TEL AVIV — Reuven Rivlin was elected president of Israel a year ago. Since then, this Likud Party member and former speaker of the Knesset has become Israel’s voice of moderation and reason on many issues. He has denounced racism, defended the autonomy of Israel’s judiciary and argued for better relations between Jews and Arabs.
Mr. Rivlin is the rare member of the right who appeals to Israelis of the center and the left. Yet even he has failed miserably when it comes to having good relations with practicing Jews who are not Orthodox.
His failure is a manifestation of Israel’s continuous difficulty in handling its relations with Conservative and Reform Judaism, branches of the faith to which many non-Israeli Jews belong.
First, some background: Over six decades ago, Israel’s Orthodox establishment was handed the keys to several aspects of Israel’s official life. Orthodox rabbis control Jewish marriages and most burial sites, and they supervise all food that carries the kosher label.
Other branches of Judaism that are more progressive in outlook do not have much impact on Israeli life. This is partially because they are blocked at every turn by a powerful and entrenched Orthodox establishment. It is also because they have so few members in Israel compared to the Orthodox, and not much public support.
But non-Orthodox Jews play a major role in the Jewish world — especially in the United States, the largest, most important Jewish community outside Israel. In America, 53 percent of Jews are Reform and Conservative compared with just 10 percent who are Orthodox, according to the Pew Research Center.
Israel claims to be a Jewish state — for all Jews. Israel also relies on the support of all Jews. So even if Israelis decide to keep Orthodox Judaism as the officially dominant form of Judaism (and many Israelis do not want such domination to continue), it would make sense for Israel, both conceptually and practically, to make room for Reform and Conservative Jews rather than annoy and humiliate them.
Sadly, Israel often chooses to do the latter. And the much-lauded Mr. Rivlin has just provided the latest in a long list of examples of Israel not being gracious or wise in handling its relations with diaspora Jews.
It all began when Rahamim Malul, the ultra-Orthodox mayor of the Israeli city Rehovot, canceled a bar mitzvah ceremony for autistic boys because of its planned location: a Conservative synagogue. Progressive leaders protested, and the government, seeking to prevent the story from turning into a storm of Jewish protest against Israel, asked Mr. Rivlin to host the ceremony.
The president initially agreed, but then things turned ugly. After some negotiations, it became clear that the president’s idea of “compromise” was to let an Orthodox rabbi take over. The Conservative rabbi — the rabbi who invested months of work in preparing the boys for their bar mitzvahs — was relegated to a secondary role.
The Conservative leadership believes that Mr. Rivlin is under the influence of Orthodox friends, or that he was overcome by his true feelings toward non-Orthodox Judaism. After all, he has a troubling track record, dismissing Reform Judaism as “idol worship.” Understandably, when he was elected president, non-Orthodox Jews were already suspicious of him.
Last week, their suspicion turned to anger.
Government officials, from the Diaspora Affairs Ministry to the Foreign Ministry, tried to negotiate a compromise. Even the prime minister’s office got involved. But all attempts ultimately failed. Mr. Rivlin insisted on having an Orthodox rabbi officiate.
When leaders of the Conservative movement realized that they could not convince the president, they erupted in frustration. In a public letter to Mr. Rivlin they wrote that they were “utterly shocked” by his actions. “It is painful to say it,” they wrote, “but this is an act of cruelty in which disabled children and their parents are being denied a service” as a result of “the contempt of Israel’s leaders for the sponsors of this program.”
There was an implied threat in the letter. “Our love for the State of Israel is unconditional. But Israel must live up to her claims about herself.” In other words: Israel cannot forever expect Jews abroad to support it without reciprocating and showing them some respect.
A couple of weeks ago, in a long meeting with American Jewish leaders, I provoked some of them by saying that too often Israelis get the feeling that Americans have their priorities backwards. Israel has grave issues to worry about, and American Jews insist on troubling Israel with their agenda of small things: women wanting to pray at the Western Wall, or boys wanting a bar mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue.
But in this matter, Israel’s president had no grave responsibilities that took precedence. He didn’t risk losing a crucial coalition or parliamentary battle over policy by allowing a Conservative rabbi to host a ceremony at the president’s residence.
Mr. Rivlin has one main ambition: to help Israel be a better place by using his above-the-political-fray stature. On Sunday, the same day he received the letter from the Conservative leadership, he made an impressive speech at the annual Herzliya policy conference in which he advocated respect for other groups, shared responsibilities, fairness, equality and a new, collective sense of “Israeliness.”
He has done an admirable job of encouraging Israelis of different stripes to live in harmony, and he’s worked hard to improve relations between Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens.
It’s a pity that he can’t do an equally good job at helping Jews and Jews to get along better.
Shmuel Rosner is the political editor at The Jewish Journal and a senior fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute.
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(via NY Times)