Prophecy? What Ben Gurion said to the Reform Movement

In 1970, Israel's legendary Prime Minister, a secular Jew, had his own message for worried Reform leaders. Op-ed.

David Bedein ,

David Ben Gurion
David Ben Gurion
Knesset website

In 1970, during my first months in Israel, I lived with two fellows who were learning at HUC, the Hebrew Union College.

They very much wanted to live in Israel, but they and their fellow Reform Rabbinic students were concerned about their status in the Jewish State.

A prominent Reform Rabbi, Ezra Spicehandler, arranged for HUC students to meet and express their ​concerns to David Ben Gurion, the first Israeli Prime Minister. He was an elder statesman by then, having just retired from the Knesset.

After hearing the concerns of the HUC students, Ben Gurion, known as BG in English, responded with a healthy dose of reality.

BG answered their concerns by saying that if American Reform Rabbis want recognition, they should bring 300,000 Reform Jews with them to Israel.

Ben Gurion’s response envisioned the dilemma that Non-Othodox Jews cope with in Israel today.

An estimated 20,000 Jews are active in all the 64 Reform, Conservative and Reconstuctionist synagogues around Israel.

​​This is growth when compared with 1970, when you could count the amount of non-Orthodox synagogues on your finger tips.

Yet these numbers do not compare in numbers to the estimated two million Orthodox Jews in Israel - of all stripes - who hold at least 40 seats in the current Israeli Knesset, both in religious parties and in parties that do not define themselves as religious.

Today, when an Israeli prime minister considers vital decisions, a constituency of two million outweighs a community of 20,000, regardless of how many ​supporters those 20,000 have who reside in the diaspora. And recent surveys in the US show that the number of those flaunted supporters is decreasing by leaps and bounds due to intermarriage.

Had Reform Jews brought 300,000 Jews in 1970, their sheer numbers ​would have catapulted them into a position where they could have shaken the balance of Jewish religious power today.

Decisions are made by leaders who live in the Jewish state, not by those Jews who try to affect Israeli decisions from afar.

Ben Gurion’s observations were all-too prophetic.​

David Bedein is director of Israel Resource News Agency and heads the Center for Near East Policy Research, author of Genesis of the Palestinian Authority and Roadblock to Peace: How the UN Perpetuates the Arab-Israeli Conflict: UNRWA Policies Reconsidered.