Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Rotem and Identity

There are lots of things I don't like about the recent Rotem bill brou-ha-ha in Israel. And yes, there's plenty of blame to go around.

First, as always, the elephant in the room, is Israel's lack of a civil marriage option. Supposedly, this is the very issue that bothers Rotem's party, Yisrael Beiteinu, so much, given that much of their Russian constituency are not halakhic Jews as per the Chief Rabbinate. Some folks with allegedly insider information have said that Rotem is actually trying to pass two bills, one trying to make conversion easier (at least in this instance), and one pushing for a civil marriage law. Unfortunately, in order to get the Haredi parties on board (particularly Shas), Rotem had to amend his bill to reinforce the present status quo, i.e., that the Chief Rabbinate gets final say over all conversions. Cue American Jewish outrage, angry letters, and likely a fair amount of high mucky-muck conversations with Israeli politicians. Next step was Bibi Netanyahu stepping in and tabling the whole matter for a good six months.

This brings us to the second dilemma: what is the appropriate level of American Jewish involvement in Israeli affairs? Some Israelis would say very little-- who are Americans to tell Israelis how to be Jewish? The problem here is that Israel is not just a sovereign nation, but also "the Jewish state," i.e., the state of the Jews. With Diaspora demographics declining, Israel is becoming (somewhat) more justified in viewing itself as the center of Jewishness. So the question then becomes, is Israeli Judaism the new standard? Whatever your opinion on this, it's unquestionable that Israel views itself as the center of the Jewish world. Which means, among other things, that decisions of its Rabbinate have (or at least have the potential to have) global consequences. The sovereign nation argument is ultimately a strawman, because Israel's identity or consciousness is not exclusively localized within the boundaries of land. I don't care what Nepal thinks about me. It doesn't affect me in the slightest. Israel, on the other hand, has constructed its national identity on the twin pillars of Israeli-ness and Jewish-ness, and the later is something I lay claim to. If Israel's rabbis and government declare heterodox rabbis, or their converts, illegitimate, this becomes a very personal thing. As the Jewish state, Israel claims a connection with Jews around the world, and has consciously cultivated this relationship since before the founding of the state. Sometimes Israel uses that connection to ask the Diaspora for help. Part of the question here seems to center around what the acceptable boundaries are when it comes to the Diaspora flipping the script and asking for something from Israel, namely, recognition of heterodox movements and either liberalizing the rabbinate or decreasing its influence.

Last point: I understand the argument that if heterodox movements want equal rights in Israel, they should put their money where their mouths are and move there. Here are some responses:

First, part of an western democracy's job is to protect the rights of minorities. There shouldn't be a minimum threshold you need to pass in order to be counted. There is only one Jew left in Afghanistan, does that mean he's forfeited any rights as a citizen?

Second, Israel's privileging of Orthodoxy (and simultaneous disenfranchisement of heterodoxy) means that heterodox Jews are caught in a catch-22. On the one hand defenders of the status-quo say the onus is on them to immigrate, build up their communities, and thereby "earn" (maybe) the right to be treated as equals. The problem here is that you are basically demanding that, before they're even allowed to be part of the conversation, these folks must relocate to a country that on the civic and government level, has shown itself to be hostile to them. What's the motivation here, exactly? A Reform rabbi may spend time in Israel and fall in love with it. They may want to move there to strengthen the heterodox community and support the country. But I imagine that knowing that every time they want to practice their Judaism it is going to be an uphill battle can't make it a very easy choice.

Third, last I checked there were still plenty of Orthodox Jews in America as well. They seem to feel no qualms interjecting their opinions on Israeli matters. Nor do I see many of them calling on their community members to stop because, as non-Israelis, they don't really have the right to have an opinion, much less work to make it happen. The only time I see American Jews getting up in arms about "interference" with Israeli policy is when they happen to agree with the status-quo! The accusations that American Jews are selfish or backstabbing Israel over hurt feelings is a way of side-stepping the fact that Israel (and the Orthodox) appeal to Jewish unity and identity when it serves their purpose, but get "outraged" when heterodox Jews point out that it's awfully hard to feel affectionate towards a country that claims to be your "home" while not recognizing your rabbis, converts or marriages. This isn't about "feelings" as much as it is respect and consistency. Israel can't tell the Diaspora that all Jews are family, etc when they want something and then act outraged when the Diaspora asks back. If Israel wants to claim to be the universal Jewish home, then it should act like it. If not, don't be surprised or self-righteous when heterodox Jews start getting alienated.

One blogger cited this article from the Jerusalem Post, in which the author says,
The way America’s Reform and Conservative movements see it, the battle over conversion in Israel is between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy. Well it isn’t. Rather, it’s between ultra-Orthodoxy and modern Orthodoxy, and to join this battle, American Jewry must set aside its longer-term agendas and help Israel’s modern-Orthodoxy win this battle. 
The problem with this call to arms is that you are asking American Jews to voluntarily disenfranchise themselves and their counterparts, under the hope that the lesser of two evils will eventually grant them equality. If the heads of the Modern Orthodox community were all like Seth Farber, that would be one thing. But when one of the Chief Rabbis, a supposed "moderate" among the MO known for trying to liberalize the rabbinate goes to the press and repeatedly bashes heterodox Jews, let's just say it makes the prospect of an alliance a whole lot less palatable.

This is what Rabbi Amar said at the beginning of August:
Israeli laws should be determined by residents of Israel who defend its security and bear its burdens. If our Jewish brethren immigrate to Israel, we will welcome them with great joy, and then they would be entitled, as citizens, to struggle for the adoption of their perspective.
Ok, Israelis should determine Israeli policy. I can understand the argument. Except then there was this a mere week later:
And it’s no secret that our spiritual state is low and demeaned, be it in the relations between people or in the increasing violence and cruelty, even murder, which has reached the lowliest state, God save us. And also in the other commandments that bind us, the levels of modesty and morality have decreased exponentially, and the most difficult plague is that of hitbolleloot [abandoning the Jewish law and adopting a western way of life] that everywhere plagues our holy and pure people, as is the case in other countries in which the dilution has reached terrible ends, so is it now in our holy land, this ill is everywhere and nobody pays attention.
And those who call themselves liberals and Reform, and their friends and supporters, they are responsible for this terrible crime, they support it openly and without shame.
And now they dig their claws into the people who live in Zion, and they try to dictate to us a lifestyle, that Israel should be like all other nations, God forbid, and they terrorize us in various ways, and they formed legions of warriors inside the land of Israel whose sole purpose is to rip the Torah out of Israel and defile the religious courts and everything that’s holy, and they’ll use whatever ways and means they can, by threatening and exerting influence on ministers and members of Knesset and by appealing to the courts. Things are getting worse and worse.
Presumably, this rant includes Israeli heterodox Jews. So much for them being entitled to "struggle for their perspective."

If this is from a so-called moderate, then what's the point? When the Chief Rabbi accuses other movements of being criminals and terrorists, that seems to suggest a major disconnect. Who are the heterodox supposed to talk to? What is there left to talk about?

The bottom-line seems to be that Israel doesn't want to give heterodox movements equal status basically because it doesn't feel like it. And ditto for civil marriage. At the end of the day the answer to American Jews is that the Orthodox refuse to deviate from their worldview, and the seculars seem not to give a damn. Claims that by separating Rotem's bill from the Law of Return "avoid the issue" are missing the point. Most American Jews aren't upset because they personally will be shafted if their children or converts make aliyah. They're angry because by maintaining the status quo, Rotem and his supporters indicate that they don't care about heterodox Jews-- especially the vast majority of American Jews. The problem is the slap to the face, not whether they'll actually be turned away at the door.

Are the Orthodox entitled to have their "perspective?" Of course. But asking that American Jews not care is a pipe dream. Damn right we care. We should care. (And actually, it's good for Israel that we care, because it shows that we still care about-- and identify with-- Israel.) And if supposed liberalizers like Rotem were smart, they would reach out to us rather than leave us to their political opponents (Kadima) to rile up.

Ditto for the Americans. While both sides are talking past each other, American Jews are being used as a boogey-man for Israelis bemoaning the loss of the Rotem bill. The American community would have a much better leg to stand on if they showed some damn consistency. If you're going to exert pressure for a cause, then actually do it and communicate-- to the rank and file-- why it's important, don't just call the Prime Minister in a hissy fit every few years when you remember that, oh yeah, the Rabbinate still has an Orthodox monopoly on the state. Israelis aren't going to care about this issue just because American Jews care. We have to get the Israelis to care. Going above their heads by using our Bibi hotline gets us nowhere.

If the Modern Orthodox want help liberalizing the rabbinate, I don't see the harm in allying with them-- BUT the heterodox community actually has to stand on its principles and stay true to its ultimate goals of making Israel a more open society that heterodox Jews can feel just as comfortable and proud of as their Orthodox counterparts. Otherwise it really does just come off as petty.

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