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Israeli voters are poised to elect the country’s first Reform rabbi to the Knesset.

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Israeli voters are poised to elect the country's first Reform rabbi to the Knesset.
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Israeli voters are poised to elect the country's first Reform rabbi to the Knesset.

Israeli voters are poised to elect the country’s first Reform rabbi to the Knesset.

 

Rabbi Gilad Kariv has learned to deal with controversy after years of defying Israel’s religious and political establishment. He has testified before Israel’s Supreme Court in contested human rights trials. He has also campaigned at the Knesset, Israel’s 120-seat parliament, in the country’s fourth election in two years.

So when influential Orthodox lawmakers threatened to boycott Kariv after securing a position that placed him on the verge of entering the Knesset, it didn’t bother him.

The 47-year-old lawyer and father of three is set to become Israel’s first Reform movement rabbi to be elected to parliament next week, a political ascension that will be a major victory for religious pluralism in Israel and for millions of American Jews who follow liberal religious streams.

Kariv’s ascension to the fourth-highest position in Labor’s center-left coalition will also bring the Reform movement closer to the center of power in Israel, rather than remaining a diaspora phenomenon. The Orthodox establishment has regarded Kariv as a threat, saying he is the face of a “clownish” and “illegitimate” cult of pretenders.

The animosity is dismissed by Kariv.

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

He spoke not far from the spot where, during the first Palestinian rebellion in 1987, he and his fellow teenage activists were spat on by passers-by while demonstrating regularly for a two-state peace deal with the Palestinians.

Kariv grew up in a non-religious Tel Aviv neighborhood. He had his bar mitzvah, as did most Jewish Israeli people, and he considered becoming Orthodox early on.

During a high school trip to the United States, he first experienced Reform Judaism. After returning home, he became the chief of one of Israel’s first Reform congregations.

The Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism now has over 50 congregations, representing a small but growing segment of a country where Orthodox leaders control the majority of Jewish rituals. The Reform movement is represented by around 3% of Israeli Jews.

Reform Jews make up about a third of American Jews, or about 2 million people.

In addition, non-Orthodox American Jews have far more liberal views on social and political issues than Israel’s increasingly right-wing society. As a result, tensions are rising between the world’s two largest Jewish communities over issues such as religious pluralism, West Bank settlement construction, and how to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Those divisions were on display during the Trump administration, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s close ties to the former president of the United States enraged many American Jews.

You’re losing a large portion of the Israeli audience just by talking about “Western liberal democratic values,” according to Kariv.

However, Kariv, who is both a rabbi and a lawyer, believes that Israel’s Zionist ideals include respect for human rights and the LGBT community, as well as assisting African migrants who have arrived in Israel and environmental protection. He is a strong supporter of a two-state solution with the Palestinians, believing that settlement construction in the West Bank should be halted and that borders should be negotiated.

If Netanyahu wins re-election on Tuesday, Kariv’s positions will put him at odds with Netanyahu’s religious and nationalist allies on a number of issues.

Even if Netanyahu’s opponents succeed in forming a more moderate coalition, Kariv, as a new member of parliament, is unlikely to make significant policy changes on his own. However, simply by having a seat inside the government, he will gain influence and a louder microphone. This is expected to raise his profile on contentious issues like a recent Supreme Court decision allowing citizens to convert to Judaism inside Israel through the Reform or Conservative movements.

The 15-year-in-the-making ruling on March 1 only affects about 30 people per year. But, like Kariv’s ascension, the ruling’s symbolism called into question the Orthodox establishment’s monopoly on defining what and who counts as Jewish. Several Knesset members have pledged to appeal the decision by legislation.

As a legislator, Kariv will have a say in the debates in parliament. He has stated that if Israel is to be the Jewish world’s nation-state, it must treat all Jewish denominations equally.

“Being in the Knesset means he’s seated at the table. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Reform movement in the United States, who has lobbied the Knesset with Kariv, his Israeli counterpart, for nine years, said, “He’s at the lectern, wearing a kippah as an Israeli.” “Instead of writing op-eds, he’ll be standing at the plenum,” Jacobs said.

This parity would lend legitimacy to a movement that has been dismissed by Orthodox leaders. Unlike secularism, they see Reform Judaism as a threat, according to one expert.

Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem, said, “Reform Judaism conveys an alternative interpretation of Judaism.” Many Orthodox leaders claim that they “do not want to talk about it.”

Just after the court decision, the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism released a campaign video depicting non-Orthodox converts in Israel as dogs wearing skullcaps.

The ferocious repercussions could work in Kariv’s favor.

Kariv is a “strong individual” who has “been very outspoken,” according to Jay Ruderman, president of The Ruderman Foundation, a Boston-based organization that educates Israeli legislators about American Jewry and is himself an Orthodox Jew. “It’ll be a bumpy ride in the Knesset.”

Ruderman added that if Kariv’s critics keep up their animosity, “they will make him more well-known.”

And, in a tight-knit legislature, pragmatism could win out. The threatened pre-election boycott of Kariv, according to Rosner, could easily fade if Orthodox politicians need him in a close vote.

He said, “We should all remember that this is politics.” “It’s possible for people to be rivals in public and yet exchange horses in private.”

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