REMARKS BY RABBI ERIC H. YOFFIE UAHC Executive Committee March 10, 2003
Not long ago I returned from a weeklong trip to Israel. It was an interesting trip, and I reported to you in a rather long memo on my meetings there. But I would like to take a moment to expand on a few of the points that I made in my report, and on developments in recent days.
Innumerable articles have appeared in the Israeli press on the dramatic success of the Shinui party in the Israeli elections. Shinui won 15 seats, and is the third largest party in the Knesset. Its leader is Tommy Lapid, a Holocaust survivor and journalist who became famous in Israel for his slash-and-burn appearances on political talk shows. The number two person on the list and the architect of the party's success is Avram Poraz, an attorney and long-time Knesset member; Poraz participated in a Knesset member mission to the United States sponsored by ARZA over 15 years ago, and he has been a friend of the Reform Movement ever since. The platform of Shinui consists of free market economics, and support for a Palestinian state combined with a very tough line on Palestinian terror. It is best known, however, for its uncompromising opposition to the Orthodox religious monopoly, for its belief that Orthodox yeshiva students should serve in the army like everyone else, for its commitment to public transportation on Shabbat, and for its support of civil marriages in Israel.
As I am sure you know, Shinui has joined Israel's government, together with Prime Minister Sharon's Likud party, the National Religious party, and the National Union party. Tommy Lapid is Minister of Justice, Avram Poraz is Minister of the Interior, and three other Shinui Knesset members sit in the cabinet as well.
In the weeks since the formation of the government, Shinui has been subjected to withering criticism from every direction. It has been accused of failing to bring about the religious revolution that it promised and of abandoning its principles in return for seats at the Cabinet table. In our own movement, we have already heard voices reminding us of the weakness and duplicity of all politicians and warning us not to expect too much of Shinui, and to avoid being tainted by an overly close association with their leaders who will ultimately sell us out just as others have done so before them.
Before we go too far down this path, I suggest that we slow down, take a breath, and look at what is actually happening in Israel. There is not a lot of good news coming out of Israel these days, and so when we finally get some, I suggest that we use the opportunity to savor it for as long as it lasts.
Something important happened in Israel in this election. For as long as I can remember, people here have been asking me: Since the religious situation in Israel is so intolerable, why hasn't there been a revolution among Israelis? Why aren't Israelis demonstrating in the streets against Orthodox coercion? Where is the voice of protest, the voice demanding religious freedom for all of Israel's citizens?
What happened in this election is that, finally, that voice was heard. A political party said that while it had a broader agenda, its central concern was going to be ending the special status enjoyed by Israel's religious bureaucracy. And as a result of this message, it experienced an extraordinary victory, nearly tripling its Knesset delegation.
And why did it do so well? Because Israel finds itself in a desperate situation. Its economy is collapsing, it is beset by terror, and the prospects for progress toward peace are dim. Looking around, many Israelis said: if our situation is so desperate, we need to share the burden equally. When we are in the midst of a war on terror, we cannot have one segment of the population that refuses to serve in the army. When we are in desperate economic straits, we cannot have one sector that refuses to do productive work, and that expects other Israelis to pay their way. And they were drawn to Shinui because Lapid and Poraz and the rest refused to be politically correct; they refused to couch their concerns in obscure language so as not to offend and so as to keep their political options open. They said what they believed in clear, unequivocal terms; they declared that the time had come for change; and the voters rewarded them for their candor.
Let me repeat: this is good news. And when someone demonstrates political courage on an issue that is dear to our hearts, we need to acknowledge their accomplishments and express our thanks.
We are not naïve. We have no illusions about politicians. Tommy Lapid is not the messiah and is not Moshe Rabbenu. When I spoke to the Shinui caucus, I told them that every other party that had championed the cause of religious rights had ultimately abandoned its principles and, not incidentally, had been punished by the voters for doing so. I told them that I believed that they would be different because for them, the issue of religious freedom was a matter of profound conviction and not a matter of political expedience. Now, will they really be different? I have no way of knowing. But the purpose of my remarks, of course, was to send a not so subtle reminder that they had made promises to the voters, and if they were not faithful to their promise, they would be condemned to the political oblivion that was the fate of every other party that had not be true to its convictions. And I was much impressed by the discussion that followed my presentation, when one Shinui Knesset member after another referred to his or her connection to the Reform Movement. I have been talking to Israeli politicians for a long time, and I am more than a little cynical myself, but this was clearly a group of people that cares in a sincere way about religious pluralism. Now the question is: will they be able to translate this caring into concrete legislative accomplishments?
While it is far too early to tell, the early signs are positive, in my view. I reject the view that Shinui has already sold out by joining the government without getting the far-reaching changes that it had hoped for. Shinui has 15 seats out of 120 in the Knesset; it will accomplish nothing without allies. In my discussions with Lapid, I asked him directly what would be necessary to bring about significant change, and he responded forthrightly that in a secular government, consisting of Likud, Labor, and Shinui, meaningful legislation would be possible, while in any other government it would not. The government that was ultimately formed is not a secular government and includes a modern Orthodox party; obviously, the religious changes that such a government will make will be limited.
Nonetheless, there are reasons to be encouraged. Shinui said that it would not sit in a government that included an ultra-Orthodox party, and did not compromise on this point. Faced with the need to choose, Prime Minister Sharon decided to include Shinui in his government and to exclude Shas and United Torah Judaism. This is the first time in a very long time that an Israeli government has been formed without an ultra-Orthodox presence. This is surprising in a sense because in many ways, the ultra-Orthodox parties are much more a natural ally for Sharon than is Shinui. But my own view is that Sharon has come to understand what many other Israelis now see as well -- that the patience of average Israelis with the shenanigans of the ultra-Orthodox is running thin, and that they are no longer prepared to be tolerant of a group that is so obsessed with its own narrow agenda and so little concerned with the general welfare. The ultra-Orthodox parties, it should be noted, are absolutely apoplectic about Shinui's rise to power and about their own exclusion from the government, and their reaction reflects their high level of concern about what the Shinui victory represents.
As part of the coalition agreement, Shinui obtained some modest concessions in matters of religious legislation. More important, however, is the fact that it controls two major ministries, Justice and Interior, and will be in a position to influence the registration of converts and, conceivably, to direct some funds to the Reform and Conservative movements on the municipal level, for the construction of synagogues and other local needs. The real test for Shinui will not be its success in carrying out a religious revolution in a single Knesset term -- such a revolution will take many years and will require the formation of a coalition that does not yet exist. The test will be its willingness to use the power already at its disposal to advance religious freedom, and the extent to which it will continue to be a strong advocate in every public forum for the cause of religious change. Shinui has put religious pluralism on Israel's political agenda, and even in the absence of legislative victories, the responsibility of its leadership is to keep it there.
We all understand that Israel is facing multiple crises at the moment. We do not know what impact the war in Iraq will have on the Jewish state. We do not know if murderous Palestinian terror will continue or be contained, or if the Palestinian Authority will finally undertake some serious internal reforms. We do not know if the Iranians and the Syrians will continue as sponsors of terror, or if the Iranians will continue to develop nuclear weapons. We do not know if Israel's government will take the difficult steps required to revive its economy; we don't know if it will bow to the pressure of the National Religious Party and expand settlement growth in the West Bank and Gaza; we don't know if it will offer a coherent and compelling plan for peace, and if it does, whether or not there will be anyone on the Palestinian side to respond.
In light of all this, even we might wonder if it really makes sense to be discussing religious issues at this moment. Shouldn't our sole and exclusive focus be on Israel's security?
But it does make sense, from every point of view. Because Israel is a beleaguered country, a country under siege. And the likelihood is very strong, no matter what happens, that Israel will face a prolonged period of uncertainty and conflict. During such a period, religious questions do not become less important; they become more important.
Yes, of course, security is essential, and every Israeli is entitled to security. But security is not a philosophy of Jewish life. Security is not an answer to the question: why should I be here?
So the danger is not only terror; the danger is also a religious vacuum. If my concern as an Israeli is only security, and if there is no security, then I will eventually ask: why do I risk my life here? Why not go to Melbourne or Minneapolis or some other place where I will be more secure?
So yes, Israel's victory in this war will depend on security and the strength and deterrent power of her army. But it will depend no less on the belief in the justice of her cause, on the ties of her citizens to the Land of Israel and their yearning for the Jewish homeland, on the historical connection between the Jewish people and Eretz Yisrael, and on a vision of justice and coexistence for Jews and Palestinians alike. And these are not security questions; they are religious questions.
The concept of the Jews being one people with a deep connection to the Land of Israel is a religious idea-and not an ethnic or a political one. It is an idea rooted in covenant, in Torah, and in religious commitment and faith. If we are to talk about the totality and interdependence of the Jewish people, and the justice of our cause in the Land of Israel, we will have to revive the religious ideas on which these notions are based. And we believe, with all modesty, that a modern, progressive interpretation of Judaism is most likely to provide the answers that Israelis need.
So we do not apologize for focusing on religious questions, not at all; and we are pleased that the voters of Israel have turned their attention to these matters as well. We greet with enthusiasm the values that Shinui has embraced and has brought to the attention of the Israeli public, and we hope that they will remain steadfast in their commitments. But even if they falter, there is no going back. The time has come to release Judaism from the embrace of a coercive Orthodox establishment that has succeeded only in bringing Torah into disrepute. And if Shinui does not complete this task, then others will come forward and complete it for them.