(Or What Israel Can Learn from World Jewry)
By DONNIEL HARTMAN
We awoke this week to yet another assault on Judaism and democracy by rabbis fulfilling official positions within the Israeli rabbinate. As distinct from the past, however, the vast majority of Israelis from a wide spectrum of religious and political beliefs, including our prime minister, condemned their ruling, which declared it Jewishly illegal in essence to allow non-Jews to live in proximity to their fellow Israeli Jewish citizens. Israelis have not been silent; a continuous flow of headlines, editorials, and petitions have given expression to the revulsion that most Israelis feel.
Given this broad-based response, the question that needs to be asked is: Why is this happening again? Why are rabbis in Israel continually susceptible to these types of moral, ideological lapses, which never seem to plague their colleagues, Orthodox and liberal alike, who live around the world?
One explanation, which was mirrored in the ultra-Orthodox rabbinic critique in Israel against these rabbis, is that rabbis in Israel are free from the fear of worrying about "what the goyim will say," and whether their remarks will incite anti-Semitic responses. Under this explanation the "gift" of sovereignty is that Jews today can be uninhibited and free to finally descend to the moral insensitivity and bigotry to which we always aspired but were prevented from doing.
While this explanation may have been true of Diaspora life for centuries, it no longer reflects the nature of Jewish experience or motivation. Most Jews around the world have left the exile not through making aliyah, but by embracing their communities as their new homes. For Jews around the world, the non-Jew is no longer only or even at all an adversary who threatens our existence. They are friends who have welcomed us as members in full standing into their societies. Jews have reciprocated by embracing the larger world and engaging with it in a new partnership. They don’t see the world as a dichotomous us-them, but as a place they want to learn from and contribute to.
No rabbi in the world would ever forbid living in neighborly relations with the non-Jew, not simply because such a ruling is politically self destructive, but rather because it does not reflect the values and experiences that have come to define the nature of Jewish life outside of Israel. Around the world, Judaism is growing and flourishing, especially in North America, in the midst of a shared, multi-religious public sphere where new levels of respect, cooperation, and learning take place on a daily basis.
This is not the experience of Israelis. While instinctively rejecting the racist immorality of these few rabbis, our attitude toward non-Jews very often reflects that of the shtetl in the Middle Ages. Despite our power we often feel threatened and endangered by the Arab population, both in Israel and around us. That is not to say that many of these feelings are not without cause. Peace and coexistence have yet to become the central values defining Middle Eastern life. However, one of the greatest challenges facing modern Israel is not to allow the Middle East conflict to transform Israel into the largest ghetto in Jewish history, where a ghetto mentality will prevail. We cannot allow the fostering of a Judaism which aspires to further alienate us from our neighbors and which permits racist and separatist ideologies. We cannot excuse and ignore such expressions, even if they are in the minority, for minority positions which are ignored today become the inheritance of the majority tomorrow. We can no longer allow our government to turn a blind eye and fund for political considerations Jewish ideologies, rabbis, teachers, or schools which undermine the moral fiber of Judaism and the democratic character of the State of Israel.
We have embarked on a momentous project – to build a homeland for the Jewish people, a place where the best of Jewish values define the public sphere, a place where all Jews around the world, those who live in Israel and those who see their homes elsewhere, have a stake and a share, and a role in shaping the future of this society. We Israelis must learn that we have much to learn from the Judaism of Jews around the world. The experience of building Judaism in a minority context has enhanced our moral sensitivity and opened us to some of the best ideas and values that the world has to offer. As for the Jews of the world, the opportunity created by the State of Israel to take full responsibility for a society and which positions Judaism on a world stage as never before, creates unparalleled opportunities for Jewish innovation, pride, and experience. Their lives as Jews can be enhanced and enriched by this experience.
This opportunity, however, brings with it great challenges. Greatness is not inherited; it needs to be earned. Jews of moral principles in Israel and around the world must reach out to each other to ensure that each is benefiting from the experience of the other. We must make sure that our response to those who are creating a Judaism in Israel which is unworthy of our tradition will neither prevail nor be allowed the position of representing our people, our country and our faith.
We the majority, both in Israel and around the world, need to see each other, reach out to each other and build ever-new avenues of cooperation so that we will be worthy of the opportunities given to us in the modern world and strong enough to respond to its challenges.