Historic Dialogue

Published in The Jerusalem Post on August 31, 1997

Orthodox, Conservative and Reform representatives have held thirty-one marathon meetings since mid-June, chaired by Finance Minister Yaacov Neeman, in an effort to reach a modus vivendi on procedures for conversion and the registration of converts in Israel. The very existence of this intra-religious Jewish dialogue is historic. It’s bolder still given that it’s sponsored by the Israeli government most beholden to Orthodox political parties in the history of the state. (Give Netanyahu credit).

All year, the religious-political pot has boiled over, with each side wielding its favorite legislative club — the Reform run to the High Court of Justice (Bagatz); in response, the ultra-Orthodox have revved-up Knesset law committees.

The Reform movement in Israel or anti-religious Meretz activists — often in strange coalition — have urged the High Court to intervene in convert registration, allocation of prayer space at the Kotel, the opening of shopping centers on Shabbat and of non-kosher stores, the make-up of local religious councils, alternative burials, Shabbat traffic on Jerusalem’s Bar-Ilan Street, and more. In almost each case the Orthodox reaction has been to seek legislation that will determine the issue in their favor and make it “Bagatz-proof”.

Only true dialogue can bring about coexistence in these matters, not the courts or the Knesset. That’s the beauty of the unprecedented Neeman Committee deliberations. Reliable reports have the committee discussing creative religious registration procedures for i.d. cards and the possibility of a national conversion (Orthodox) Bet Din, with Reform and Conservative participation – something that hasn’t been on the table since a failed U.S. effort at such in the early 1970s.

But the talks are teetering because the “cease-fire” that implicitly was at the core of the dialogue is crumbling. Rabbi Uri Regev, the Reform representative on the committee, wants it noted that the committee’s mandate specifically was limited to registration and conversion, and that his movement never undertook to abandon its other legal battles against the Orthodox establishment.

True, but disingenuous. The Reform/Meretz application to Bagatz which forced Joyce Brenner onto the Netanya Religious Council amounts to placement of a land-mine at Neeman’s doorstep.

If Regev’s movement is serious about giving the Neeman Committee a chance, it must desist from such disruptive initiatives for the duration of the talks. The same applies to things like provocative “Stop the Hareidim” rallies, Reform lesbian marriage ceremonies, or in-your-face shows of force (by the Conservative movement) at the Kotel on Tisha B’Av.

For their part, the Orthodox have to scale back the harsh rhetoric (Reform are “scoundrels” and “worse than the Nazis”; or Hammer: “My hand will wither before signing-on a Reform rep to a religious council”), and hold back on the divisive conversion law.

In any case, the committee’s work now has been complicated; there’s no choice but to broaden it’s mandate to deal with the religious councils and related questions too. That’ll take even more time.

Dialing-back the invective and coming down from the barricades is the hard part here. Many question whether the religious streams – any of them – are truly interested in compromise.

After all, why should the Reform and Conservative, from their perspective, settle for anything less than full recognition and an end to the Orthodox monopoly on the Israeli religious establishment, even if that takes another three decades? Bagatz is “on their side” and the battle itself has been fabulously good for fundraising. (I might argue that a little denominational modesty ought to lead them to focus more on education and less on confrontation here in Israel, but that’s a different matter).

And what reason do Orthodox parties have to cut a deal? Their representation and influence in Knesset is bound to grow, and the battle against Reform Judaism is a matter of principle going back to Rabbi S.R. Hirsch’s struggle against the nascent Reform movement in Germany one-and-a-half a centuries ago. Besides, the ‘alternative’ religious streams have only a handful of adherents in this country, and I’m unaware of any mass Reform aliyah movement. The shul most Israelis don’t go to, it’s been said, is Orthodox, and that appears unlikely to change.

The only answer is: Jewish unity, nebulous and intangible as that may be. Jewish unity is a holy, almost mystical concept, and it takes clerics of courage and vision to see the value of painful compromise in its favor.

Yet, Hareidi clerics are not exactly known for their delicate rhetorical touch, and you have to wonder whether the divided Orthodox rabbinate – including the Hareidiized Chief Rabbinate — ever will be capable of endowing legitimacy to a settlement, however halachically inoffensive, involving the Reform and Conservative.

I’ve also read some of the war-mongering Passover sermons given in Reform congregations earlier this year and the ‘going-to-battle’ manifesto published by the Conservative theological seminary chancellor. To read about Israel in these documents or in some New Israel Fund fundraising literature is like reading about theocratic, despotic Iran. The hyperbole and vituperation employed is blood-curdling and dangerous. Will Rosh Hashana sermons be much of the same? Just how is all this resentment going to evaporate?

Indeed, the possibility of an agreement is itself frightening to the parties. As the moment of truth approaches, the leadership challenge to all sides is clear: avoid getting caught-up in your own rhetoric, eschew unilateral, provocative actions, and prepare your publics for the necessity of a deal.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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