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Mr. Netanyahu, Tear Down the Wall Dividing Our People

Israel must break the Orthodox monopoly on religion to live up to its claim of being home for all Jews
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and holds the Kaufman Family Chair in Jewish Philosophy. He is author of the highly regarded 2016 book, Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself, and is the host of “For Heaven’s Sake,” one of the most popular Jewish podcasts in North America. Donniel is the founder of some of the most extensive education, training and enrichment programs for scholars, educators, rabbis,

Mr. Netanyahu, Tear Down the Wall Dividing Our People

 Posted originally on Times of Israel

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu:

You have declared that you are committed to an Israel “in which all Jews feel at home.” You are at a defining moment in which you have to decide whether you are committed to building such an Israel or whether your core commitment is only to speak about your commitments.

While you have been particularly adept at reading and navigating the mood of Israeli society, I believe that you are out of touch with much of world Jewry. Israelis do not want a prime minister who adopts daring foreign policy moves, and in light of Palestinian and Middle Eastern instability, they are more than satisfied with your declaration of commitment to a two-state solution. For world Jewry in 2017, a speech about your commitment to religious pluralism is no longer sufficient.

What has changed? Since the formation of the state, Israel and Zionism have consistently denied the legitimacy of world Jewry and their Judaism. Zionism’s belief that it alone was creating the new and noble Jew, cleansed from the stains of diasporic existence, instilled a deep disdain within Israel for Jews who live outside the state.

It was not merely their existence that was derided, but world Jewry’s Judaism, as well. The monopoly that the State of Israel granted to Orthodoxy over all official issues of Judaism, formally and legally denied the validity and legitimacy of the Judaisms practiced by the majority of Jews around the world. This same state-sanctioned monopoly also gave license to a public discourse that regularly insults and denigrates the commitment, value, and significance of non-Orthodox denominations.

World Jewry heard the insults and experienced the disrespect, and for 70 years was willing to turn the other cheek. In a post-Holocaust reality, they felt that their responsibility to Israel’s security must take precedence. Their fear that one day they may be in need of refuge in Israel, made supporting Israel akin to an insurance policy and a priority.

Support for the state was founded on the belief that either Israel or world Jewry were facing existential dangers that demanded immediate attention. Issues of state and religion, and the development of mutual respect were postponed to the proverbial tomorrow.

Mr. Prime Minister, what I believe you fail to understand is that for world Jewry, tomorrow has arrived. While you often speak of the present in 1930s terms, world Jewry does not share your perception. Without doubt, Israel continuously faces grave dangers, but most Israelis and Jews around the world do not experience themselves as living on the eve of a second Kristallnacht. The enormity of the victory in 1967, the 50th anniversary of which we commemorate this year, has generated a pride in Israel’s power that has only grown over the decades. From military power, to economic power, to technological power — Israel has gone from strength to strength. You, yourself, regularly herald the marvel of Israel’s achievements.

Mr. Prime Minister, you cannot market Israel as both start-up nation and pathetic nation at the same time, and if you do, do not be surprised if people are less than convinced.

If we were living in the 1930s, a speech about your commitment to ensuring that one day all Jews will be comfortable in Israel, would be more than sufficient. In 2017, however, words alone are not merely experienced as inadequate, but profoundly disingenuous.

World Jewry has waited seven decades. During this time they have been told and taught not merely to support Israel, but to love it. They have been raised in a Judaism in which Israel is an integral part of the meaning of their Jewish lives. They have exhibited unquestioned loyalty and now are simply demanding reciprocity. They want to be respected, not merely for the financial and political power they wield, but for the Jews they are and the Judaism they have built.

Truth be told, Mr. Prime Minister, you really haven’t done anything. Your recent decision to suspend the Kotel Agreement merely leaves the status quo in place. It is that status quo, however, that is the problem, and your not doing anything, other than speaking and promising, is destructive for Israel, world Jewry, and the Jewish people.

Mr. Prime Minister, you more than all others understood that for Israel to enter into the 21st century, it needed a new economic policy. A policy that reduced the control of the government, disbanded monopolies, and supported entrepreneurship. You understood that the policies which enabled economic viability and growth in the 1950s and ’60s were a recipe for stagnation in today’s global marketplace.

The current status quo on state and religion and the monopoly of Orthodoxy do not merely foster religious stagnation in Israel, they destroy the future of Israel as the home for all our people. It is time to break this monopoly and to create a free marketplace for religion in the State of Israel. It is time to bring Israel’s democracy into the 21st century.

This Israel will not separate between Church and State, but will demand that the government show no preference for one Judaism over another. Are Orthodoxy or ultra-Orthodoxy the most authentic forms of Judaism and the only way that Judaism will survive the challenges of modernity, or are they denominations committed to antiquated traditions, values, and morals? Are liberal Jewish denominations the cause and catalyst for assimilation, or its only viable antidote? That the State of Israel adopts a position on these issues is simply incomprehensible.

As a modern Jewish democracy, Israel must be a place where everyone’s Judaism is respected and given legitimacy, and in which no one’s religious beliefs give them license to limit the freedom of religion of another. Where the law and public discourse are sensitive to the religious sensibilities of all, and the public domain both reflects this sensitivity and the reality of Jewish diversity.

Truth be told, the Haredim are correct. The Kotel Agreement is but the first salvo in the battle over the future Jewish identity of Israel. What makes it so significant is that it offers a blueprint for how to navigate debates over issues of state and religion. Under the now-suspended agreement, everyone’s religious sensibilities were respected. In fact, the agreement served to protect traditional Orthodox space from the challenges of Jews who wanted to worship at the Kotel in ways antithetical to their beliefs. All that it demanded was that we allow a narrative that the Kotel was miraculously expanded in a way that allowed all to feel at home.

Under the agreement, no one would be allowed to insist that respect for their religious rights and sensibilities entails denying the rights of others. If this simple truth is not acceptable in modern Israel, Mr. Prime Minister, then no matter what you say and how many times you say it, Israel will never be a place where all Jews feel welcome.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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