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Thursday, 26 April 2007

Op ed By Rabbi Michael Boyden

RELIGIOUS DISCRIMINATION IN ISRAEL

My late father, whose Liberal synagogue in Breslau (then Germany) was
burned down by the Nazis on Kristallnacht, was not in favour of my
making aliyah. "They don't want you in Israel," he used to say.

When he said "you", he meant Reform Judaism. Of course, on one level he
was right. We suffer from a level of religious discrimination here that
would not be tolerated anywhere else in the world.

Nevertheless, in spite of it all, Reform Judaism has taken root in the
Jewish State, because most Israelis do not have a religious home and,
for many, the kind of message we preach speaks their language.

While Israelis have voted with their feet and deeply resent the coercion
exercised by the religious establishment here, there are occasional
outbursts and actions that remind us that Israel still has some way to
go before it becomes the tolerant and pluralistic society that we would
wish it to be.

Only recently former Israeli chief rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu accused Reform
Jews of bearing responsibility for the Holocaust that destroyed one
third of our people. While we have learned to live with the ugly slurs
that come from ignorant people like him, we are nevertheless sometimes
faced with a level of prejudice that has no place in a modern,
pluralistic and democratic society.

Our son, Jonathan z"l, served in an elite parachute regiment and was
killed while participating in a dangerous rescue mission deep inside
Lebanon some 13 years ago. Time has not eased our pain. However, one of
the more positive elements of Israeli society is the attention and care
that we receive from the IDF and the respect that we are shown as a
bereaved family, particularly on Remembrance Day.

This year I was invited to recite the El Maley Rachamim memorial prayer
at the municipal remembrance ceremony in the town of Hod Hasharon where
I live. However, during the final days before the event things began to
changeā€¦.

There were threats of violence and local "religious" thugs threatened to
disrupt the ceremony if I were allowed to chant the prayer. In panic,
the event's organisers suggested that I drop my title and simply be
called to the podium as "Mr". Naturally, I refused to accede to such
discrimination and capitulate to the hooliganism of those who would
de-legitimize me.

Jonathan z"l made aliyah as the son of a Reform rabbi. He served in the
IDF as the son of a Reform rabbi. How could it possibly be acceptable
for his father to have to drop his title as the price for his
participation in a memorial service? It was as if my son was good enough
to give his life in defence of his country but that I was not good
enough to be treated equally and fairly on Remembrance Day.

Less than 24 hours before the ceremony was due to start, I was informed
that the invitation to me had been rescinded and that the prayer would
be recited by a military chazzan in my place. Naturally, I was devastated.

But in the darkness, there are also rays of light. People flocked to me
after the event to express their sympathy and identification with me.
The Israeli media covered the story extensively and sympathetically. The
mayor's office was flooded with protests from all over the world
condemning the discrimination against me.

The struggle for equal rights in the Jewish State is not yet over.
Nevertheless, more and more Israelis are coming into contact with Reform
Judaism and there is a growing demand for religious pluralism. In that
sense, my father was wrong. They do want us here, but the flames of
prejudice and discrimination have yet to be extinguished.

Rabbi Michael Boyden made aliyah with his family from the UK in 1985. He
is rabbi of the Kehilat Yonatan congregation in Hod Hasharon and
Director of the Rabbinic Court of the Israel Council of Progressive Rabbis

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