Who gets to block traffic in Israel?

Examples of how Israelis get things done when they really care:

  1. Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem is embroiled in a controversy over its Pediatric Hemato-oncology department (which treats children suffering from leukemia and other forms of cancer), in which 6 doctors resigned rather than agree to organizational changes demanded by hospital management. Management, the doctors, the parents of their patients, the Health Ministry, another hospital, and the Supreme Court are all involved in a bitter conflict in which the hospital has been accused of favoring lucrative private patients and medical tourism over children from Jerusalem. Last month, the parents and their supporters held a demonstration in which they blocked the entrance to Jerusalem with hospital beds.
  2. Disabled Israelis are demonstrating to get their national insurance payments raised to a level equivalent to the minimum wage, including blocking major roads at rush hour, which they have done several times. Most people are in favor of significantly raising the payments.

It is standard procedure in Israel to block roads, set up tents in front of the Prime Minister’s residence, or – in the case of labor disputes – shut down seaports and airports, public transportation, mail service (as if there is any even when there isn’t a strike!) and so on.

Sometimes it seems unfair: the government officials who negotiate subsidies with the Egged bus cooperative ride home from work in chauffeured cars, not public buses. The new immigrant who has waited two months for the arrival of his possessions has no influence on the already insanely high salaries of port employees. And in general, the Israeli citizen who must vote for a party and not for a local representative as in the US or UK, has little ability to influence government officials.

But that’s how it’s done here. If you have a good cause, or even a not-so-good one, the way to get it dealt with is to make not dealing with it worse for everybody than dealing with it. Everybody, guilty or innocent.

So Rabbi Daniel Gordis wants American Jews to make Israel an offer she can’t refuse, to force the government to implement the compromise for egalitarian worship at the Kotel (I explain the controversy here and here). He calls for withdrawing donations from Israeli hospitals and other institutions, and even boycotting El Al. In Israel, he says, “the name of the game is “Who Creates the Larger Problem?” Will it be the Haredim or you? If you want to win, you’ve got to play to win.”

Gordis argues, and I agree, that Americans should leave us to solve the conflict with the Arabs by ourselves, because they neither know enough about it nor have to suffer the consequences of the path we take. But because Israel was founded as “the homeland not just of the Jews who live there, but of the Jewish people,” then on “matters of religious pluralism and the value of Jewish peoplehood,” every Jew has a right to weigh in. American Jews should “make Israel’s democracy stronger by making sure that religious pluralism and Jewish peoplehood are always in the minds of Israel’s decision-makers, whether they like it or not.”

He says this despite recognizing that not only Haredim but even centrist Orthodox and Mizrachi Jews, half the population of Israel, will find the idea of Jewish pluralism foreign and even offensive. Indeed, he even admits that “one thing that many observant and non-observant Israelis have in common is their assumption that non-Orthodox forms of Judaism are simply fraudulent.” Nevertheless, they apparently have to be dragged into the pluralistic world for the sake of the Jewish people as a whole.

It is certainly true that the Jewish people created the state of Israel (at least the Zionists among them did) with the intent of establishing a homeland for all Jews, a refuge against persecution (and it has carried out this function admirably, gathering in endangered exiles from all over the world). In the beginning, the settlement in the land of Israel existed as a satellite of the Zionist movement abroad, financed and mostly controlled by it.

But that was then. Today Israel is a successful sovereign and independent state with a flourishing economy and a culture that has become the center of Jewish life. The Zionist movement abroad has mostly withered away, leaving only vestiges of once-relevant institutions like the World Zionist Organization, now often infiltrated by actually anti-Zionist elements like J Street. Should these institutions continue to be able to dictate to the Jewish state?

Although every Jew is a potential citizen of Israel by virtue of the law of return, there have always been many Diaspora Jews who are not only not Zionists, but hostile to Zionism. There are also many more who, while not actively hostile, have so little knowledge of the realities of Israeli culture, politics and current affairs that allowing them a voice in our affairs is silly. When they are influenced by people who have an ideological or political axe to grind, their interference can be destructive.

This is exactly what is happening today in connection with protests in the Diaspora about egalitarian worship at the Kotel and the law to invalidate non-Rabbinate conversions in Israel. The government’s inaction on the Kotel compromise will not affect the improvements in the (existing but rarely used) egalitarian prayer area; it will only prevent the establishment of a committee including Reform representatives to manage it. The conversion law only applies to conversions in Israel; non-Orthodox conversions abroad will still be recognized.

But although the disposition of these issues would have entirely negligible effects on Diaspora Jews, the Reform movement in the US has presented them as (in the words of the movement’s leader, Rabbi Rick Jacobs), “an unconscionable insult to the majority of world Jewry.” Leaving aside Jacobs’ arrogant claim to speak for a majority of world Jewry when there are only 880,000 members of Reform congregations in the US and Canada, his motives are political and constitute a tactic in the struggle against Israel’s “right-wing” government that his movement has been waging for years.

This affair is thus a perfect example of why all Israeli policies, not just those relating to the conflict with the Arabs, should be decided by Israelis, without pressure from the Diaspora.

I do agree with Gordis, and even with Jacobs, that there is a serious issue in Israel of the inordinate influence of the Haredim in almost every aspect of Israeli life. This is an unfortunate consequence of our political system, which makes it possible for the Haredi parties to hold the balance of power in governing coalitions. The monopoly on conversion, marriage, and burial held by the Rabbinate is just one aspect of a pervasive problem, which affects policies on welfare, the draft, food, transportation, education, and more. Most Israelis, including many who are Orthodox, would agree that this situation ought to change.

If this will be solved, it will be solved by Israelis applying pressure from within, by deciding to withhold their votes from parties that consistently knuckle under to the Haredim. Maybe it will require a change in the way our Knesset is elected, away from the party-oriented system and to some kind of local representative one, like the US House of Representatives or the UK House of Commons. But Diaspora Jews can’t bring this about.

If someone has to block traffic in order to get the government’s attention, let it be Israelis who do it.

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One Response to Who gets to block traffic in Israel?

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    On this one I agree with you completely. However the whole procedure for getting things as described above indicates how far we are from being not only the moral light to the nations but the moral light to ourselves we are ideally supposed to be.
    There is another sad point here you touched upon. It seems that a higher and higher percentage of those U.S. Jews who speak out on Israeli issues are those who are Palestinizers, with little real knowledge or sympathy for what the Jews of Israel go through here.
    The assimilation story in America has not only brought a weakening of connection to Israel it has brought more and more criticism of Israel by those who do not know much what they are talking about.

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