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Effective approaches to the pluralism conundrum
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Effective approaches to the pluralism conundrum

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was treated with kid gloves when he spoke last week via satellite to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. But nobody should be fooled by his promises of “progress” on pluralism.

With growing numbers of American Jews losing a sense of Jewish peoplehood, the snubs to the movements that represent close to 90 percent of affiliated Jews are making an already serious problem worse. Netanyahu’s broken promise about change at the Western Wall and the lack of movement toward pluralism in Israel have exacerbated a growing divide between American Jews and the Jewish state. But Jews here should understand that there is little chance Netanyahu or any of his potential replacements will do anything about it. 

For all their justified frustration, those complaining, rather than spouting off in a way that makes things worse, should acknowledge the intractable nature of the standoff and concentrate their efforts on influencing Israeli society.

As if to emphasize the scope of the problem, only two days after Netanyahu spoke, security guards at the Kotel roughed up Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and other Reform leaders when they entered the Kotel Plaza with Torah scrolls. The group was celebrating the ordination of the 100th Reform rabbi in Israel, but the guards, likely acting on the orders of the charedi rabbis who run the Kotel site, attacked them for having the temerity to treat a place sacred to the entire Jewish people as something other than an ultra-Orthodox synagogue.

The Israeli courts have made it clear the Reform leaders had every right to act as they did, but the religious authorities have regularly defied the courts with impunity, and groups of Reform and Conservative Jews, as well as Women of the Wall, have been subjected to intimidation and even violence as they sought to assert their rights at the
Kotel.

Yet, like Netanyahu’s decision made earlier this year to back away from the historic compromise plan for the Kotel originally proposed by Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky, there’s little that North American Jews can do except make futile threats.

What most American Jews don’t understand is that in Israel, with no formal separation between religion and state, the government pays the rabbis’ salaries — and so the question of who is a rabbi and related pluralism issues are inherently political. That means the Orthodox political parties, usually holding the balance of power in the Knesset, can impose their will on any government.

That’s why Netanyahu’s decision to postpone implementation of Sharansky’s Kotel plan, which was first proposed during a rare two-year period (2013-15) when the charedi parties were not in the government, was not an expression of ill will toward non-Orthodox Jews, but simply a matter of coalition math and political survival. Expecting Netanyahu or any of his rivals to lose office in order to please groups with no votes in the Knesset is unrealistic. While there is widespread dissatisfaction with a corrupt rabbinate that gives Judaism a bad name, most Israelis still are not interested in pluralism. What many want is civil marriage, not equal rights for denominations viewed as foreign imports. 

This does not absolve Netanyahu of responsibility for trying to find a way to get around the rabbinate. He knows the alienation of North American Jewry hurts the Jewish state. And it’s especially wrong for the Orthodox to speak, as many do, of writing off the non-Orthodox as a lost cause because of assimilation or differences over the peace process.

Israelis need to own their role in making this problem worse. But American Jews must realize that merely venting anger and making demands will never work. The Reform and Conservative movements need to redouble their efforts to sell Israelis both on pluralism and the virtues of their brands of Judaism. Like it or not, until they build a bigger constituency there, expecting any prime minister to resolve this conundrum is the sort of magical thinking that will only further undermine what’s left of Jewish unity. n 

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer to National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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