Israeli voters poised to send first Reform rabbi to Knesset


TEL AVIV, Israel — In years of going against Israel’s religious and political mainstream, Rabbi Gilad Kariv has learned to handle conflict. He has argued controversial civil rights cases before Israel’s Supreme Court. And as an activist, he has lobbied at the Knesset, the 120-seat parliament for a country facing its fourth election in two years.

So after locking up a spot that put him on the brink of joining the Knesset, it did not rock Kariv’s world when powerful Orthodox lawmakers responded by threatening to boycott him.

The 47-year-old lawyer and father of three is poised next week to become the first Reform movement rabbi to hold a seat in parliament, a political ascent that marks a key victory for religious pluralism in Israel and for the millions of American Jews who practice liberal streams of their religion.

Kariv’s rise to the fourth-highest seat in the center-left Labor party would also put the Reform movement closer to the center of power inside Israel, rather than remaining a feature of the far-flung diaspora. The politically powerful Orthodox establishment has treated Kariv as a threat, suggesting he is the face of a “clownish” and “illegitimate” cult of pretenders.

Kariv shrugs off the hostility.

“If an Israeli politician and politicians in general need to have the skin of an elephant, a thick skin,” Kariv said in an interview at Labor headquarters in Tel Aviv. “Then an Israeli Reform rabbi needs the skin of a mammoth.”

He spoke not far from the spot where, during the first Palestinian uprising in 1987, he said he and his fellow teenage activists demonstrated weekly for a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians and were spit upon by passers-by.

Kariv himself was raised in a secular Tel Aviv family. Like most Jewish Israeli boys, he celebrated his bar mitzvah, and early on, he considered becoming Orthodox.

He first encountered Reform Judaism during a high school trip to the United States. After returning home, he joined one of Israel’s first Reform congregations, rising to become its leader.

The Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism now lists more than 50 congregations, representing a still-small but growing slice of a country whose Jewish rituals are largely controlled by Orthodox leaders. About 3% of Israeli Jews say they belong to the Reform movement.

About a third of American Jews, about 2 million people, identify as Reform.

Non-Orthodox American Jews also tend to hold much more liberal views on social and political issues than Israel’s increasingly right-leaning society. That has translated into rising tensions between the world’s two largest Jewish communities over issues like religious pluralism, West Bank settlement construction and how to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians.

Those differences were on display during the Trump administration, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s close ties with the former U.S. president alienated many American Jews.

Just talking about “Western liberal democratic values, you’re losing big parts of the Israeli audience,” said Kariv.

But Kariv, who is both a rabbi and a lawyer, believes Israel’s Zionist ideals include respect for human rights and the LGBT community, assisting African migrants who have made their way to Israel and protecting the environment. He is a strong advocate of a two-state solution with the Palestinians, believes West Bank settlement construction should be frozen and borders should be worked out in negotiations.

Such positions will put Kariv at odds on many issues with Netanyahu’s religious and nationalist partners, if the Israeli leader wins another term in Tuesday’s vote.

Even if Netanyahu’s opponents manage to form a more moderate coalition, Kariv isn’t likely to change much policy on his own as a new member of the parliament. But he’ll have influence and a louder microphone just for having a seat inside the government. That’s expected to raise his profile on volatile issues, such as a recent Supreme Court decision allowing people who convert to Judaism inside Israel through the Reform or Conservative movements to become citizens.

The March 1 ruling, 15 years in the making, only affects about 30 people a year. But like Kariv’s rise, the symbolism of the ruling challenged the Orthodox establishment’s monopoly on defining what and who qualifies as Jewish. Several members of the Knesset have vowed to challenge the decision via legislation.

As a lawmaker, Kariv would have a voice in the parliament’s debate. He’s said that if Israel wants to be the nation-state of the Jewish world, then it must recognize all the denominations of Judaism with equality.

“To be inside the Knesset means he’s at the table. He’s at the lectern, wearing a kippah as an Israeli,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Reform movement in the U.S. who has lobbied the Knesset with Kariv, his Israeli counterpart, for nine years. Now, Jacobs said, “instead of writing op-eds, he’s going to be standing at the plenum.”

This equal footing would give some added legitimacy to a movement the Orthodox leaders have dismissed. They see Reform Judaism as a threat unlike secularism, said one expert.

“Reform Judaism conveys an alternative interpretation of Judaism,” said Shmuel Rosner, senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem. Many Orthodox leaders “don’t want to have any discussion about it.”

United Torah Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox party, released a campaign video just after the court decision that cast non-Orthodox converts in Israel as akin to dogs wearing skullcaps.

The ferocious blowback might work in Kariv’s favor.

Kariv “is a strong individual and he’s been very outspoken,” said Jay Ruderman, president of The Ruderman Foundation, a Boston-based group that educates Israeli lawmakers about American Jewry, and himself an Orthodox Jew. “In the Knesset, it will be a bumpy ride.”

But if Kariv’s critics keep up the hostility, Ruderman added, “they will make him more well-known.”

And in a closely split parliament, pragmatism may end up prevailing. Rosner said the threatened, pre-election boycott of Kariv could easily fade if the Orthodox politicians need him in a tight vote.

“We should all remember that this is politics,” he said. “People can be enemies in public and still trade horses privately.”

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