By the time you read this, the results of the general election in Israel will be known. One of many candidates likely to be disappointed is Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the executive director of the Israel Reform Movement. He was placed 11th on the list of the Democratic Camp, just behind Ehud Barak, the former prime minister. Opinion polls predicted that neither would get in.
Though I voted for the list, I’m relieved that Rabbi Kariv will remain in his current job. I’ve the highest regard for his abilities and great respect for his leadership. He has done great things for the Reform movement in Israel and I hope that he’ll continue to lead it for many years to come.
He may be irritated by this article, should he see it. For he’s among my rabbinic colleagues who believe that they can champion the cause of Reform Judaism more effectively as professional politicians. In an interview last month with Sam Sokol of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Rabbi Kariv stated that religion, having been “a leading issue in the current campaign,” has created for him “a moment of political opportunity.” He wanted to be the first non-Orthodox rabbi in the Knesset.
There have been many Orthodox rabbis in the Knesset since the creation of the State of Israel. Supporting the parties in power – Labor in the days of Ben Gurion and, later, Likud under Begin and Netanyahu – they’ve been able to gain considerable concessions for their own institutions. Their secular partners have even allowed them to impose Orthodox practices on the entire population, e.g., by not allowing public transport on Sabbaths and festivals.
Some Reform and Conservative Jews appear to want to imitate them in the hope of thus advancing the position of non-Orthodox Judaism in the land. But, to start with, the number of card-carrying liberal Jews is relatively small, they usually vote according to their political commitments, not synagogue affiliation, and, very important, most rightly believe that mixing religion with politics poisons religion.
They insist that a democracy that Israel aspires to be owes it to all its religious streams, irrespective of numbers, to afford them full equality, not by might but by right. Imagine if Jews could only have religious rights in Canada if they had enough MPs who could trade favours with the ruling party!
The behaviour of Orthodox politicians in and outside the Knesset illustrates the ills of championing religious rights with political means. Their parliamentarians are not leaders to be emulated. Some have even been criminally convicted for abuse of power, others may now be under investigation for similar offences. They’ll tell you no doubt that whatever they did wasn’t for personal gain but for the glory of God.
In the years that I was involved in representing the Reform movement I often heard secular Israeli politicians tell us to organize ourselves politically in order to secure our rights as liberal Jews. I was always among those who was appalled by the idea.
Rabbi Kariv has done much to help secure rights for democracy and religious freedom, particularly through the Religious Action Centre run by the Israel Reform Movement. Thus, for example, weeks before this election, after the centre’s petition, Israel’s Supreme Court disqualified as candidates two followers of the notorious Meir Kahana who preached racism in the name of a distorted Judaism. Instead of seeking political means to serve religion, the Religious Action Centre seeks religious ways to keep politics cleaner.
Anat Hoffman, the director of the centre, has written that the court’s decision “sends a message loud and clear that there is no room for incitement, racism or hatred in the Knesset, or in the Jewish State.” Instead of fighting for narrow institutional advantages, Reform Judaism seeks to place itself among the champions of democracy and justice for all Israelis. By continuing to lead the movement, Rabbi Kariv will remain in the forefront of that struggle.