A Twofold Tragedy

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We are left with mistrust, suspicion, and widespread contempt on both sides of the religious-secular divide. The writer is the chairman of the governing board of the World Jewish Congress.

The numbers are against us as a people. The vast majority of Jews are assimilating and intermarrying at a level unequalled in Jewish history.

Ideally, Israel should have been able to provide what the Diaspora could not: a solution for Diaspora Jews, either as a spiritual center, or for those who want to ensure that by coming on aliya their children and grandchildren would remain Jewish.

But the polarization between secular and religious Israelis has become so acute that there is a real danger that there will be two separately identifiable groups of Jews in Israel, as well as in the Diaspora.

Indeed, some Israeli commentators have suggested, not altogether satirically, that there be two Jewish states – Orthodox Israel should have its capital in Jerusalem and secular Israel would be based around Tel Aviv.

Sadly, those of us who observe everyday life in Israel know what lies behind such unthinkable notions.

The eclipse of the old moderate Mizrahi-style Judaism in the Diaspora by the extremist-right wing of Orthodoxy is troubling.

Orthodoxy has become radicalized, even excessively rigid. The more narrow, rigid and intolerant interpretations have won out. Even the traditionally tolerant Sephardim have succumbed to the East European maximalist model.

The national religious camp, formerly a bridge between secular and religious Israelis, has become marginalized, concentrating on the political issue of “the land of Israel” to the detriment of everything else. The Messianic enthusiasm and euphoria which seized religious Zionists following the Six Day War, has been transformed into triumphalist politics. National religious rabbis and their unquestioning followers have created a dangerous brew of religion and politics which has led to fanaticism and extremism.

FOR their part, secular Israelis have moved even further away from traditional Jewish core values. The ethnic elements that kept alive Jewish identity in the past have become diluted as memories of the Holocaust and the struggle for building a Zionist state fade.

To add to all of this, Israel has surrendered to the hedonism of the consumer society. In the centenary year of Zionism, Macworld – Big Macs and Apple Macs – is winning out over Herzlworld. In Israel’s current educational system there is only a very limited scope for transmitting the traditional values of Jewish civilization to the non- observant, or partially observant.

This polarized system in which the haredi-yeshiva and national religious streams are totally cut off from the majority of Israeli Jews, utterly fails to promote respect and tolerance, exacerbating the country’s divisiveness.

Instead, we are left with mistrust, suspicion, and widespread contempt on both sides of the religious-secular divide.

Into this atmosphere comes the recent upheaval in Diaspora-Israel relations as a result of the anger of Reform and Conservative Jews over the conversion issue. Their protests, and attempts at intervention into Israeli life, are a reflection of Diaspora Jewry’s own anxiety regarding the spiraling assimilation in the Diaspora. Paradoxically, perhaps, most secular Israelis are indifferent to the rights of Reform and Conservative Jews, viewing the movements as Diaspora creations. “Let Reform and Conservative Jews immigrate to Israel,” say many secular Israelis, “and then they can make demands.”

In the meantime, as the cliche goes, the secular Israeli wants the synagogue he doesn’t attend to be Orthodox.

Are there any solutions to this awful impasse? Frankly, I see no immediate answers. But clearly, what is desperately needed, is a breathing space, a circuit- breaker. Today there is a crying need for all parties to just pause and declare a truce, to lower the temperature, the voices and the rhetoric.

One admittedly idealistic suggestion: next year, to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Israel, which for religious Zionists represents atchalta d’geulah, the beginning of our redemption, let us appeal to all Jews to declare a true Yovel, a jubilee year which will be a sabbatical of silence.

Let it be a year when Jews will be at peace among themselves in the Land of Israel; when nobody will say or do anything to change the status quo on “Who is a Jew” or “Who is a Rabbi” – except to agree that at the end of that year we will try to sit down in the spirit of brotherhood and begin talking l’shem shamayim, for the sake of God.



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