabbi Yoffe.
Dear Rabbi Yoffie, I always look forward to your columns and believe that you provide thought and reason. This column is a superb statement of what so many of us in Reform feel. I pray that you will be effecting change in the Prime Minister’s office with your words on our behalf. Good job !
Sincerely, Ron Rosenberg, Past President, Temple Beth Shalom, Puerto Rico
While I recognize that it is up to Israel to set the policies of the country, certainly the comments of Rabbi Yoffe must be taken into consideration as israel seeks the support of Jews around the world.
For Conservative and Reform Jews in America, who care deeply about Judiasm, their religious choices and Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s voice and actions in support of the connection by the State of Israel with the non-Orthodox movements would be an inspiration and a starting point toward pluralism in Israel.
A most thoughtful and well meaning proposal. It pains many of us in the Reform community to raise our children with a love for Israel and an appreciation of Kol Yisroel, only to have their beliefs and practices questioned by their Orthodox peers when they spend time studying or visiting Israel.
The unbridled support of the past must temperted today, so long as the entire Jewish community is not treated equally in Israel.
I am appalled at the tone of this letter and the assumption that he is speaking for American Jews. I am not Orthodox but do feel that Israelis citizens should determine the religious needs of their country NOT American Jews. The letter sounded threatening. What a shame to use one’s perceived power in this manner.
As a fourth generation American Reform Jew, I applaud Rabbi Yoffee’s statement
My commitment and support for Israel has been consistent and sincere since
the establishment of the State.
I have waited patiently for Israel to move toward religious pluralism and
have been disappointed for 65 years that it is still just a gleam in my eyes.
Reform and Conservative Judaism have made all of the moves forward.
It,s time for the Israeli government to add it’s voice and actions to embrace religious freedom for this wonderful country that we support and
love. Sincerely, Gloria Levine
Thank you, Rabbi Yoffie, for these strong words. I don’t know for a fact but I suspect that the greatest support, financial and otherwise, for Israel, comes from Conservative and Reform and secular Jews of the U.S. Perhaps P.M. Netanyahu needs to be reminded, as well, that the majority of Israeli Jews are not Orthodox.