The past week has been filled with encouraging signs for American Jews who have been worried about the direction in which Israel has been moving, and most of those signs have come from the unlikely source of Avigdor Liberman. Liberman prevented Prime Minister Netanyahu from forming a government last Wednesday by taking a stance against the Haredi position on the compulsory draft, but more broadly announced that he was standing against Orthodox religious compulsion in Israeli life. When Union of Right-Wing Parties MK Bezalel Smotrich reiterated his desire to become Justice Minister in order to implement a system of Torah law and return Israel to the legal regime that he believes governed the land during King David’s reign, Liberman immediately jumped on it and pointed out the inherent danger and absurdity of Smotrich actually being a candidate for the post. Netanyahu’s own statement categorically ruling out Israel becoming a state governed by halacha (Jewish law) soon followed, and on Wednesday the Justice Ministry officially went to Amir Ohana rather than Smotrich. For many American Jews and American Jewish organizations, Orthodox domination of Israeli state religious institutions has been the single greatest source of tension between American Jewry and Israel over the past few years, and Liberman now seems like a welcome hero.
But those who view Liberman’s interventions as the potential pathway to an Israeli government that is more attentive to the religious concerns of nearly half of global Jewry are fated to be disappointed. It is true that Liberman is as frustrated as American Jews are with the power of the Haredim and the Orthodox monopoly over marriage, conversion, and determining who is a Jew. It is also true that what Liberman wants is not the religious pluralism that motivates American Jewish concerns over issues such as recognition of Conservative and Reform Judaism and egalitarian prayer spaces at the Kotel. While American Jews are largely fighting for Israeli religious pluralism, Liberman is fighting for Israeli secularism. These are not one and the same, and while the two may indeed have a common foe, it does not follow that Liberman’s battle will garner American Jews any of the things that they want.
American Jews want their uniquely American form of Judaism to be recognized inside of Israel. While denominational Judaism was not invented by American Jews and is a German import, it is now an almost wholly American phenomenon. American Jews that fight for religious pluralism in Israel want not only a mixed-gender option at the Kotel, but they want that option to be one that is controlled by recognized Conservative and Reform movements. They want the state to fund Conservative and Reform rabbis and institutions the same way that the state funds Orthodox rabbis and institutions. They want Conservative and Reform conversions to be recognized by the Israeli state. They want Israel and Israelis to recognize and acknowledge the Jewish diversity of the U.S., where there is no chief rabbinate or state involvement in religion and thus no central arbiter of what will and won’t be permitted, and grant that diversity a place in the Jewish state for the millions of Jews who subscribe to it.
For this to happen, American Jews recognize that it requires overcoming the obstacle of uncompromising Orthodox domination of Jewish religious institutions in Israel. Liberman is thus the perfect avatar for this particular moment in time. But Liberman is not battling the Haredim represented by UTJ or the Hardalim represented by Smotrich in order to see religious pluralism flourish. In fact, few inside of Israel are battling the Haredim on behalf of religious pluralism. Liberman could not care less about whether Conservative and Reform priorities are fulfilled or whether these streams of Judaism are even recognized. Liberman represents Israeli secularism, which wants to end Orthodox domination for altogether different reasons.
Liberman wants public transportation on Shabbat not so that people can take the bus to synagogue, but so that nobody has to be bound by any type of Shabbat restrictions or observance. He wants to end the Orthodox monopoly on conversions not so that Conservative and Reform conversions are recognized, but so that Russian olim are not forced to go through a conversion process at all. He may care less about prayer arrangements at the Kotel than any other political figure in Israel because it is not something that matters at all to him or to most of the constituents he represents. Liberman is just about the savviest politician there is in Israel, and he clearly recognized that the path to reversing Yisrael Beiteinu’s downward electoral trend was expanding beyond his base of Russian voters and being the loudest voice across all sectors speaking for secular Israelis. I do not mean to suggest that he doesn’t believe in what he espouses or that this is not a worthy fight, because I think he does and it is. It’s just not the same fight that American Jews are fighting.
There are all sorts of theories about why denominations and formal religious pluralism flourished among American Jews and not inside Israel, but the easiest one to intuitively grasp is that Israeli Jews did not need to create such stark lines and boundaries as Jews in a majority Jewish state, where Jewish identity is far easier to maintain simply by living there and bonds of group identity are literally everywhere you look. In the U.S., where Jews are a minority, tribalism and a sense of group belonging are more difficult to inculcate because it requires actually working for it, and denominations were a way of doing this amidst Jewish diversity that made macro group identity harder to maintain in the larger culture and society. Whatever the reasons though, formal Jewish pluralism is not something that Israelis easily grasp, and nobody should expect that to change overnight. And even more unlikely is that the agent of change will be Liberman with his narrow view of secularism.
Cheer on Liberman if you want to end Orthodox domination inside of Israel. Be happy that he prevented the formation of a government that would have been even more in thrall to the Haredim than in coalitions past. Just don’t expect that his fight is the same as that of American Jews.