Jewish Journal

Israel’s Tug of the Tides

Cover Story

by Rabbi Harvey J. Fields

Posted on Jul. 10, 1997 at 8:00 pm

Photo from "The Jews in America," Collins Publishers, 1989.Out along the glistening white, sandy beach in Herzliya, one feels a sense of serenity. The expected is unfolding. The tides gently form the shining blue waters of the Mediterranean into white foaming waves that crash upon the shore. They invade and wash away children's sand castles, cool the feet of walkers like me. The sounds at water's edge are constant, primal, refreshing.

These days, if you want tranquillity in Israel, you go to the shore. Inland, whether in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, where I spent the last two weeks at meetings of the Jewish Agency for Israel, one is assaulted by the tumult of Israeli politics, the storms of a society seeking to sort out the levels of decency it will tolerate, and the battles over how a durable peace with Israel's Palestinian neighbors will be achieved.

If one were just an ordinary tourist here for a visit to the Holy Land, it would all be "very interesting." Few nations are as open about the issues churning within them. After all, washing your dirty national linen in public is bad for tourism. That's the conventional logic. But there is nothing "conventional" about Israel. Nor are Jews, like me, "tourists" here.

We arrive with a feeling of belonging, of responsibility. The land not only belongs to current Israeli citizens, but it is our legacy as well. From the sands on which I meander in Herzliya, south to the tip of Eilat, north to Metulah, and east to Jerusalem, this land is our national treasure -- ever since Abraham and Sarah birthed us. As Jews, we don't whip in and out of Israel. Israel whips and churns inside us.

That's what is happening in my gut. Lots of agitation.

During my visit, I joined Israeli friends for, of all things, a protest rally in Tel Aviv Museum Square. The rally was titled "Stop the Extreme Orthodox." Thousands, of all ages, filled the square. Speaker after speaker condemned the vicious verbal and physical attacks by the extreme Orthodox (haredim) on liberal Jews and non-Jews at the Wall and other holy places; called for freedom of Jewish religious practice to be granted to all Israelis; and demanded an end to Orthodox Jewish students being given an exemption from military service.

The mood was restrained anger. The message of this first demonstration of its kind was clear: "Stop the extreme Orthodox from leeching upon our society and encroaching upon our lives." Clearly, liberal Jewish and secular Israelis have in common a sense of revulsion for the anti-democratic and increasingly dogmatic coercion of the extreme Orthodox in Israel. The topic is a constant wherever one goes.

At meetings of the Jewish Agency, many of the same issues are agitating. The Jewish Agency is the vehicle through which our Jewish Federation Council contributions, mingled with those of other Jewish communities throughout the world, are allocated for rescuing Jews in distress and resettling them in Israel. Its work also includes enhancing Jewish continuity and education in Israel and in the Diaspora.

Responding to the lack of sensitivity exhibited by the Netanyahu government in submitting the "conversion bill," which would further delegitimize liberal Jewish movements here, the Agency Assembly doubled its allocation to the work of Israeli Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements, from $2.5 million to $5 million. Provoked by an attack at the Western Wall on Assembly participants who were bringing notes given to them by Russian children they had just visited in the former Soviet Union, the Agency Assembly strongly censured the Israeli government for not protecting the rights and lives of all who visit holy places.

While noting that the prime minister had, finally, convened a special committee of seven Israeli religious leaders, including one each from the Reform and Conservative movements, and mandated them to reach a solution on the issue of conversion by Aug. 15, the Assembly received him with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Trust between the Diaspora and Israeli government leaders is at a precarious low ebb.

And it was not much improved at the meeting I attended with Israel's chief rabbis, Yisrael Meir Lau and Eliahu Bakshi-Doron. The gathering at their new offices was between them and the Joint Committee on Jewish Unity of the Knesset, on the one hand, and the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, on the other. Our purpose was to express to the chief rabbis our concerns about the growing gap between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, and to explore where, in cooperation, we might begin to find sources of repair.

The meeting began positively. Both chief rabbis lamented our "divisions." Quoting from the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Lau warned that Jews dare not wound one another, for to do so is "to injure your own body." We all agreed. When Rabbi Bakshi-Doron made the point that our "greatest challenge is assimilation, is loss of Jews," we all nodded in accord.

But, then, both chief rabbis made it clear that while they were pleased to meet us, when it came to reaching understandings with liberal Jewish leaders on matters pertaining to "Jewish law [halacha] and personal status," such as marriage, divorce and conversion, there was only one way -- and it was their Orthodox way. As the meeting ended, Rabbi Lau went so far as to tell me, triumphantly, "When Reform rabbis agree to the law of God according to Torah, then they will no longer be Reform!"

While the meeting concluded with an agreement to meet again, the two rabbis felt constrained to issue their own public relations statement. It announced that they "made clear in the meeting that they have no intention of negotiating with streams which do not recognize halacha," and that "those who belong to such streams should repent."

Ironically, the very ones who began our meeting by criticizing those who "wound other Jews," ended up shamefully inflicting insult and injury on those with whom they met. In doing so, the chief rabbis have made forging an agenda for a next meeting a greater challenge.

"This is the first time I've felt myself inside the caldron of a society in the making," a friend said to me. "It's a bit frightening."

So it is. Contrary and extreme forces are clashing with fury here. They are competing for the soul of this still new nation. At the shore or inside the country, one feels the distinct tug of the tides.

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