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Seeing Beyond The Katsav-Yoffie Kerfuffle


The reaction to Israeli president Moshe Katsav’s reported “snub” of Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, has almost uniformly focused on the propriety of Mr. Katsav’s apparent refusal to address Mr. Yoffie as “rabbi” and on its implications for Israel-Diaspora relations. But what’ s being missed is a bigger story, which is the failure of the Reform movement to create “facts on the ground” in Israel necessary to gain the attention and respect of Israel’s leaders it so dearly craves.

The reporting would seem to imply that the Israeli president, in a display of uncharacteristic bad manners, went out of his way to single out Mr. Yoffie for insult. But it was Mr. Yoffie who snubbed Mr. Katsav when he refused to meet with the president as he normally does when visiting Israel. It seems that Mr. Yoffie was using the occasion of the 35th annual World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem to “protest ” remarks made by Mr. Katsav in a local television interview last year.

Mr. Katsav told a Channel One interviewer that he doesn’t refer to non-Orthodox clergy as “rabbi” and will not recognize non-Orthodox ordination as long as the Knesset doesn’t. (Mr. Katsav reportedly did refer to a certain Conservative rabbi as “rav” after the Yoffie affair became public). Control over Israeli religious matters and rabbinical status has long been delegated to the Orthodox-led Chief Rabbinate; whatever one may think of the merits of this system, one can hardly fault Mr. Katsav, as Israel’s president, for acting consistent (even if inconsistently consistent) with it.

Which brings us to Mr. Yoffie. The nine-month gap between Mr. Katsav’s remarks and Mr. Yoffie’s “protest” and the fact that it was coordinated with local Reform leadership suggests a manufactured controversy, designed to garner the maximum amount of media attention. This attempt to discredit Mr. Katsav and thereby influence the selection of his successor next year by the Knesset is part of an effort to intimidate Israel’s political class into doing for the Reform movement what it so far has been unable to do itself – gain a foothold in Israeli civic, political and religious life.

It is worthwhile, then, to explore what sort of influence Mr. Yoffie and his movement would enjoy having on Israeli society.

Last year, in an op-ed in the Forward titled “Confront the Extremists in our Midst,” Mr. Yoffie took aim at what he viewed as Israel’s enemies – Israeli “settlers” who opposed disengagement. These dissidents are a “disgrace to the Jewish community and to the principles of Torah that we hold dear,” he wrote, assailing their “depth of contempt for Israel’s elected leaders.”

To Mr. Yoffie, then, those Israelis represented a clear and present danger to the Israeli enterprise for having had the gall to oppose the government’s policy of forcibly evicting them from their homes.

Too bad Mr. Yoffie doesn’t practice what he preaches when it comes to his own government. In the antiwar Resolution on Iraq passed by delegates to the Union for Reform Judaism biennial in Houston last year – backed and encouraged by Mr. Yoffie – the movement called on the Bush administration to “provide more transparency” (translation: stop lying!). The resolution sharply criticized the administration’s “violations of the Geneva conventionsincluding torture and abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody” and recited a litany of the administration’s “failures,” which have “contribut[ed] to the growth of terrorism” and led the country to the “very brink of disaster.”

Thankfully Mr. Yoffie stopped short of displaying deep contempt for his elected leaders.

When not railing against hardworking Israeli Jews for daring to attempt to hang onto their homes and communities or blasting his own government for trying to keep us safe, Mr. Yoffie’s organization is busy sharing the views of its “tradition” on the social and moral issues of the day. In its Resolution on Adolescent Sexuality, the URJ, after lamenting the “downward spiral” of the popular culture and its corrosive effect on teenage sexual mores and practices, declares that “we do not tell our kids that sex before marriage is forbidden it is unreasonable to suggest that this traditional standard should be maintained for young people who are adults.”

And while the prefatory language of the resolution does call on high school students to refrain from sexual relations, the resolution itself states that “in our tradition both parties in sexual relationships must be sensitive to the sexual needs of the other.” If this is the sort of nuanced “religious” teaching that Israeli society hungers for, the Reform movement ought to be greeted with open arms there without a leg up from the government.

About the Author: Scott Italiaander is a financial adviser and an attorney in Atlanta.


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The reaction to Israeli president Moshe Katsav’s reported “snub” of Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, has almost uniformly focused on the propriety of Mr. Katsav’s apparent refusal to address Mr. Yoffie as “rabbi” and on its implications for Israel-Diaspora relations. But what’ s being missed is a bigger story, which is the failure of the Reform movement to create “facts on the ground” in Israel necessary to gain the attention and respect of Israel’s leaders it so dearly craves.

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