Israeli religious freedom on hot seat at S.F. gathering

When discussing the hot-button issue of religious pluralism in Israel, angry passions between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews ignite quickly.

Then there are those who would rather not discuss the topic at all.

"I'm reminded of the story of two men who are sitting on a park bench in Jerusalem," said Knesset adviser Itzhak Galnoor, speaking Sunday at a San Francisco meeting on religious freedom in Israel.

"After a long silence, one heaves a tremendous sigh — Oy! The other stands up and says, `If you're going to continue to talk about religion in Israel, I'm leaving.'"

Galnoor's joke drew hearty laughter — but unlike the jaded Israelis in his story, around 300 audience members listened raptly to the ensuing discussion.

The meeting, which took place at the Sir Francis Drake hotel, was part of the New Israel Fund's 20th anniversary symposium, "A Changing Israel, A Changing Partnership."

Moderated in lively fashion by Robert Mnookin, a Harvard law professor, it brought issues of pluralism into sharp focus as seven panelists debated Israel's current crisis over religious freedom.

"Why is it so crucial in Israel that one be recognized as Jewish by the state?" posed Neta Ziv, a former New Israel Fund civil liberties law fellow. "The state's business is to provide me with basic services — should it matter if I am registered as a Jew?"

Since state-approved marriages and conversions are currently performed only by Orthodox rabbis, Ziv explained, many young Jews in Israel are choosing to boycott Jewish observance altogether.

"What worries me is that not as many Jews who are opting out of the rabbinical system are looking for alternative Jewish ways of doing things," she said.

"The Orthodox leadership is out of touch," Galnoor agreed. "I can see Israelis refusing to die [soon] because they don't want to be buried by a rabbi."

Asked by Mnookin to explain why pluralism isn't more widely supported in Israel, Professor Arnold Eisen of Stanford University underlined some key differences between Israel and the United States.

"The average Israeli is far more observant and far more believing than the average American Jew," he said. "The average Israeli keeps kosher to some degree, over half [of Israelis] claim to believe that the Torah was given by God on Mount Sinai, and belief in God is near-universal.

"I don't think any of us here, when we dream about Israel, dream about it as if it were the United States of America," he continued. "Being a Jewish nation means that we have Jewish time, we have public Jewish space, we have a Jewish calendar, Jewish media and we are responsible as Jews for what goes on in the country."

For Rabbi Yitzhak Adlerstein, who directs the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Jewish Studies Institute in Los Angeles, it is imperative that Israel continue to enforce "the highest standards" of Orthodox Judaism.

"To set up a state in which there are multiple standards and multiple Judaisms is inviting the eventual abrogation of the Law of Return, besides getting rid of one of the most secure anchors that we have for Jewish continuity," he said.

Other panelists differed sharply, suggesting that Israel should import the U.S. model of religious and state separation.

Professor Jesse Choper, who teaches constitutional law at U.C. Berkeley, said the U.S. model is consistent with having a dominant state religion.

"We have a preferred religion in this country, no question," he said. "Christmas is a national holiday; Thanksgiving [observance] is ordered by the president. Nevertheless, we muddle through."

Meanwhile, David Arnow, the New Israel Fund's director of community relations, found an inconsistency in the Israeli position, as the country has signed international covenants protecting other peoples' human and civil rights.

"The inability for an individual to be married by the rabbi of his or her choice, to be buried by the rabbi of his or her choice, to convert through the institution that moves them is really undermining fundamental promises made by the state," he said.

Finally, it was left to Orthodox feminist author Blu Greenberg to unite panelists with a call for compromise — something that all seven could agree upon.

"We need to find a definition [of Judaism] that's acceptable to everyone," she said. "We're fighting for the soul of the state of Israel into the 21st century."

However, she added, "I'm glad we're all fighting over this.

"It would be a lot worse if we were not."