Behind the Headlines: Debate Rages Among Secularists; How to Respond to Orthodox Power

What should a secular Israeli do in the face of a recent Orthodox mass demonstration against the Supreme Court?

Israel’s secular intellectuals are battling among themselves over this question — and in particular over whether joining the Conservative or Reform movement is an appropriate response to the Orthodox protesters’ challenge.

Three of the country’s best-known writers — Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman — were among a group of two dozen prominent writers and intellectuals who last week called on the public to sign up as members of the two non- Orthodox movements.

“As Long As They Are Persecuted, We Are All Conservative and Reform,” was the headline of the ad they published in the national press.

But others in the secular community quickly took issue with this approach, arguing that to join a religious movement — even a non-Orthodox one-represents a betrayal of the very tenets of Israeli secular Judaism.

In an article headlined “Theocracy Lite,” a columnist for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Doron Rosenblum, gave voice to this criticism “They are prepared to commit a falsehood in their souls — and deceive the masses — by calling for the secular to masquerade as believers and to enter religion as kind of a Trojan horse.”

The dispute, which goes to the heart of the self-identity of Israeli society, erupted in the wake of a huge Feb. 14 demonstration in Jerusalem.

Some 250,000 Israelis — most of them from the fervently Orthodox, or haredi, community — gathered for a prayer vigil to protest recent Supreme Court decisions regarding matters of religion and state.

Israel’s two Orthodox chief rabbis, along with leading haredi and Zionist rabbis, were among those attending the mass protest. Some 50,000 secular Israelis took part in a counter-demonstration nearby.

Orthodox leaders called for the prayer vigil after the Supreme Court issued a string of rulings that they feel undermine their way of life.

In one ruling, the high court issued an order to allow Conservative and Reform representatives to serve on local religious councils, which oversee the provision of religious services in communities across the country.

Haredi leaders were also stung by a court ruling that canceled a decades-old arrangement under which yeshiva students are entitled to military exemptions.

The haredim and Zionist-Orthodox, in a rare show of solidarity, are bitterly battling this line of judicial activism.

They argue, as indeed many non-Orthodox jurists do, that the Knesset, not the court, should be involved in such issues.

The non-Orthodox movements, whose constituencies in Israel are small, contend that the clout wielded by the Orthodox parties in the Knesset makes it impossible for them to get a fair shake among legislators.

Each side accuses the other of anti-democratic action: Conservative and Reform leaders accuse the Orthodox of revolting against high court decisions; in turn, the Orthodox charge the more liberal religious streams with attempting to sidestep the legislature.

Oz and Yehoshua, in a series of media appearances last week, argued that the time for impotent hand-wringing has passed.

The Orthodox demonstrators had thrown down a gauntlet that has to be picked up, they said. And the way to pick it up is to have large numbers of Israelis join the non-Orthodox movements — and in this way create a more equitable balance of forces in terms of grass-roots numbers.

Yehoshua declared that he remains a staunch atheist and therefore would not actually participate in religious worship or any such activity.

Instead, he said, he would be an enthusiast or fan of the Conservative and Reform movements.

Apart from Oz and Yehoshua, very few of those who signed last week’s ad have actually taken their own advice and joined either movement.

But the movements are vigorously using the ad as part of a membership drive aimed at reaching young Israelis and offering them alternative modes of Jewish religious experience.

And spokespeople for the two movements say there has been a sharp upswing in interest in the wake of the Orthodox mass demonstration.

Oz pointed out in a radio interview that by taking the step that he and his friends were recommending, Israeli secularists would be identifying with millions of their non-Orthodox coreligionists in the United States.

But Rosenblum argued in Ha’aretz that this implied disdain “for the two largest streams in world Judaism: as if they were not serious organizations of believers, but rather a sort of country club for a bit of culture, folklore and Yiddishkeit; a kind of Judaism-lite (like lite hummus or lite beer), that you `sign up for,’ like a scout activity or a bus ride to a demonstration, and even this only to annoy the hard-core Orthodox.”

This tactic. Rosenblum added, plays into the hands of the Orthodox by implicitly agreeing with their long-standing contention that the non-Orthodox denominations are not serious about religion.

Moreover, Rosenblum maintained that the intellectuals who signed the ad were in effect showing disdain for secular Judaism itself, adding that their proposed action “reveals a profound sense of inferiority -as if Hebrew secularism were not able to stand alone on its own two feet.”

Yehoshua replied to this in an article of his own on Tuesday in which he wrote, “My secularism is neither `Hebrew,’ `Jewish’ nor `Israeli’ — nor does it express criticism or fear of Judaism. Rather, my secularism is a priori philosophical, existing independently of Judaism.”

Nevertheless, he wrote, “Judaism is part of both my cultural heritage and of my inner self.

“My friends and I are recruiting support for the Conservative and Reform movements because they are being persecuted.

“When I see Reform or Conservative Jews holding a prayer service at the Western Wall and surrounded by a jeering crowd of Orthodox, when I see religious councils trying to ostracize them, I feel the need, as a secularist, to stand by their side.”

As to the “Judaism lite” charge, Yehoshua retorted: “Certainly, the black-clad demonstrators before the Supreme Court building do not represent `authentic hummus.’ Why are those who wear the fur hats and sashes that were fashionable among 16th-century Polish aristocrats authentic Jews, while Reform and Conservative Jews are not? And authentic in terms of what?

“Who can judge authenticity? And is authenticity important? We should support those who believe in goodness and progress and who are close to our hearts. They want and need our help. Our secularism is sturdy enough to withstand our extension of support.”

A last word might go to Dedi Zucker, the long-serving legislator from the secularist Meretz Party, who has argued for dialogue between Meretz and Orthodox Israelis, and for a return by secularists to the religious texts.

These arguments, it perhaps should be noted, have brought him a notable lack of political success: He was recently dropped from the party’s slate of Knesset candidates for the upcoming elections.

Endorsing the writers’ ad, Zucker this week recalled his own decision, along with seven foreign workers from Ghana and Nigeria, to form a Foreign Workers Union in Israel.

“I shall never be Ghanaian,” Zucker said. “Or Nigerian or Thai. So I can never be a foreign worker in Israel.

“Nevertheless, politically, my action in joining with them was meaningful. It expresses sincere solidarity.”

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