Regev Responds

Is more talking the answer?

Israel-Diaspora consultation by law?

In the last few days, several noble initiatives converged and have been shared widely both with world Jewry and the Knesset. They focus on formalizing a process of consultation between Israel and world Jewish leadership on issues that directly affect the diaspora.

We would be the last to suggest that sincere and serious dialogue is not a good thing. We welcome dialogue. However, at the same time, we see the need to point out its limitations, illusory side and, potentially, its negative impact.

This is not the first time that Israel-diaspora dialogue has been recommended or even attempted. Hiddush’s CEO Rabbi Uri Regev represented the Reform movement in the Ne’eman Commission, a high-level dialogue that focused on ‘Who is a Jew?’, which was initiated by PM Netanyahu in 1997. Netanyahu identified the value of dialogue as a means of diffusing acute conflicts. It was a genuine attempt to find a mutually acceptable solution to the most vexing conflict between Israel and world Jewry, but it resulted in failure when it became clear that this was an exercise in squaring the circle. The Chief Rabbinate harshly and outright rejected even Ne’eman’s approach that would have granted it sole authority over conversions, because it involved a limited level of cooperation with Reform & Conservative Judaism.

There were prior attempts at resolving conflicts through dialogue, that similarly failed. However, Netanyahu recognized the practical value of the process and pressured the non-Orthodox movements to suspend all pending legal actions on conversion to come together for a protracted process of negotiations. He pulled this trick twice again after the Ne’eman Commission, and he achieved the desired end of diffusing an acute conflict that arose at that time.

Most recently, in June 2017, the government, under ultra-Orthodox political pressure, suspended the Western Wall agreement and approved the passage of yet another ‘Who is a Jew?’ amendment aimed at entrenching the authority of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. The timing was the worst possible. It occurred as the Jewish Agency Board of Governors was convening in Jerusalem, and the resulting clash was unprecedented. Never in the history of the Agency had it uninvited the Prime Minister to a festive dinner scheduled to take place at the Knesset. Netanyahu realized the severity of the crisis and pulled out the tried and true, though futile, exercise of dialogue for the third time.

Moreover, key leaders in the Likud (not only the ultra-Orthodox parties) have publicly hurled insults and expressions of disregard for American Jewry, specifically for the non-Orthodox movements. Among them was the then-chairman of the Knesset Interior Committee David Amsalem, who pushed for the suspension of the Western Wall agreement, saying, “With due respect to the Americans and American Jews, they cannot be influencing what goes on here. Let them get insulted if they want.” Amsalem is currently the Minister of Communications. Then there was Tourism Minister Yariv Levin who has gone so far as to declare that the Reform community wouldn’t exist in two or three generations. He is currently the Speaker of the Knesset.

With that in mind, how is the current initiative different? And what gives the initiators the conviction that it may actually solve the growing rift between Israel and the diaspora (especially US Jewry), which undermines both Jewish unity and the strategically needed ongoing commitment of diaspora Jewry to support Israel?

There is no question about the good intentions of most of the people involved in these initiatives, such as the leadership of the Jewish Federations of North America, which just held a session on this topic at its online General Assembly. However, looking at the bill which was placed on the Knesset agenda this week, co-sponsored by Tehila Friedman (Blue & White) and MK David Bitan (Likud) and others, with Minister of Diaspora Affairs Omer Yankelevich (Israel Resilience Party) announcing that she will sponsor making it into a governmental bill –you realize it is undergirded by very little more than an expression of hope and trust in talking.

How can anyone take seriously the claim that the "Consultation" initiative represents a paradigm shift on the part of the government, as Minister Yankelevich described it, when a cabinet member can make such outrageous public statements as did Minister of Religious Services Rabbi Avitan only yesterday in a radio interview and remain in office unscathed?! He said, “Reform Jews are a danger to the Jewish world! Assimilation is more dangerous than a nuclear Iran!” This is the same Cabinet Minister who oversees Jewish religious services for the entire Jewish population, and it's he who has deliberately announced this week that he will disregard the decision of Justice Shoham and Israeli law, following the grievous public pronouncements of Chief Rabbi Yosef who assaulted both Reform Judaism and the Supreme Court.

But the most serious impediment of the proposal is that it is exactly as the title conveys – namely this is about “talk, talk, talk” – it’s a consultation that carries no legal ramifications, no commitment to accept diaspora concerns...

The representatives of the Jewish people for the consultation, according to the proposal, are to be selected by the Jewish Agency, which has long been known to deflect controversy, circumventing it at almost all costs. A prime example is the establishment of the ‘Unity of the Jewish People Committee’ many years ago in response to these growing conflicts. There is no clearer example of the pattern described above: creating a framework to let out steam that gives the appearance of genuine dialogue, while at the same time not leading anywhere. It’s carefully constructed so as to a avoid resolutions in favor of, for instance, equality for all denominations under law, freedom of marriage to enable hundreds of thousands currently denied the right to marry, or full equal recognition of conversions performed under auspices of all Jewish denominations.

The reason is that the Agency bends over backwards in order not to offend its minority orthodox stakeholders, nor does it want to enter into conflict with Israel’s political leadership. There is no doubt in our minds that in selecting the representatives of the Jewish people, the Agency will follow the carefully balanced, mutual neutralization framework, which it exercises in the ‘Unity of the Jewish People Committee’.

Another aspect of the proposed bill is the challenge of defining which issues are going to be subject to consultation, which “affect the diaspora”. The proposed bill states that these issues are going to be decided by the committee chair, which is clearly a political formula, ensuring that some of the critical controversy will remain buried under the carpet. But the most serious impediment of the proposal is that it is exactly as the title conveys – namely this is about “talk, talk, talk” – it’s a consultation that carries no legal ramifications, no commitment to accept diaspora concerns, and therefore other than creating yet another forum to air out the differences between a liberal diaspora and an Orthodox-coerced political system, it will accomplish nothing much more.

With such sentiments as expressed by the likes of Amsalem and Levin (Likud), and Deri (Shas), Gafni (UTJ), et al., there is no reason to assume that this consultation will lead to any new results, other than buying more time and creating an impression of genuine openness to do things differently just by talking about them.

Dialogue is important, but no real dialogue and no hope for resolving serious conflicts can exist if the parties to the dialogue are not on equal footing. Namely, not in a situation in which Israel passes laws and forges policies that reject pluralism, deny basic religious liberties, such as the right to family, and full recognition of Jews by choice, including even those converted under Modern Orthodox auspices. Not in a situation in which the diaspora is subject to that discrimination but rarely does anything more than mildly expressing its discontent every so often.

This is not how past conflicts were resolved. Soviet Jewry was freed from bondage not by talking about it, but rather by tangible pressure and effective advocacy measures. Nor have Israel’s current agreements with Arab countries, though on a different plane altogether, been achieved merely through a process of consultation. Similarly, nor were the efforts in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s to pass discriminatory ‘Who is a Jew?’ legislation halted without the realization of the Israeli political players at the time of the serious consequences that would be borne if such legislation were to go through.

This is the spirit that was expressed more recently by such leaders Ronald Lauder in his unprecedented NYT op-ed and by Charles Bronfman in a speech published by the Forward. If this spirit is not going to characterize the thrust of the diaspora Jewish leadership’s participation, then this noble initiative is not going to fare any better than the ones before it.

Frederick Douglass expressed it best:

“If there is no struggle there is no progress...Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters... Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted.”

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