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Founder of Israel’s First Non-Orthodox Synagogue Expresses Concern Over "Erosion of Democracy"

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
March-April 1997

Professor Hillel Shuval told a group of New Israel Fund supporters in Washington that he is concerned by the "erosion of the fundamental mechanism of democracy" in Israel. (The Washington Jewish Week, March 27, 1997)  

A founder of the first non-Orthodox congregation in Israel (Har El Synagogue in Jerusalem), a professor of environmental science at Hebrew University and the chair of HEMDAT: The Council for Freedom of Science, Religion and Culture in Israel, Shuval has become a leader in what he sees as the struggle against Jewish fundamentalism and religious coercion.  

Hillel Shuval, a Washington, D.C. native, says that, "I went to Israel a Zionist, and I still believe in the importance of Israel." His Zionism, however, has been tempered by what he sees as a dangerous trend in Israel today.  

Quoting from former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, the chair of the board of advisers of HEMDAT, Shuval asserted that, "Israel is the only democratic society that prevents its Jews to live as they wish. The stranglehold of Orthodoxy deprives Jews of what they’ve been granted in all other democracies."  

It is a unique form of religious intolerance, Shuval states, because it is confined to the Jewish community. The denial of freedom of religious practice does not apply to Israeli Christians or Muslims.  

Describing what he termed the rising tide of religious intolerance, Shuval cited an escalating series of incidents through which the fervently Orthodox are seeking to "delegitimize" other forms of Judaism. On a recent Rosh Hashanah, the Chief Rabbinate published advertisements in Israeli newspapers warning tourists not to attend Reform or Conservative synagogues, for their "prayers would not be heard by God and the mitzvah of hearing the shofar blown would not be fulfilled."  

Shuval pointed to what he described as "damaging elements" in the Israeli society. He said that the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, in particular, is "the main force behind disenfranchising non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism. They are proposing the change in the Law of Return. The Chabad newspaper calls the Conservative and Reform Jews ‘tricksters’ and ‘heretics like Amalek.’" The latter is a biblical reference that equates the non-Orthodox with the most infamous enemies of Israel.  

Recent attempts to make the Israeli Supreme Court subordinate to the rabbinical court, Shuval stated, are "a direct threat to the democratic institutions of Israel...It is an attempt to co-opt all of Judaism."  

American Jews, Shuval said, should take on the fight for religious pluralism: "The time has come for the whole Jewish community to stand together for religious pluralism."  

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