Tensions Flare At Reform Convention, Israeli ambassador walks out in anger


Dallas — Ambassador Eliahu Ben-Elissar had heard enough. Israel’s top representative to the United States was squirming in his seat at the Reform movement’s national convention as he listened to noted Jewish historian Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg refer to Israel’s chief rabbis as “bigots with computers” — referring to a confidential computer list they maintain of children of illegitimate unions known as “mamzerim.”

But when Rabbi Hertzberg likened Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy on religious pluralism to China’s defense of its human rights policy, Ben-Elissar, who had already given his speech, headed for the exit.

“I am not going to take any more of this,” he told Reform officials seated next to him, and he and his wife strode out of the auditorium, filled with many of the biennial convention’s 4,500 delegates — the largest Jewish conference held in the U.S.A.

As he made his way out of the darkened auditorium, Ben-Elissar told The Jewish Week that he blamed Rabbi Hertzberg for “pouring oil on the fire” in the pluralism war between America’s non-Orthodox leaders and the coalition of Israeli government and Orthodox leaders.

A cease-fire was declared last week as the Reform and Conservative movements agreed to extend by three more months a special commission headed by Israel Finance Minister Yaakov Ne’eman seeking to find a compromise solution over conversions in Israel.

“I came here in the spirit of friendship and solidarity trying to mend fences,” Ben-Elissar said, explaining his decision to accept an invitation to speak at the 64th biennial of the Reform movement — Judaism’s largest branch with 1.5 million members.But the diplomat quickly added, “I don’t think I have to listen to this propaganda.”

Apprised of the tiff later in the evening, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform movement, told The Jewish Week it was a mistake for the ambassador to dismiss Rabbi Hertzberg’s remarks as propaganda.

“There are deep feelings about injustices and extremism and it would be better for Israeli officials to hear and understand those deep feelings,” he said.

The incident capped several days of intensive public discussions by Reform leaders on the religious pluralism issue during their five-day conference. It opened only a day after both sides agreed to the three-month extension, averting for now a showdown in the Knesset. Legislation is pending that would codify the status quo, allowing only Orthodox rabbis to officiate at conversions in Israel.

Reform and Conservative Jewish groups in the U.S. insist that if Israel passes the bill, non-Orthodox Jews throughout the diaspora will be made to feel like second-class Jews in the eyes of the Jewish state.

Many delegates here wore buttons that said “Israel: Don’t Write Off 4 Million Jews,” and tensions ran high at the conference. In fact, Reform leaders were concerned that Ben-Elissar would be booed when he appeared for his presentation. But the large audience at the Saturday-night plenary was respectful, if not enthusiastic, when the ambassador called for more aliyah to Israel, spoke out against Jews fighting Jews, and insisted that, through the Ne’eman committee, the Israeli government is “determined to make it right.”

Earlier in the day, Rabbi Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), representing the movement’s 850 congregations, declared that Reform Jewry was in Israel to stay. And he announced a strategy to increase activities there, including a “sacred pilgrimage” to Jerusalem by hundreds of Reform leaders in June to pray at the Western Wall.

“We are not going to let the fanatics burn us out, desecrate us out, vilify us out or vandalize us out — and neither will they legislate us out,” Rabbi Yoffie declared during his state-of-the-movement Sabbath sermon. He accused Israel’s haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community of daily verbal attacks “with a vituperation that would put anti-Semites to shame.”

“Make no mistake: we are in Israel to stay,” he said before more than 4,000 cheering worshipers.

The rabbi, presiding over his first biennial, said Reform Jewry will demand that Israel’s government support “all religious movements, or none at all. On the principle of pluralism we will be utterly uncompromising. Until Israel makes real its promise of religious freedom, we will not excuse, we will not equivocate, we will not retreat a single inch,” he said to rousing applause.

Rabbi Yoffie invited Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, to join him for worship on June 13. He said that on the previous evening, the Reform delegation would pray on the eve of Sabbath “in the rear part of the Plaza, across from the Western Wall” — challenging Netanyahu to provide the necessary protection against attacks by ultra-Orthodox Jews and police that occurred against non-Orthodox worshipers near the Wall during the past six months.

But not all Reform leaders are eager for a showdown with the Netanyahu government and the Orthodox establishment. At a session the day before devoted to religious pluralism, Rabbi Richard Hirsch, executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, advocated compromise, putting Jewish unity over “our rights.” He said that the cost of a split between Israel and diaspora Jewry was too high a price to pay.

But Rabbi Uri Regev, a leader of the Reform movement in Israel, and Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, director of the Association of Reform Zionists in America, and Rabbi Richard Hirsch’s son, stressed the imperative of continuing political pressure. “We’re constantly in the face of our political opponents” and “making a huge difference,” the younger Rabbi Hirsch asserted.

He said that if a split between Israel and American Jewry occurs, it will be the fault of the Israeli government, which he accused of “arrogance” in “attacking American Jews at the core” of their identity.

The religious pluralism battle overshadowed other internal issues at the conference, including some that had been expected to generate controversy.

The delegates refused to even consider a resolution that would have allowed rabbis to officiate at intermarriages. (The movement’s rabbinical arm now discourages participating in such ceremonies, while leaving the decision to individual rabbis, nearly half of whom do take part, according to a 1996 survey.)

There was also little debate over an internal dues structure change. The delegates voted to reduce congregational dues obligations from 11 percent to 8 percent for the UAHC and the movement’s seminary.

A dominant theme of the convention was spirituality, prayer and Torah study, as evident from the title, “Renewing The Covenant” (see accompanying story).

And while Netanyahu came in for frequent criticism for his policies on the peace process and religious rights, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who addressed the delegates, was greeted with great warmth.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner, in Dallas to promote his new Peres Peace Center, received a standing ovation when he promised the Reform assembly that “myself as well as my party will oppose with full strength the law of conversion that is being proposed today.”

(At about the same time, Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak was also telling UJA leaders that his party would not support the bill, according to the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv.)

Peres, who said his eldest daughter and her family are active in the Beit Daniel Reform synagogue near Tel Aviv, called for the separation of religion and state, declaring that “The Torah belongs to all of us, not to a single party.

“The problem begins when a religious group becomes a political party,” he said. “The Lord in heaven is not in need of a political party. He was already elected.”

One Reform leader dismissed Peres’ remarks as disingenuous, noting that the ex-prime minister failed to support the Reform movement when he was in power.

Peres sharply criticized the New York-based Lubavitch movement for interfering in Israeli politics and questioned why Israel’s Orthodox leaders who berate the Reform movement for meddling remain silent on the chasidic group’s activities.

“They mix in our elections, they bring money from abroad, they insult our democracy,” said Peres. Publisher-editor Gary Rosenblatt contributed to this report.