Israel, This Is Not Who We Are
Orthodoxy should be respected, but we cannot allow the politics of a radical minority to alienate millions of Jews worldwide.
By Ronald S. Lauder
Mr. Lauder is president of the World Jewish Congress.
Aug. 13, 2018
For many Israelis, Jews and supporters of Israel, the last year has been a challenging one. In the summer of 2017, Israel’s government withdrew from an agreement that would have created an egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall and proposed a strict conversion law that impinges on the rights of non-Orthodox Jews. This summer the Knesset passed a law that denies equal rights to same-sex couples. A day later came the nation-state law, which correctly reaffirms that Israel is a Jewish state, but also damages the sense of equality and belonging of Israel’s Druze, Christian and Muslim citizens.
Last month, a Conservative rabbi was detained for the alleged crime of performing a non-Orthodox wedding ceremony in Israel. In several municipalities, attempts were made to disrupt secular life by closing convenience stores on the Sabbath.
These events are creating the impression that the democratic and egalitarian dimensions of the Jewish democratic state are being tested.
Israel is a miracle. The Jews of the diaspora look up to Israel, admire its astonishing achievements and view it as their second home. However, today some wonder if the nation they cherish is losing its way.
For 4,000 years, the Jewish people were seen as the world’s moral compass.
The Zionist movement has been unwaveringly democratic from its very start. Writ large upon its flag were liberty, equality and human rights for all. It was also one of the very first national movements to guarantee full equality and voting rights for women. And when Israel was founded, it immediately became the first and only democracy in the Middle East. Its Declaration of Independence guarantees “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” as well as a guarantee of freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.
Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, Zeev Jabotinsky, David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir always emphasized the need to combine Jewish nationalism with universal humanism. So now, when Israel’s government appears to be tarnishing the sacred value of equality, many supporters feel it is turning its back on Jewish heritage, the Zionist ethos and the Israeli spirit.
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The issue at hand is first and foremost a moral one, but the new nation-state legislation may also have severe national and international repercussions. In Israel, it will heighten the sense of polarization and discord. Abroad, Israel may find itself associated with a broken values system and questionable friends. As a result, future leaders of the West may become hostile or indifferent to the Jewish state.
Tragically, the new policies will not strengthen Israel but weaken it, and in the long run they may endanger Israel’s social cohesiveness, economic success and international standing.
But the greatest threat is to the future of the Jewish people. For over 200 years, modern Judaism has aligned itself with enlightenment. The Jews of the new era have fused our national pride and religious affiliation with a dedication to human progress, worldly culture and morality. Conservatives and liberals, we all believe in a just Zionism and a pluralistic Judaism that respects every human being. So when members of Israel’s current government unintentionally undermine the covenant between Judaism and enlightenment, they crush the core of contemporary Jewish existence.
Already today, the main challenge facing the Jewish diaspora is a deep — and deepening — generational divide. All over the world, and especially in North America, Jewish millennials are raising doubts that their parents and grandparents never raised. The commitment to Israel and Jewish institutions is not unconditional.
Passing the torch to this younger generation is already a difficult undertaking — as many leaders, educators, rabbis and parents will attest. But when Israel’s own government proposes damaging legislation, this task may well become nearly impossible.
If present trends persist, young Jews might not acquiesce to an affiliation with a nation that discriminates against non-Orthodox Jews, non-Jewish minorities and the L.G.B.T. community. They may not fight the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, they may not support Israel in Washington and they may not provide it with the strategic rear guard that Israel so needs.
Let us not forget: A vast majority of the world’s Jews do not identify as Orthodox. They are traditional, secular, Conservative, Reform or completely unaffiliated. Orthodoxy should be respected, but we cannot allow the politics of a radical minority to alienate millions of Jews worldwide. We are one people, few in number, and we must stop sowing division among ourselves. Once we are united, our future will be boundless.
I have always stood by Israel and I always will. But now, as a loving brother, I ask Israel’s government to listen to the voices of protest and outrage being heard in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. As president of the World Jewish Congress, I call upon Israeli leaders to rethink their destructive actions during this summer of disharmony.
This is not who we are, and this is not who we wish to be. This is not the face we want to show our children, grandchildren and the family of nations. Let us work together to change course and ensure that Israel will continue to be the Jewish democratic state it is meant to be.
Ronald S. Lauder is president of the World Jewish Congress.