Jewish Journal


January 28, 2013

The Israeli Elections: Beyond the Foreign Policy Issues


It is not a surprise that in the aftermath of the Israeli elections and the foreign policy has been the focus of media coverage both Jewish and general.  American Jews also seem again to view events in Israeli solely through the prism of Iran or the Palestinian issue. But the more interesting aspect of the election and certainly the far less reported one is the implications of the rise of Yair Lapid’s  Yesh Atid party on issues unrelated to foreign policy.

It may not be apparent from next week or even  next year’s headlines that important new trends are emerging in Israeli life . But  in the longer term there is potential for tremendous change in the areas of education and relationships between observant and non observant Jews in Israel . The opportunity exists for a “reboot “ in  relations between American Jews and Israel with an agenda far broader than foreign policy.

Lapid (yes not particularly democratically) personally recruited and handpicked the Yesh Atid list for Knesset candidates. Thus it’s hard to believe they don’t reflect his vision for Judaism’s role in Israeli culture and society .  It’s pretty clear his views reflect more of the trends in the broader center of Israeli society, observant and non observant.  And  those views are far more than simply pushing for the Charedi (ultra orthodox) community to receive less government benefits and to serve in the IDF.

In fact his “atid” (future)  as reflected in his personal behavior and parliamentary list shows an openness to a Judaism that has many aspects that would appeal to American Jews: Orthodox, Reform ,Conservative and  “just Jewish”.  The list includes Mayors from outside the center of the country, the first Ethiopia and woman Knesset member, former journalists and a judo instructor.  Lapid delivered on his promise not to include any professional politicians on his list.

Four new Knesset members from Yaish Atid should be of particular interest to American Jews.  They offer an interesting window into what could be a new future for Judaism in Israel and a focus for productive interactions with American Jews.

Number 2 on Yesh Atid candidate list is Rabbi Shai Piron. He is a leader of the moderate Tzohar rabbinical group which has fought the Chief Rabbinate of Israel on many  issues of divorce and conversion. It has also been a pioneer in education programs aimed at the non observant population.

Rabbi (and now MK) Piron recently won praise from the gay and lesbian community for recanting what he acknowledged were wrongheaded views that gays could be “reformed” to heterosexuality.  While no one would argue that he doesn’t have views that differ sharply from Reform and Conservative Jewry his views are certainly in line with the more moderate wing of American “modern orthodox”.  hardliners.

As of this writing there is talk of him as future Education Minister. That will be a far cry from current Likud non educator Education minister Gideon Saar. During Saar’s tenure he has  pushed for and in many cases implemented a right leaning  ideological  curriculum much to the dismay of many educators . There is little doubt Rabbi Piron’s view of education would be far different.

Prion’s Tzohar colleagues may be responsible for even more change in the religious establishment. One of its Rabbis David Shatz is running an uncharacteristically public campaign to be the next chief Rabbi of Israel..taking it out of the hands of the ultra orthodox.

Professor (now MK) Aliza Lavie  was # 7 on the yesh atid  listis Aliza Lavie a feminist Modern Orthodox Professor and author.  She has authored two books on women and Judaism: Women’s Prayer (the English edition A Women’s Prayer Book won a National Jewish Book Award) and Womens’ Customs . Both books trace the long traditon of distinct religious practices  reated by and practiced by women. 

Lavie’s biography also includes service as an emissary for Bnei Akiva in South Africa and writings on relations between the diaspora and  Israeli Jewish communities. As a sign that she doesn’t fit any particular mold she also took a year to travel through Nepal with her husband….very common among non Observant Israelis…far less so for observant ones.  After hearing her lecture in Jerusalem it wouldn’t be hard for me to conclude she would make a strong positive impression in the states as well as a different public face for Orthodoxy in Israel.

Thirteenth on the list is Dr. Ruth Calderon, non observant and with a PhD in Talmud. She is the founder of Alma an institution created to educate non observant Israelis in Jewish sources….with no expectation that they change their level of observance. Her wonderful book the Marketplace and the Home is a retelling of Talmudic midrash often with a feminist slant.

Alma is located just off trendy Shenkin street in Tel Aviv, known as the center of hip secular young Tel Aviv. The well attended classes are filled with people who probably were sitting in a café on Shenkin immediately prior to class. Her dynamic teaching of midrashic material in the Talmud is inevitably met by her students with the startled reaction that they never thought the Talmud was anything other than a dry book of laws.  I have attended classes and programs at Alma and can personally testify that they represent an Israel few Americans know exist. Certainly they would not expect to find it in the trendiest part of Tel Aviv.  Dr. Calderon has lectured around the world and Alma has classes in English in Tel Aviv. If you are in Tel Aviv or she is speaking in your community I highly recommend attending.

And Alma is not at all alone, there are dozens of similar institutions growing  throughout Israel many putting observant and non observant Israelis together to encounter the texts of traditional Judaism. These groups represent what is called in Israel the jewish renaissance “ movement.  Many are allied in the group panim

Alma and similar institutions represent a great potential model for American Jewry: study of Jewish sources outside the framework of a synagogue or a particular religious denomination. If the fastest growing denomination in American Jewry is “unaffiliated “this may be a way to reach them and also breach the gaps across denominations.

Another new MK from Yeish Atid  is Rabbi Dov Lipman . At #17 on the list he has made it into the Knesset due to Yesh Atid’s extremely strong showing in the elections. Lapid is American oleh who is more charedi than modern orthodox.  Nonetheless he has been at the forefront of fights in his hometown of Beit Shemesh against excesses among charedim.  Outside of the Charedi mold he is ferverently Zionist and he has been an outspoken advocate for charedi participation in the military and workforce.

Rabbi Lipman can be seen as close to the views of the large parts of the charedi community in the US. That population  maintains their distinctive communities and religious practices but integrate into the workforce and provide their young people with the education and skills to do so while of course emphasizing intensive study of Talmud and other jewish traditional texts.  Lipman’s father was a Federal judge in the US.

Haredim  make up the fastest growing community American Jewry….and in Israel. Greater integration into economic life and Army service by the Israeli Charedi community is a top priority for Yesh Atid in a sense making them more like the American charedi community in the lifestyles.

Lipman also plans to work as an “American Style” congressman to the American oleh community. He plans to open a “constituent services” office with English speaking  staff to help Americans deal with the often byzantine Israeli government bureaucracy.  American aliya (immigration to Israel) is tiny –a bit over 3,000- last year. But this is just one of many examples  of the great success of many American Jews in bringing a different perspective to Israeli society one that doesn’t always match Israeli categories. Alon Tal, the leader of the Green party (allied  with Tzipi Livni’s party) is also American although he didn’t make it into the Knesset.

In a post election interview with Lipman in the mainstream orthodox zionist Makor Rishon newspaper had a hard time putting him into one of their predetermined categories. They had trouble reconciling the external appearance, the level of religious observance, the political affiliation and his views on various political issues….a very good thing in my view.

As for Lapid himself, there are definite signs of optimism for pluralistic  Judaism  in Israel. There is l an opportunity for greater positive interaction between American Jews and Israel with a far broader agenda than the often divisive issues of foreign policy.

Lapid for a time was involved in Beit Daniel the reform congregation in  Tel Aviv.  Party colleague Ruth Calderon observed in a recent interview that she never would have associated politically with Yair Lapid’s aggressively secular father Tommy. But she finds Yair far different in his relationship to Jewish sources. Calderon  observed that he has been involved with the Jewish renaissance movement for at least a decade.

However, Lapid is no longer associated with the Reform congregation. There is a message here too. Israelis are likely to take a path to Jewish pluralism and “renaissance” that takes a different path than the approach presented by the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel.

Rather than fixate on the labels associated with the Israeli “ Jewish renaissance” groups, American reform and Conservative Jews should let go of the misguided “dream” of mass numbers of Reform and Conservative congregations in Israel Instead they should embrace the distinctly Israeli versions of Jewish pluralism. After all, with the fastest growing part of the Jewish community “unaffiliated” there will be increasing opportunities for common ground with both the established Jewish denominations as well the established denominations.

There are also signs that Lapid sees the agenda for American Jewish cooperation broader than” Israeli advocacy”. Yes Lapid did make the near obligatory appearance at the 2012 AIPAC conference.  But he also took the time to address the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative Rabbis) convention last May. His column upon his return reflected on the somewhat surreal appearance of sitting in his Atlanta hotel room while receiving an endless stream of emails describing the shakeup in the ruling coalition in Israel.

The rise of Lapid represents the potential for a new relationship between American Jews and Israelis in an area where outcomes are less dependent on the behaviors of both Israeli governments and Palestinian decision makers.  By building on an exchange of ideas on areas of education and expression of Jewish identity there is potential to build a better Jewish future. But it will take work and patience on both sides. A great first step would be for American Jews to move beyond looking at things from the categories of American denominationalism and reach out to these distinctively Israeli approaches. Many Israelis already acknowledge they have much to learn from the greater openness of American Jewry across denominations while they don’t necessarily see it developing into American style denominations. And with the post denominatonalism the buzzword in American Jewry for the 21st centrury there seems little reason not to find much potential common ground.

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