Israel, founded as the Jewish state, was never meant to be a theocracy. But in the past week several eruptions of Orthodox triumphalism from political figures remind us of the vigilance required to keep Israel’s definition of Jewish to be open and pluralistic.
There were the comments by Likud-Beiteinu Knesset Member David Rotem, who described the Reform movement as “another religion” and its members “not Jewish.” Minutes after Rotem apologized, United Torah Judaism MK Uri Maklev waded into the fray declaring Reform Jews “enemies of the Jewish people” and implied that Rotem was paid off to retract his earlier statements.
These kind of pronouncements in the Knesset are deeply wrongheaded. They are offensive to many Israelis and to an even larger number of diaspora Jews.
But what is most disturbing about these statements is that politicians are making them to cater to an increasingly mobilized part of the Israeli body politic that adopts a worldview based on religious supremacism rather than pragmatism, privilege rather than equality, and exclusivity rather than inclusivity. These statements are not the disease; they are a symptom of growing fundamentalism in Israel.
NIF is committed to building a better Israel. We know that there is more than one way to be Jewish, which is one reason why we support a wide range of organizations working to help reinforce the idea of separation between religion and state power. It is why we support brave voices within the Orthodox community that advocate for pluralism and tolerance, and it is why we have a longstanding relationship with the rapidly growing Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements in Israel.
We know that extremism in Israeli society must be publicly challenged -- that extremists must not be allowed to rise to positions of authority without a struggle. This is an ongoing effort for us at NIF. In recent weeks, NIF and our grantees have been working to express concern to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat about the possibility that Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, a religious leader with a long history of racist remarks and actions, will be considered for the for the post of Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. It must be seen as simply unacceptable for a racist to be a viable candidate for public office in Israel, regardless of whether his racism is garbed in religious language.
Our partners in the effort for a better Israel extend beyond our grantee organizations. In the past week, nearly 1,000 rabbis from around the world have joined together on a letter to Mayor Barkat that echoes the concerns of the Israelis at the front lines of this effort.
Our message is simple: In a city that is polarizing between Jews and Arabs, and between the various streams of Judaism represented there, any chief rabbi appointed should demonstrate the ability to listen, to conciliate, and to unite.
Next week NIF’s Board of Directors will meet in Jerusalem. On the agenda is a review of our strategies to help foster a better Israel, one based on the premise that a state established by Jews ought to be true to the best of Jewish and humanitarian ideals.
I know that with the tools that we have -- and the new efforts our board is reviewing -- that NIF will be able to bring back a more democratic and inclusive spirit to Israel. Thank you for being together with us in this effort.