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JTS Head Accuses Religious Israelis of Turning Majority from Religion

September 8, 1988
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In a sharply worded address, Dr. Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, accused Israel’s religious right of repelling the majority of Israelis from religion and of fostering a “messianic mindset” among Israeli leaders.

In addition, Schorsch expressed his support for a land-for-peace formula as a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Schorsch delivered his remarks Wednesday at the opening of a two-day Conservative movement conference on Zionism, at the seminary’s main campus in New York.

His keynote address demonstrated the increasing assertiveness of Conservative leaders in confronting the religious parties in Israel, who have made clear their intention to deny legitimacy to non-Orthodox Jewish movements.

The Jerusalem Rabbinate relented last month in attempts to deny a Conservative youth hostel its kosher classification.

But religious forces in Israel continue to press for a “Who is a Jew?” amendment to Israel’s Law of Return that would effectively delegitimize Conservative and Reform rabbis.

Schorsch told the conference that “It is preferable to drop the Law of Return” rather than agree to the proposed amendments. “Israel must not permit itself to be progressively recast in the image of an East European shtetl, ” said Schorsch.

A solution to that “nightmarish prospect,” he said, would be to require military service for all qualified Israeli yeshiva students, who may currently gain exemptions, and to require that all state rabbis and rabbinic judges have university degrees in addition to their religious training.

Noting that a majority of Israelis are not religiously observant, Schorsch said Israelis are “secular by choice, but also in part by lack of choice.”


Schorsch, calling for religious pluralism in Israel, said there has been a “catastrophic failure of Orthodoxy to expose some 80 percent of Israeli society to even a modicum of religious vocabulary, study and observance.”

Schorsch also blamed elements on the religious right for blocking a peaceful settlement to the Palestinian crisis.

In endorsing a land-for-peace formula, Schorsch harkened back to the original United Nations plan to partition the country into separate Jewish and Palestinian states.

“That long-retarded step forward offers a glimmer of hope for a political settlement,” he said.

Schorsch also said Conservative Jews are fearful of a “political rupture “in Israel.

Political culture of Western democracy has been subject to a “rising tide of contempt,” he said, “among certain right-wing circles and all too many young people.”

He singled out the militant right-wing views of Knesset member Rabbi Meir Kahane, comparing him with French right-wing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose ultra-nationalist views have been strewn with anti-Semitism.

“Jews cannot denounce Le Pen in France and back Kahane in Israel,” said Schorsch.

The conference concludes Thursday.

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