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Behind the Headlines: Diaspora Minister Wants Religion to Unite, Not Divide, World Jewry

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If you passed Rabbi Michael Melchior strolling in the Knesset corridors, wearing his black kipah and long beard, you might mistakenly think he was one of many fervently Orthodox legislators in Israeli politics today.

But Melchior, who was appointed a Cabinet minister with responsibility for Diaspora relations and social affairs Aug. 5, has little in common with most Orthodox politicians, who often seek to use legislation to anchor religion in society.

Since 1995, Melchior has been chairman of the executive committee of Meimad, a centrist Orthodox movement that seeks to detach politics and religion. Before the May elections, Meimad joined forces with Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s Labor Party to form the One Israel bloc.

Campaign fliers are still piled high at Meimad’s Jerusalem office, where Melchior spoke to JTA the morning after his appointment. Between fielding congratulatory calls, Melchior explained how he plans to use his new position both to help resolve religious-secular tensions and improve Israel-Diaspora relations from within.

"The challenges are immense," he says, pointing out issues ranging from Holocaust restitution to Jewish identity and education. "But what I really want to do is to work here to change attitudes of Israelis towards the Diaspora. I want to create an awareness in Israel, which unfortunately hardly exists here today, that we are part of a Jewish world."

"If we lose consciousness that there are Jews outside the borders of the state of Israel, then we have lost a basic part of our Jewish identity," Melchior says.

Melchior insisted that the new ministry be defined as "social and Diaspora affairs" because he believes that what happens in Israeli society affects the Diaspora as well.

For example, he says, the spiraling religious-secular conflict, with Orthodox and secular politicians engaged in endless shouting matches, is damaging for all Jews.

"If this will be the face of what will be the dominant cultural political image of Judaism, many people will eventually opt out of the relationship with Israel and opt out of a relationship with Judaism," he says. "Therefore I think that what we do here in Israel, the changes in Israel, will affect Diaspora Jewry."

Melchior is also worried that the politicization of religion, along with Israel’s shift toward a post-Zionist era, is pulling Israelis away from any connection with Judaism.

"There is an increasing perception here that things are either Jewish or modern, Jewish or democratic, and what Meimad has come to the scene to show is that the message of the Torah is a combination," explains Melchior. "You can be 100 percent committed to the Torah, without compromising any value in the Torah, and at the same time be part of the modern world."

This, he explains, means that the Torah can provide guidance to modern social issues ranging from Israel’s treatment of non-Jews to social gaps in society to the status of women.

It is still unclear what kind of authority or budgets the new ministry will have for Melchior to implement Meimad’s vision. But this is the first time a ministry has been formed explicitly to deal with Diaspora affairs. In Israel’s previous government, Bobby Brown served as an adviser to the prime minister on Diaspora affairs.

Whatever authority he will have, Melchior will clearly play a key role in Israel-Diaspora affairs in the coming years.

Born in Denmark to an eighth-generation rabbinical family, Melchior, 45, came to Israel after completing high school and studied at Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem. He stayed for eight years, was ordained in 1980 and then appointed chief rabbi of Oslo.

Melchior chuckles at the symbolism of having served in a city where the historic Israeli-Palestinian peace accord would be signed. But even more significant, he says, is the role he played in rebuilding a tiny, unique community of just 1,000 Jews that was devastated after World War II.

"It is an Orthodox community but it has room for everybody," he explains. "We are too small to divide up into different groups, so if there is not enough room under the roof for everyone to feel comfortable and for everyone to feel that there is full expression of their Jewish identity, then the whole thing would cease to exist.

"Actually, it has been a great model which other communities have used, and I think here in Israel we can learn a lot from it as well. The Diaspora can teach a lot to Israel."

After living in Oslo from 1980 to 1986, Melchior made aliyah to Israel. He continued to serve as chief rabbi of Norway, spending about 18 weeks a year in Scandinavia.

He has been employed by the Norwegian government as an adviser on human rights issues, served as the international director of the Elie Wiesel Foundation and won several awards, including the Norwegian Nobel Institute’s prize for tolerance and bridge-building.

He also served as an adviser on Diaspora affairs to Rabbi Yehuda Amital, Meimad’s founder, who briefly was a minister without portfolio following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Melchior supports Barak’s vision on the peace process. But he also thinks Israelis should be more open to Palestinian suffering. Melchior himself periodically visits Palestinian refugee camps and holds talks with Muslim clerics.

In 1988, Melchior helped found Meimad as a political party, but it failed to earn enough votes to qualify for the Knesset and instead transformed into a social movement. Meimad has criticized the Orthodox community for using religious texts to bolster political positions. The movement also advocates an end to religious coercion, while urging the Orthodox community to adopt humanistic values, respect non-Orthodox Jews and include liberal rabbis in the conversion process.

"I am an Orthodox rabbi, and I am 100 percent committed to halachah and its Orthodox interpretation," Melchior says. "But I also have very, very good relations with Conservative and Reform Jewry.

On the issue of conversions, he says, "I think the real solution is to take it out of the political realm. I think the state of Israel should not be dealing with who is a Jew but who is an Israeli."

In his new position, Melchior also expects to be dispatched to bolster support from Jewish lobbies in the United States when the peace process begins to move ahead. He clearly remembers a meeting with congressmen on Capitol Hill a few years ago.

"When they saw me — as an Orthodox rabbi who looks like one — and heard what I had to say about the peace process, they nearly fell off their chairs. The worst thing was that I think they had the perspective from extreme right-wing activists that Judaism and peace are two opposites, and certainly religious Judaism and peace. And they were very surprised, I think, positively surprised."

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