Although we know what Israelis who oppose haredi Orthodox control of the chief rabbinate and other state bodies are against, it isn’t clear why are they against it and what they are trying to accomplish. In a penetrating column last week, Michael J. Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, argued that while Israeli opponents of Orthodox power appear to be driven by many of the same concerns as U.S.-grown advocates of religious pluralism, their objectives are actually much different.
“For many American Jews and American Jewish organizations, Orthodox domination of Israeli state religious institutions has been the single greatest source of tension between American Jewry and Israel over the past few years,” Koplow wrote. But, he added, “Few inside of Israel are battling the haredim on behalf of religious pluralism.”
Koplow focused on former right-wing Israeli defense minister Avigdor Liberman, who put a halt to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent coalition-building efforts by opposing political concessions to the haredim. Koplow warned against seeing a champion of pluralism in Liberman’s actions. He pointed out that Liberman is a secularist, and explained pluralists and secularists have different objectives: Pluralists seeks to broaden recognition and acceptance of all religious streams and promote tolerance for those who don’t subscribe to any. Secularists seek the removal of religion. So secularists like Liberman aren’t looking to restrain religious influence on government; they are seeking to remove it.
Even though complete secularism is the preference of a minority of Israelis, very few Israelis are able to understand the logic of what they see as a Diaspora-driven Jewish pluralism. As explained by Koplow, here’s why:
“American Jews that fight for religious pluralism in Israel want not only a mixed-gender option at the Kotel, but they want that option to be one that is controlled by recognized Conservative and Reform movements. They want the state to fund Conservative and Reform rabbis and institutions the same way that the state funds Orthodox rabbis and institutions. They want Conservative and Reform conversions to be recognized by the Israeli state. They want Israel and Israelis to recognize and acknowledge the Jewish diversity of the U.S., where there is no chief rabbinate or state involvement in religion and thus no central arbiter of what will and won’t be permitted, and grant that diversity a place in the Jewish state for the millions of Jews who subscribe to it.”
It’s a tall order in a state where Judaism is baked into the national culture and fabric. Because of who they are and the system they know and understand, Israelis struggle to understand the need for our approach. That’s not to say the push for pluralism shouldn’t continue. But, as Koplow warned, “nobody should expect that to change overnight.”