Many Israelis lack experience with democracy, scholar asserts

To Alfred Gottschalk, Jews who grew up in the diaspora are "children of modernity" and democracy — and thus they may not fully understand the tensions unique to the state of Israel.

"Sixty percent of the population of Israel had no previous experience of democracy before they came to Israel," said Gottschalk, addressing an audience of around 80 last week at San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El. "So to ask them to be pluralistic is very unrealistic, because they have no context for this word, `pluralism.'"

Gottschalk's lecture, titled "The Emergence of Modern Judaism," formed part of the University of San Francisco Swig Judaic Studies Program's spring lecture series. The talk primarily addressed the thorny issues of conversion recognition and Orthodox hegemony in the Jewish state — items currently being debated in Israel by the Ne'eman Committee.

Gottschalk spoke of his involvement in Reform Jewish life for over 40 years as a rabbi and scholar, and most recently as the Chancellor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He recalled his controversial ordinations of the first woman rabbi in Jewish history in 1972 and the first Reform rabbi in Israel in 1980.

"My own feeling is that this will be a long and bitter fight," he said of the issues confronting the Ne'eman Committee. "And yet," he went on, "having been part and parcel of Jewish life for 40 years, and having visited Israel many times…I've seen it worse than it is today."

The current situation in Israel, where "Jews who aren't Orthodox have problems upon birth, marriage and death," derived from Israel's unique history, Gottschalk explained.

"At the founding of the state of Israel, Ben-Gurion inherited a double system — Turkish rule adumbrated by the British Mandate government." Under Turkish rule of Palestine, he said, the decisions of Orthodox Jewish law courts were upheld by Turkish government policy. Ben-Gurion had to decide whether to maintain or change this system.

"He took the religious courts as they were, though there were those who objected as a matter of principle," Gottschalk told the audience. But, he said, Ben-Gurion had few options at the time. "There were no Reform and Conservative Jews in sufficient numbers to argue that a democracy does not tie religion and state together in such a way.

"The question of authority between Israel and the diaspora is an ancient battle," he acknowledged. But though diaspora Jews might feel exasperated at continuing struggles over religion in Israel, it was necessary "to maintain a position of openness," and "create the linkages to Israel that, over time, will influence the Israeli population on the importance of creating pluralism.

"By the end of this month, the Ne'eman Committee will come to a decision which…will create the parameters of definition for who's a Jew and…who's a rabbi," he said. "If they deny recognition and hold on to the status quo, we will have lost a major struggle."

Taking a long-term view, he drew hope from the resolve of many modern Jews "to go forward and develop, to bring together our communities [to] create the kind of Jewish world…in which there is continuity and innovation simultaneously."

This resolve would "provide the wherewithal for us to survive in the modern world as moderns and Jews."

"Will this be easy?" he asked in conclusion. "No. But then what in life is, that is worth having?"