American Jewish press cries wolf over Likud victory

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Secretary of State Warren Christopher met with the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations in New York June 14 and said, "We've strongly counseled the Arabs not to rush to judgment" about Israel's newly elected Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

I wish that he had taken the time and counseled the American Jewish press in the same vein.

The vitriolic coverage of the post-election coalition with the panic and fear that the government of Israel had been hijacked by the Orthodox bordered on madness and hysteria: It seems that you just can't trust some people — read "religious people" — with democracy.

The Jewish Bulletin should re-read some of its stories and some written by its sister organs (and I use the word advisedly) and tell me honestly that they are not ravings and rantings. Henny Penny was right, the sky was falling. Let's look at the facts, dispassionately, and see what really happened.

For the first time in history the Israeli electorate was given two votes, with the ability to split their tickets. And they did. They showed, in a very real way, where their hearts were.

Previously, when Israelis elected political party lists and not direct candidates, they were fearful of wasting a vote on a minority party, so they were forced to vote for what they perceived to be their best interest among the two major parties.

Now they were free to vote for a premier of their choice, and to actually cast a ballot for the party of their personal allegiance. Lo and behold, it was for a religious party. All the soothsayers in America, who believed that only a minuscule minority in Israel held religious values, were proved wrong.

Further analysis of the vote shows a very interesting pattern. With the shock of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin worn off and offset by the bus bombings, the actual election returned to square one. The May 29 vote was exactly the same as if it had been held last Nov. 1, with Rabin as a candidate.

Yes, Rabin would have lost. This thinking is unacceptable now that Rabin has been elevated to martyr status, but it is true.

So whom do you blame? The Orthodox. The same brush that followed the tragic assassination is used by the press once again to broadly paint as religious fanatics those who caused the incomprehensible: defeating the liberals.

Religious leaders in this city and across the country did themselves no service or glory by flying off the handle with ill-thought-out remarks that reflect a lack of understanding of the Israeli body politic, and worse, showed off their own intolerance toward any sort of Torah other than their own.

They made it appear that the complexion of Israeli life was going to be drastically changed. Nothing could be further from the truth. They ranted about what would happen to all of the non-Orthodox converts converging on Israel's shores.

What would happen, of course, is the same as had happened since pre-statehood. There was never any movement to accept what is taken for granted here in the United States as a norm for Israel. This was always one American export that Israel was happy to live without. Liberal Judaism here has never been able to swallow this. If they want Levi's and rock 'n' roll music and the newest CDs, how can they not want liberal Jewry?

Well, they have been brought up, this entire generation, under the Ben-Gurion Doctrine of the "status quo," which he was smart enough to realize was essential at the founding of the state. He understood, in 1948, that an agreement was necessary to guarantee the Jewish character of the state. Shabbat, kashrut, personal status, would follow one and only one Jewish law; otherwise the character of the state would be undermined.

Does that mean that all observe Shabbat the same way? Of course not, and neither do all observe kashrut. David Ben-Gurion, whom no one could ever accuse of being an Orthodox or observant Jew, understood in his kishkes what today's American rabbis cannot fathom: All Jews must be united with common ties. To be one people, there must be one set of rules that we live by as a people, even if one chooses to live by other rules individually.

And Israel has been doing that successfully for half a century. It has united a diverse people all over the world with a common bond.

And now come the doomsday people, mouthing language that, if used in a slightly different context, would be branded as anti-Semitic. Robert Rifkind, national president of the American Jewish Committee, said, "I don't believe they are going to let their state be hijacked by a bunch of Mullahs." Very nice. And he is defending me.

Columnist Leonard Fein writes that the election "fouls Israel's democracy"; in other words, it's only democratic if his candidate and coalition win. The courses I took in college failed to point that out. I must have been absent that day.

It may be time to grow up. There is no triumphalism in this most recent election among the Orthodox and there is no reason for despair among the non-Orthodox. The truth is that nothing has changed. The perceived gap that is being decried is not that the Orthodox establishment in Israel has hardened its position. The gap, if there is one, is only because liberal Jewry here has moved further away from Ben-Gurion's status quo, with newer and more divisive innovations that threaten to turn us into separate religions.

The cries should be directed inward, to a sense of self-evaluation of where these new and alien paths have led. Ben-Gurion would not recognize American Jewry.