I am deeply saddened by Ambassador Ronald Lauder’s op-ed in the New York Times (“Israel, This Is Not Who We Are,” Aug. 14). Lauder’s essay suggests that Israel is in danger of losing its democratic character and, consequently, American Jewish support.
Whether one supports or opposes the current Netanyahu coalition, there has been no indication that the Israeli people are about to strip non-Jewish Israelis of their citizenship and/or voting rights.
Lauder’s piece, therefore, does a serious disservice to the mission of the World Jewish Congress, of which he is president, and is unworthy of his distinguished history of protecting and reviving Jewish life in Israel and throughout Eastern Europe.
The most egregious aspect of the essay is its exaggeration of issues which are worthy of legitimate concern and debate, but which hardly define Israeli society or culture.
Lauder writes accurately about the Orthodox stranglehold on Judaism in Israel, and the ever-encroaching Orthodox monopoly that undermines Jewish pluralism in the Jewish State. This is surely a sad reality of Israeli politics and is a wholly legitimate issue of concern to American Jewry.
Israel is the state of the Jewish People throughout the world. Israel needs to embrace non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism. Jewish couples in Israel should have the right to stand under the chuppah with a rabbi of their choice and have their marriage accepted by the State of Israel. And there should be a non-Orthodox, egalitarian section at the Western Wall.
But the challenge of Jewish pluralism in Israel is simply of little interest to the people of Israel. When the Western Wall compromise collapsed, the only protesters at the site were, for the most part, American Jews. The issue of Jewish pluralism resonates in a very small portion of the Israeli population, which views the practice of Judaism far differently than do American Jews. The cliché still holds that most Israelis don’t attend synagogue, but if they did it would be Orthodox.
If the religious landscape is to change, it is the Israeli people who must change the system. Sooner or later (and it well may be “sooner”), the Israeli people will be so dissatisfied with the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel that the Israeli people will democratically change the current religious status quo.
For all the talk about Israeli “democracy,” on issues of Jewish practice in Israel there are American Jews who have no patience with the will of the Israeli people. Lauder’s piece oversimplifies the issue of Jewish pluralism in Israel by placing blame at the feet of the Netanyahu government. Jewish leaders who care about Israel have a responsibility to explain the realities of Jewish life in Israel and to prevent this issue from turning any American Jew away from Israel. It is essential to understand that the issue of Jewish pluralism is a sliver of Israeli life.
Instead of emphasizing the lack of Jewish pluralism in Israel, Lauder should be writing about how non-Orthodox Jews who visit Israel never experience a moment of discrimination or second-class status. Israelis, the majority of whom are “secular,” never even notice.
I do not believe Lauder’s goal was to encourage Jews to turn away from Israel. But that is exactly what this kind of piece evokes.
Moreover, there are Conservative (Masorti) and Reform synagogues in Israel for any non-Orthodox Jew to attend in total comfort and celebration. Except for a visit to the Western Wall, the issue of Jewish pluralism is a non-issue for any non-Orthodox Jew in Israel. But this is not the sense one gets from Lauder’s essay, which could suggest to the unsophisticated reader that the Orthodox monopoly in Israel is a major social issue that impacts Israeli life on a daily basis.
It does not, and it is not a reason for American Jews to reject Israel.
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Similarly, Lauder suggests that Israel’s new nation-state law is a step toward dismantling Israeli democracy. Lauder suggests that “Israel is turning its back on Jewish heritage, the Zionist ethos and the Israeli spirit.”
One can take issue with parts of the law. Many Jews are upset a fourth paragraph was not added to the first article affirming that non-Jews will always enjoy “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” (as written in Israel’s Declaration of Independence). But there is not a word in the new law that suggests any non-Jew will lose citizenship or voting rights.
Lauder should have written about how the new law is simply an attempt to affirm the “Jewish” character of the State of Israel at a critical moment in Israeli history. Many Israelis fear that the Jewishness of Israel is under assault from the extreme left which wants Israel to be only a western-style democratic state that happens to reside in the Middle East. Lauder could have assured world Jewry that the new law does nothing to jeopardize the Israeli people’s commitment to democracy. He could have cited all the extraordinary ways Israel applies democratic rights to Arabs, Christians, Druze and all non-Jewish citizens – who have the right to vote, have members in the Israeli Parliament, sit as judges on the Israeli Supreme Court, serve as some of Israel’s finest doctors and nurses in major Israeli hospitals and study alongside Jewish students in Israel’s finest universities.
Lauder has every right to his opinion of the Netanyahu government and its policies. He has every right to object to the power of the Chief Rabbinate and to oppose the nation-state law. But it is an insult to the Israeli people to suggest that the Israeli people harbor malevolent intentions. Unfortunately, nowhere in his piece does Lauder ever say the critics of Israel are wrong. Is he pleased with the flood of vicious anti-Israel responses to his piece published in the New York Times “Comments” section. Does Lauder approve of American Jews boasting of how they will no longer support the State of Israel?
I do not believe Lauder’s goal was to encourage Jews to turn away from Israel. But that is exactly what this kind of piece evokes. A leader of his stature should not be aiding those who vilify the State of Israel. Jewish leaders must accurately reflect the values of Israeli society and the goodness of the Israeli people, encouraging American Jews always to maintain a positive connection to the State of Israel.
Mark S. Golub is the president and executive producer of The Jewish Broadcasting Service (JBS).