The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, January 1998, Vol. XXXIV, Number 6

Tel Aviv is the place to be at the beginning of October 1998,  especially if you are a Humanistic Jew. The seventh annual conference of our International Federation will convene in Israel’s biggest and most secular city. 

There are many good reasons for us to hold this important meeting in Tel Aviv. This coming year all of Israel and all the Jewish world will be celebrating the fiftieth birthday anniversary of the independence of the Jewish state. In May 1948 David Ben-Gurion proclaimed that Israel was a sovereign republic. The place of that Proclamation was not Jerusalem but Tel Aviv, the city invented by Zionism. Coincidentally, Zionism is celebrating the Centennial of its creation in Basel in 1897. Two important anniversaries coincide and dramatize the centrality of Israel in contemporary Jewish life. 

In 1994 we held our conference in Jerusalem. But that city has been taken over by the ultra-Orthodox and aggressive ‘black hats’. Tel Aviv remains the center of that secular Hebrew culture which, over the years we have come to identify with the Israeli world. Today that secular culture is threatened by the ambitions of an arrogant Orthodox minority, who, in collusion with a nationalist government that values power over Integrity, is seeking to establish a new Israeli culture. This new culture would find its roots in the restrictions of traditional Judaism and in the political supervision of traditional rabbis.  

Secular and humanist Jews need to resist this betrayal of the Zionist ideal. We have to stand in solidarity with our secular brothers and sisters in the Jewish state to announce our united opposition to creeping the theocracy and to mobilize our forces to offer resistance. The Tel Aviv conference will be an opportunity for Israelis and Diaspora Jews, who value humanism in Jewish life, to make a public and dramatic stand. We want many members of our Temple and our movement to be present, so that our combined voices will be heard.  

These are traumatic times for the Jewish State. While the economy continues to perform well, fueled by privatization and foreign investment, the morale of the Israeli public is low. The peace process has collapsed. The ‘civil war’ between the secularists and the orthodox is hotting up. Public opinion all over the world is turning hostile. The government of Bibi Netanyahu is bumbling and ineffective, humiliated by scandal and despised by the leaders of its own political Coalition. Both liberals and conservatives are depressed in the absence of pragmatic direction. 

There are many dangers, which Israel now confronts. 

The American government is angry. Clinton refused to meet with Netanyahu when the Prime Minister visited the States. Albright is visibly annoyed with the Israelis (sic) refusal to abide by the Oslo peace agreement. America is losing its support in the Arab world by its obvious refusal to punish Israel. With the crisis in Iraq that support is indispensable. The alliance with America is not trivial for the Jewish State. Endangering the connection is self-destructive.  

American Jewry is also angry. The government backing of its orthodox allies in their attempt to delegitimize Reform and Conservative conversions has created tension between Israel and its most powerful Jewish supporters.  Most American Jews are not orthodox (sic). They have been insulted by this provocative ‘slap in the face’. The collective power in America is the reason why the United States supports Israel above and beyond its strategic interests. Alienating American Jews is another foolish act of self-destruction. 

Secular Jews and Israel are experiencing the intrusion of orthodox (sic) demands more and more. Neighborhoods and towns, which were historically secular, have now been taken over by orthodox (sic) ‘invaders’. Confrontation and violence are undermining the sense of belonging that secular Jews have felt since the beginning of the Zionist venture. The ‘black hats’ are taking over the state that the zionists (sic) created. Jewish Israel is being divided into two opposing and hostile camps. 

Immigration is getting matched by emigration. Many secular Jews are leaving an environment, which has become unfamiliar and uncomfortable for them. While the exodus is still small, it is a sign of a growing frustration among Israelis with the new religious militancy. The old Ashkenazic elite are discovering that they are now a minority in a population that finds no problem in mixing rabbis and government. 

Moderate Arab states are turning away from Israel. They are covering their bets by cultivating the opposition. Strident denunciations of Iraq and Libya are vanishing. Invitations by Iranian conferences are accepted. Israeli security depends on friendly Arabs on the Israeli border. Neither Egypt nor Jordan wish to be seen as the friends of the enemies of Palestinian independence. 

All of these developments are troubling to secular Zionists throughout the Jewish world. The Jewish state is the most important creation of the Jewish people in the last nineteen centuries. It has helped restore Jewish dignity. It has rescued hundreds of thousands of Jews from persecution and humiliation. It has provided a vital center for the development of Jewish culture. It has revived the Hebrew language and turned it into a major vehicle for Jewish expression Jewish identity. It has demonstrated the power and vitality of the Jewish people. 

It is important that Israel survive (sic) -and that it survive (sic) as a liberal democracy. We are going to Tel Aviv in October 1998 because we believe that Israel’s survival needs a stronger and more powerful secular and humanistic voice. 

Please join us. You will experience the beauties and wonders of the land and the people. You will study with top Israeli professors and scholars who will take you on personal tours of historic sites in Jerusalem. You will meet dozens of humanistic brothers and sisters who need to experience the strong support of the Jews of the Diaspora. You will discover both fun and inspiration. Above all, you will feel that you are doing something important to guarantee a humanistic future for the Jewish State.