By Steven M. Cohen and Yossi Klein Halevi, The Jerusalem Post
July 4, 2006
Dear President Katsav
As Israelis of American origin, we are profoundly disturbed by your ongoing refusal to address Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of Reform Jewry, by his rabbinic title. In these days of crisis for Israel, your slight against an American rabbi may seem a mere footnote overtaken by far more fateful events. Yet it is precisely now - as Israel seeks the understanding of its friends abroad for necessary security initiatives - that we feel the urgency to alert you to the grave implications of your act of contempt for the future of American Jewish-Israeli relations, and therefore, the future of American-Israeli relations generally.
In denying the Jewish credentials of the recognized leader of 1.5 million Reform Jews in North America, you send a signal that the state of Israel holds in contempt the largest Jewish religious movement in North America. You are telling American Jews that the Jewish state has no respect for their way of being Jewish - thereby undermining their resolve to support Israel.
Over the years, American governments and officials of both major political parties have consistently supported Israel, even in the midst of a world energy crisis and a clash of civilizations with the Islamic world, often provoking the consternation of America's friends and allies in the Western world. American Jewry's energetic and expert advocacy of Israel is in large part responsible for the bipartisan support Israel enjoys in the U.S. Congress, the Administration and the American public.
However, American Jewish attachment toward Israel has been in long-term decline. As a group, younger American Jews feel less attached to Israel than did their parents and grandparents, and their enthusiastic support for Israel cannot be taken for granted or trifled with.
In recent years, Reform Jews in particular have been crucial in firming up wavering pro-Israel sentiment among liberal Americans. One recent example is the success of American Jewish activists - many of them Reform - in halting the anti-Israel divestment movement among liberal Protestant denominations. Distancing American Jews from Israel could have disastrous long-term consequences in our ability to maintain bipartisan American support for the Jewish state. When even some Orthodox rabbis in the US affirm their readiness to refer to Rabbi Yoffie by his rabbinic title, the peculiar practice of the President of the State of Israel is even more insulting to the 90% of American Jews who are non-Orthodox.
WE CAN only conclude from your position that you misunderstand Reform Judaism, failing to appreciate its vitality as a movement, and its centrality to American Jewry. Without Reform Judaism and its 900 (!) congregations, schools, camps, youth movement, seminary (with a campus in Jerusalem), publishing house, and so on, the organized American Jewish community - and the pro-Israel advocacy community - would be considerably depleted. Since the founding of the state, the presidency has served as its moral conscience, seeking to ease divisions among the Jews of Israel, and between the Jews of Israel and of the Diaspora. Until now, your presidency has pursued those essential goals.
When we came on aliya, and then watched our children serve this country, we knew full well that Israeli society privileges one stream of Judaism above the others. But, over the years, we have also seen our government, our courts, our educational system, and most importantly of all, our people, extend recognition to the growing number of Israelis and the millions of Diaspora Jews who engage with Judaism through the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist streams. Increasing numbers of Israelis are finding Jewish meaning in these movements and transforming them from Diaspora into Israeli expressions. Some are even beginning to experiment with new, as yet unnamed, forms of non-Orthodox Israeli Judaism. We expect the President of Israel to serve as a unifying force in encouraging this process, or at least, to maintain a cautious and courteous neutrality. Instead, you seem set on defending an obsolete status quo that artificially divides Israeli Jews into "Orthodox" and "secular," with no denominational spectrum between those two poles.
Some American Jews, deeply hurt by your slight, are urging that, until you refer to Rabbi Yoffie and other rabbis from all streams of Judaism by their rabbinic titles, Israeli and Diaspora Jews should refrain from referring to you as "President." We believe that withholding the use of a recognized leader's customary title of respect is petty, divisive and insulting to the office and to the exalted principles it embodies. Instead, we call upon you, Kavod Hanasi - Mr. President - to fulfill the mandate of that office and to function as the President of Israel that Jews around the world need and respect.
Cohen is research professor, HUC-JIR and professor, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center and the Israel correspondent for New Republic magazine.