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A New Equation in Israel-Diaspora Relations

April 1, 2010 By:
Julie Schonfeld
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Julie Schonfeld

 

Israeli officials faced "coalition challenges" on three fronts in recent weeks: U.S.-Israel relations, the cohesion of the governing coalition and Diaspora-Israel relations. A seismic shift took place that should not be missed.

The Diaspora community, which has been too silent on issues of religious freedom when challenges to Israeli security and internal political unity were present, spoke out.

The U.S. and Israeli governments are working through a crisis in the wake of the settlement announcement during Vice President Joe Biden's visit. At the same time, on a different issue, the coalition government seemed at risk under the weight of the intransigent ultra-religious parties.

The catalyst was the Rotem conversion bill, which began as an effort to open the system of religious conversion courts. It suddenly expanded to include possible changes to the Law of Return and further disenfranchisement of the majority of world Jewry.

As events unfolded, a shift occurred in the Israel-Diaspora Jewry coalition that may come to be recognized as the most significant outcome of last week's developments. The Diaspora community has become progressively more marginalized on issues of religious status and identity over the past two decades.

As tiny ultra-Orthodox parties have become more extreme in their outlook and more powerful in their maneuverings, we restrained ourselves. Yet by doing so, we allowed fundamentalism imposed by the ultra-Orthodox to be enforced by the Israeli government.

By remaining silent for unity's sake, we have become less unified. But now, faced with the possibility of the Rotem bill passing, Diaspora leaders looked at the familiar equation: "Silence on Religious Coercion = Unity = Security" and saw that it doesn't add up.

The net result of this equation is that the younger generation sees Israel as an oppressive and fundamentalist society. We must act to reverse the growing disaffection among young Diaspora Jews, who will not accept a society that allows a religious minority to treat their core Jewish values with contempt.

As tensions rose, the Conservative and Reform movements continued to issue calls for letters to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Jewish Federations of North America sent a delegation to meet with the bill's author, Knesset member David Rotem.

Natan Sharansky, in his official capacity as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, spoke of his alignment with the Diaspora on this issue, and of the necessity of Israeli consultation with us in the formulation of laws that affect world Jewry on conversion and the Law of Return.

This represented a sea change in Diaspora-Israel relations. Diaspora leaders recognized that any threat to our relationship with Israel is a threat to the security of the Jewish state. We said "no" to religious coercion -- not despite Jewish unity and the priority of Israel's security, but because of it.

The majority of world Jewry cannot relate to the Judaism of the ultra-Orthodox minority. Conservative and Reform leaders, along with the Jewish Federations, have called out the Israeli government on the coercive power that coalition arithmetic has granted to the Orthodox.

We proclaimed that it so harms Israel-Diaspora relations as to name it for what it is: a security threat. We set aside our other agendas and spent a week on this issue. Because of this work, Diaspora Jewry derived a new axiom: "Israel's Future = Security and Religious Freedom."

As more than 100 Conservative rabbis prepared for last week's AIPAC policy conference, an annual highlight for supporters of Israel in America, we ordered 1,000 blue wristbands with four simple words: "Israel · Security · Religious Freedom." Help us carry the message.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis.

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