Pluralism critical to Israels health, advocate says here

Israel's Jewish identity is simply too vital — and too complex — to leave solely to the Orthodox, according to Meir Yoffe, a leader in Israel's growing pluralism movement.

"The Jewish identity must be based on a pluralistic approach. No strain has a monopoly on the truths of what Jewish life is. There is space for many variations," said Yoffe, whose 3-year-old umbrella organization, Panim, is now composed of 100 pluralism advocacy groups.

"What Israel is all about is the building of a state and society that will be the means for the future existence of the Jewish people. If we would leave the Jewish aspect only to the Orthodox, it will be very bad."

Yoffe met with potential fund-raisers in a whirlwind tour of the Bay Area last week, while also taking time to address students at Berkeley Hillel and meet with representatives of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

The former high school principal and kibbutz secretary-general has worked extensively with American Jewish groups, previously serving as Israeli representative to the American Reform Zionist Movement in Los Angeles for several years.

He describes Israel's last 10 years as the "Jewish Renaissance."

By this, he means that many Israelis have re-embraced Jewish texts, lifecycle events and celebrations, "expressing their Jewish identities not in the stereotypical, normative way of the Orthodox, halachic Jew."

Yet, many haven't.

"The secular Israelis define themselves as Israelis, but not as Israeli Jews," said Yoffe, a man with a faint, ever-present smile who peppers his soft-spoken, accented English with the occasional five-syllable word. "When you go to a secular person and ask him to describe a Jew, he wouldn't describe himself. He'd describe some Orthodox person as the archetype of a Jew."

That, Yoffe stresses, is why Panim exists. The 100 religious, educational and social action groups comprising the organization attempt to raise public awareness that Judaism is multifaceted and has many faces. Panim, the Hebrew word for "face," comes from a talmudic verse, "Let the Torah have 70 faces."

In addition to public awareness efforts, Yoffe hopes his relatively new organization will become an effective lobbying group for pluralistic endeavors. But establishing clout with Israel's government officials is no easy task, he admits.

"More and more leaders are understanding the crucial need for what we are doing. But the problem is the political system in Israel is unstable and the bureaucracy is so hard; it's really hard to move things." Yoffe, who works with the JCF's Israel and overseas committee in allotting funds for pluralistic causes, is a member of the Amuta, the JCF's volunteer committee in Israel.

"But we have discovered there is more and more openness to matching funding from government resources when there is some funding from the diaspora Jewish community," he said.

His organization's influence on the government is infinitesimal compared to that of the Orthodox, he concedes.

"The religious parties use the Israeli political system as the vehicle to achieve budgets and allocations, some of it by legislation but in many cases by exploiting the political structure," Yoffe said. "Because the need is on them to be the balance to any government in Israel, [they] get a lot of money and allocate it to their particular religious, Orthodox needs. This is the status quo, I call this the 'political pollution of religious life.'"

Because of this mix of politics and religion, the term "religious" has taken on a double meaning in Israel, according to Yoffe.

"When you say someone is dati [religious], it means he is very much connected to the political struggle to get more and more from the state. I would even say that the Jewish religion in Israel is becoming more and more political and extreme and suffers from lack of vitality and many other problems."

Yoffe acknowledges that a string of Israeli Supreme Court rulings affirming pluralism over the past decade have helped, but he stresses that the court cannot change society by itself.

The Supreme Court "cannot create grassroots movements. In a crisis situation, which Israel is in on an almost permanent basis, the questions are: What are we fighting for? What kind of society do we want to achieve as a result of our struggle? I believe if [Israeli society] is not changed, it will be a disaster for us all."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.