A RESPONSE TO HAIM RAMON
By: Alexander M. Schindler
I was dismayed by Israel's Interior Minister Haim Ramon's recent remarks before a delegation of Reform rabbis in which he declared his readiness to sacrifice Reform Jewish legitimacy in order to assure Labor's victory in the forthcoming elections. He argued that such a policy would secure the peace process.
This was no hastily improvised comment by a lone Israel politician. Mr. Ramon's statement was the articulation of collective decisions made by the leaders of Labor. It constitutes an essential element of their present election strategy.
The Interior Minister's declaration was particularly curt and crude. He indicated that he would not only ignore but actually seek to reverse recent Supreme Court rulings recognizing conversions by liberal rabbis. "I am not willing because of your Reform conversions to allow [Benjamin] Netanyahu to come to power," he said. "And then my son will have to go to Gaza and be killed."
He even blamed the Reform movement for the death of 650 Israeli soldiers in the Lebanese War! "Had Peres agreed in 1981 to amend the Law of Return," he asserted, "these boys would still be alive."
This accusation was a particularly noxious, if ingenious, piece of historical revisionism. It implied that if Shimon Peres, who was then running for Prime Minister against Menachem Begin, had supported an amendment to the Law of Return that would have barred immigration to those converted to Judaism by non- Orthodox rabbis, he would have gained the backing of Orthodox Israelis and won the election. With a Labor government in power, Israel supposedly would not have invaded Lebanon, thus saving the lives of Israeli soldiers.
The facts told a different story. Mr. Begin himself made no ironclad commitment to support a change in the Law of Return, and such an amendment was not enacted. Apparently, Likud simply outbid Labor in 1981, offering more money and patronage. The Shas party, with its devoutly Orthodox Sephardi constituency, evidently felt more comfortable with Begin and Likud than with Labor. That's why Labor lost.
Ramon's peroration to his remarks was particularly offensive: "There are only two communities in Israel," he declared majestically, "the Orthodox and the secular." As for the rest -- "they are insignificant."
Minister Ramon's remarks were reckless and irrational from a political as well as a moral perspective. He ignored the fact that the great majority in Israel would like nothing better than to see a reduction in Orthodox power over their personal lives. He forgot that the Labor Party was built on a foundation of principled beliefs, not weak-kneed politicking.
Liberal Jews around the world have been long-time fervent boosters of the dawning peace and traditional financial supporters of the Labor Party itself. Mr. Ramon has disregarded the elemental rule that peace must be based on a strong foundation of justice if it is not to erode. He has overlooked the fact that Judaism in the Jewish State is dependent on the cultivation of a liberal alternative to the hidebound politicized Orthodoxy that has alienated most Israelis.
The Interior Minister has also forgotten how narrowly empowered the parties of the Orthodox right are in Israel. Their singular concern for the funding of their own institutions makes their short-term support easy to obtain -- without the need for Labor to betray long- term allies.
Such a sequence of oversights and blunders amounts to an awful lot of memory loss in someone as young as Mr. Ramon and other young Turks in the Labor Party.
The Interior Minister did offer one ray of hope to the visiting American delegation of Liberal rabbis. He said that if the non-Orthodox movements sent 300,000 people to live in Israel, "perhaps they could be recognized."
How very noble and moral of him! Does a true democracy administer justice only in a measure commensurate with the numeric strength of its constituent groupings, or rather equally to all, including the least numerous of them?
We Jews were never a majority in the world. Where would we be if justice were meted out in a manner as perverse as Minister Ramon and his fellow young Laborites propose? We would still be imprisoned behind ghetto walls had other enlightened forces in Europe failed to support our struggle for equal status.
We American Jews would not have achieved that high state we presently enjoy were it not for the Bill of Rights, which was neither crafted nor realized by Jews. Indeed, the State of Israel would not have been established had not a majority of the world's nations recognized the real rightness of our people's cause.
We Liberal Jews throughout the world over will not be reticent in the effort to obtain equal rights in Israel. Kohelet reminds us that "there is a time to be silent and a time to speak." If our voices are heard, we will ultimately prevail.
Liberal Judaism and the Liberal rabbinate will not long be negated in Eretz Yisrael. We have the right -- indeed the obligation, to demand that our rabbis and our institutions be extended equal standing, authority and endowment in the Jewish State. We ask this not as a favor, not as an indulgence, but as our rightful entitlement as Jews.
Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler is president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, central body of Reform Judaism in North America.
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