Pluralism still crucial even amid the crisis, Israeli rabbi says here

According to Israeli Reform Rabbi Uri Regev, that's exactly what's not happening.

With reports of suicide bombers, military operations and mounting world pressure, what story has most transfixed the Israeli populace in recent weeks? According to Regev, it was Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's firing of several Shas Party Cabinet members.

"When Sharon fired the Shas ministers, his ratings skyrocketed…Sharon finally had a government not dependent on the haredi; he finally enabled the country to free itself from their clutches," said Regev, the executive director of the World Union of Progressive Judaism.

"The public's attention to the battles over conversion, corruption, the draft to the army, these are not the issues of yesteryear."

Regev, a longtime advocate of religious pluralism, praised Bay Area federations and Jewish fund-raising groups for strong support of his cause. Jewish groups elsewhere in the nation, he claims, have dropped the ball.

The battle for religious equality "is divisive, controversial and not conducive to a campaign, but, at the same time, it's critical to Israel's future. Because if there is one major threat to Israeli democracy that emanates from ideological roots, it is the fundamentalist religious threat," said Regev, in the Bay Area earlier this month for several speaking engagements.

The rabbi praised American "crisis campaigns," but pointed out that "there are only so many ambulances and trauma centers you can open. And this isn't touching the heart of the issue, namely, shaping a state that is true to its own founding vision. The state of Israel is rooted in liberty, justice, peace and upholding the social equality of all, regardless of religion or race."

And in its first 54 years, Israel's record of living up to its founding vision has been "less than impressive" according to Regev.

While some pro-Palestinian activists reject the notion of a Jewish state, Regev emphatically rejects them. Saying "notions of democracy and human dignity" have not been Israel's strong suits, he added that such concepts are not incompatible with a Jewish state. Rather, the ideals expressed by David Ben-Gurion and others have been "hijacked."

In wandering from its founders' vision, Regev — a reviled figure among the fervently religious in Israel and the United States — does not place the blame solely on haredi involvement in Israeli politics. Religious politicians have been no worse than secular politicians. But, as self-anointed representatives of Judaism, Regev holds them to a higher standard.

"Where I put the blame on religious extremists is they have not presented the public at large and the world at large with a vision of Judaism that is compatible with equality, protection of civil liberties, human dignity and the like. I expected more of them. They have not carried the message of Isaiah, Micah and Amos," he said.

Regev stresses that his criticisms are not blanket condemnations of the Orthodox. "I believe Rabbi Michael Melchior, David Hartman and Professor Moshe Halbertal speak the same language as I do."

Despite predicting the imminent revival of controversial legislation that seeks to define who is a Jew, Regev deflected questions of what life would be like in 40 years in an Israel that has not registered significant gains for pluralism.

"I do not accept that things will remain as they are," he said.

"The stranglehold the Orthodox have on decision-making policies will be short-lived. Whether it will be two or three more years or five or 10 more years, I don't know. But I'm willing to suggest it will not be 40 years from now. I will see it. I will live to enjoy it."

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.