Banana syndrome at the URJ

Israel's Knesset. The parliament of a banana republic?

Israel’s Knesset. The parliament of a banana republic?

Last week, MK David Rotem created a fuss here with his remarks:

Reform leaders in the U.S. are calling for the removal of MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu) from the leadership of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, after he said that Reform Judaism wasn’t really “Jewish,” but a “different religion.”

Later, he explained that he hadn’t said that Reform Jews weren’t Jews, which wasn’t the point anyway. And finally he issued an apology:

My intention was that I have deep differences with the Reform movement about practical matters related to Judaism. At the same time, considering that we are all Jews and members of the same religion, we need to solve these differences in discussions and conversations around the table. I apologize to anyone who may have been hurt.

I am not going to become involved in the discussion of whether Reform Judaism is “another religion” from traditional Judaism. Obviously there is a point when a ‘denomination’ becomes a different religion. Many people, myself included, think that “Messianic Judaism” is more a form of Christianity than a form of Judaism. It has been argued that Chabad — or some factions thereof — have gone too far in their adulation of their Rebbe. I am really not going to get involved in this.

What I do want to discuss is the increasing pressure on Israel from liberal American Jews in regard to the place of Judaism, in all of its forms, in Israel.

The New Israel Fund, a US-based group (which, by the way, I regard as anti-Zionist and pernicious), has long funded Israeli organizations promoting “religious pluralism,” which means equal treatment of various forms of Judaism, equal roles for women in every aspect of Judaism, the elimination of the Orthodox Rabbinate’s control of family law, etc.

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) — massive in the US, small in Israel — has pushed for full recognition of non-Orthodox conversions in matters of marriage and divorce, as well as state funding for non-Orthodox rabbis (a limited victory was recently obtained in Israel’s Supreme Court). The head of the URJ, Rabbi Richard (Rick) Jacobs (more here), was a member of the NIF Board of Directors and chair of its Pluralism committee until taking the reins at the URJ.

Yesterday I received an email from the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) — an organization that, needless to say, does not explicitly define itself as engaged in religious politics — mentioning that its “Global Planning Table” (GPT) would develop several initiatives, including this:

Civil Society: a third initiative, still being refined, which will most likely relate to religious diversity and civil marriage in Israel. The task force has hired a consultant in Israel to make recommendations on how the GPT could achieve impact in this area.

What I want to say about all this is not that their goals are necessarily wrong. I can certainly tell you from personal experience that immigrant Jews can have a very difficult time establishing their Jewishness before the Rabbinate in the event that they want to be married in Israel. This is a huge problem for immigrants from the former Soviet Union, where WWII and Soviet anti-Jewish attitudes caused Jewish records to be lost.

What bothers me are two things:

First, most American liberal Jews really don’t have a clue about either Israeli life or the complexities of Israeli politics — in which these issues are deeply entangled. They don’t understand how the changes they are proposing will affect Israeli Jews, nor are they aware of possible unintended political consequences.

Second, it is really none of their business. They are not affected by actions that might be taken in Israel as a result of their pressure. If they move to Israel where it might matter for them, then they can vote for Israeli politicians that reflect their point of view.

This is not different in kind from the pressure that is exerted on Israel, via the European funding of left-wing organizations, to make dangerous concessions to the Palestinians. It is not the Europeans that will become the targets of terrorist rockets from Judea and Samaria after an IDF withdrawal!

Back to Rotem:

Both the Reform Movement in Israel and the URJ [in America] condemned Rotem’s statements and asked Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to punish him. The leadership of the Conservative movement and Anti-Defamation League also chimed in.

I’m sorry, perhaps this is just the way the particular reporter is describing it, but isn’t there something inappropriate about Americans demanding that a member of Israel’s Knesset be removed from his post to punish him for insulting them? Can you imagine an Israeli organization calling on the US Speaker of the House to take away the committee chairmanship of a member of Congress?

Israel is an independent sovereign state, and it should not be treated as a banana republic — not by President Obama, not by the Europeans, and not by the URJ.

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