Monday, November 11, 2013

Reflections from the General Assembly in Jerusalem: Politics, Marriage, Kotel

What a wonderful experience it has been at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly - one of the largest annual gatherings of American Jewish communal leaders!  This gathering takes place in Jerusalem once every five years (and takes place at a variety of American cities on the remaining years).  It is one of the more 'high-power' conferences of the Jewish world, and this year’s speaker list reflected this: we heard from Prime Minister Netanyahu; President Shimon Peres; Finance Minister Yair Lapid; Labor opposition leader Sheli Yachimovich; and a wide variety of other Knesset members and Israeli and American civic and business leaders.

This was my first effort at live-tweeting a conference. I admire those who can do it fluently, but I found it difficult and distracting. I much prefer to sum up my thoughts after the fact.  So here are some observations:

International Politics.  
Netanyahu’s speech became a newsworthy event because he used it to respond to the United States over the nuclear Iran issue.  Those with more political sophistication than I have analyzed the speech already. I will make just two observations:
  • While Netanyahu spent more time discussing Iran, he also addressed the Palestinian issue and the peace process.  He expressed unambiguous support for a Palestinian state living alongside Israel - but unlike President Shimon Peres who spoke the following day, who said that such a scenario was the “only”” way to achieve peace, Netanyahu seemed skeptical about whether an agreement would be reached -- and, in his view, whether the Palestinians would make the hard compromises necessary and whether they would take steps to educate their people about coexistence.
  • Judging from the audience reaction, to Netanyahu’s speech and all the speeches of the government officials::  Iran, and religious pluralism issues, are the major issues that animated this American crowd.  Issues related to the Palestinians did not garner nearly as much applause.   

Religious pluralism issues #1:  marriage and divorce   
I attended two fascinating panels on religion and state issues in Israel. The first was on the more weighty issue of freedom of marriage.  With marriage and divorce in the hands of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, there are many categories of people who are not permitted to get married in Israel (e.g. Couples that include a Jew and a non-Jew, or couples including someone whose Jewish status is suspect, whether because of a non-Orthodox conversion - or even an unauthorized Orthodox conversion - or simply a failure to fully document one’s Jewish lineage to the satisfaction of the Rabbinate).  Additionally, there are plenty of couples who could get married by the Chief Rabbinate but are simply not inclined to, because Judaism as presented by the Chief Rabbinate is so distant from how they live their lives.  Currently, such couples can get married abroad, and the marriage is recognized when the couple re-enters Israel.  But there is no legal way for them to get married on Israeli soil without the participation of an Orthodox rabbi.  And this creates the irony that Israel is the only democracy to impose such severe restrictions like this on whom one can marry and how.  (See  Note that this statement is with the exception of same-sex marriage, which is currently legal in a relatively small number of countries.)   One member of the panel, Rabbi Uri Regev, runs an organization called Hiddush that conducted a poll that reveals that solid majorities of Israelis of almost all political persuasions support “marriage freedom” (i.e. the possibility of civil marriage outside of the domain of the religious authorities) in Israel - usually by very significant majorities. (The exception is voters for haredi parties - of whom only 10% support marriage freedom - actually in my opinion a surprisingly large number.  I might have guessed that the number would be 0%.  See, p. 19.)

The panel also included one of the first openly gay members of the Israeli Knesset, together with a religiously observant law professor who specializes in human rights law, and a couple that has been unable to marry through the Chief Rabbinate because the wife's mother had had a conservative conversion that was not recognized.  Not surprisingly, all these panelists were strong supporters of marriage freedom.

There was only one person on this panel who did support the status quo: the Haredi rabbi of Dimona. To his credit, he arrived knowing he was facing a hostile panel and a hostile audience, and he came anyway and was as gracious as he could be under the circumstances. But his strategies were to minimize the harm that such policies cause for people, and to defend the policies as in the interests of the Jewish people even when they do cause harm to individuals.  I wish the panel had included some more voices from the middle of the spectrum, such as orthodox non-haredi voices who defend the status quo but encourage serious reforms to it.

A most troubling statistic:  a Bar Ilan poll reveals that, because of inequalities in Jewish divorce law that give an advantage to the husband, in ⅓ of divorce cases in Israel the husband uses this advantage to extort something from the wife.  And among religious couples, this percentage increases to ½.  (see,7340,L-4400770,00.html.)   I wish the rabbi on the panel had responded to this troubling statistic.  (Though my guess is that he probably would have said that he doesn’t believe it.)

Religious pluralism issues #2:  The Kotel
Another panel at which sparks flew was about women’s rights at the Kotel - the Western Wall.  Panelists included Anat Hoffman, founder of the Women of the Wall organization that has been holding monthly women’s services at the Kotel, often in defiance of Israeli law, as well as Ronit Peskin, founder of a new Orthodox organization called Women For the Wall that opposes Women At the Wall.  See this account of the panel:  When video is available, I would recommend it as a great way to see the various sides of the issue.

I thought the wisest comment came from Jewish Agency President Natan Sharansky, who had been entrusted by the Israeli government with finding a solution to this issue that would satisfy everyone.  He noted that the Kotel is unusual in that it is simultaneously Israel’s most important national symbol, and the Jewish people’s most important religious site.  Were it only a national symbol, no one would want to impose religious restrictions on what happens there.  Were it only a religious site and not a national symbol, it is likely that no one would challenge the authority of those who set religious policies there.  It is this confluence of religious and national significance that gives rise to the challenge of making the Kotel a place where everyone can be comfortable.

The GA concluding ceremony is taking place at the Kotel later today, in a demonstration that the issue of access for all Jews to the Kotel is an issue that really animates American Jewry (though I am not sure how much this issue truly animates a large segment of Israeli Jewry).

More updates to come!