Israel by Israelis, Part III: Perils & Possibilities
Israeli Reform Jews discuss the risks and rewards of living in a Jewish
state striving to realize its promise—and how North American Jews can influence
Courtesy of Kibbutz
What makes you feel proud to live in Israel?
Edgar Nof (rabbi of Congregation Or Hadash in Haifa; former director of
HUC-JIR’s rabbinic program in Jerusalem): The incredible miracle of our
having created a society by integrating people from so many different countries,
cultures, backgrounds. Every year when I ask the people at Or Hadash’s Passover
seder where they are from, the answer is predictable: at least 50 different
countries and five continents!
Miri Gold (rabbi of Kehilat Birkat Shalom at Kibbutz Gezer; board member
of Rabbis for Human Rights): In a time when I find it easy to despair, I
draw sustenance from those who work to make Israel a compassionate and just
society. For example, last year before Rosh Hashanah, there was a public outcry
over the announced plans to deport asylum seekers from the Sudan, foreign
workers, and others who lacked legal permits to reside in Israel. After a large
grassroots campaign supported by some Knesset members, the Interior Ministry
postponed the deportation decree. Another example: a growing number of both
Jewish and Arab Israelis citizens are demonstrating together in the
Arab-populated East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah to demand the return
of people who have been expelled from their homes.
I draw hope from those who actively fight injustice.
Michael Marmur (rabbi and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of
Religion vice president for Academic Affairs): Of the quite amazing and
improbable things that have happened here, what gives me hope are the emergence
of a vigorous Hebrew language and literature; the possibilities for a “thick”
Jewish culture in which you can be immersed without being intoxicated; and the
attempt of some of us to reach out across huge social and cultural divides and
experience something of the unity of Israel.
Nancy Reich (a founder of Kibbutz Yahel and secretary of its regional
agricultural research and development facility): This may sound corny, but
my greatest sense of hope and pride begins with my three children. Of course I’m
proud to be a member of Israel’s first Reform kibbutz, but beyond that I can’t
take any credit for so many remarkable achievements this country has notched up.
My children have all grown up on Yahel, been involved in the Reform youth
movement, and are more proactive about religious pluralism than I am. To me they
are the living promise(s) we strive for v’shinantam l’vanecha —you will
teach your children, and hope they will embrace our values and become the
mentschen we wish them to be.
Hanan Cidor (Jewish Agency for Israel shaliach/emissary to the URJ
and NFTY): Just look at what we as a people and as a nation have achieved in
such a short time and under such difficult circumstances. Yes, many pressing
obstacles lie ahead, but if Israel’s history tells us anything, it’s that we, as
Jews and Israelis, can determine our own fate. Nothing is more exciting than
What are the greatest threats to Israel?
Michael Marmur: Iran’s nuclear plans; the crisis of Israeli education
in all sectors; and the real possibility that the only picture of Judaism to
prevail will be chauvinistic, obscurantist, and nonsensical. Of these three, the
second is probably least understood abroad, because our Nobel prize-winners and
technological achievements create the illusion that we are in an educational
powerhouse. In fact, our schools reflect all of the social ills which plague
us—economic divisions, cultural divides, a pronounced reduction in standards,
and more—and Israel has slipped down on all tables measuring educational
performance. To maintain the finest traditions of Jewish education in
21st-century Israel, enormous resources will need to be poured into the system.
If the engine of our education system is re-energized, I will feel far more
upbeat about our chances of meeting the other existential challenges.
Hannah Yakin (author and member of Har-El Congregation, Jerusalem): In
addition to nuclear missiles, the greatest threat to Israel and what we call the
Free World is the flood of Islamic extremism that is inundating Europe and
beyond. Holland, England, France, and Germany are so preoccupied with proving
they are tolerant, they run the risk of losing their identities. Since the
birthrate in European families is much smaller than in Muslim families, it is
easy to guess what the future will bring. My generation won’t be around to see
our great-granddaughters wearing the burka, and I am grateful for that.
Matthew Sperber (founding member of Kibbutz Yahel; chair of the Israel
Movement for Progressive Judaism’s National Board): The most pressing threat
to Israel’s existence is ruling over millions of Palestinians on the West Bank
who have no democratic rights in our country or elsewhere. On a day-to-day
basis, most Israelis manage to ignore this reality. Having for the most part
locked Palestinian workers out of Israel, we no longer even see them, so we do
our best to pretend that everything is okay and ours is a fine democratic nation
dealing with normal internal problems like political corruption, education, and
crime. But a democracy that doesn’t grant basic rights to any portion of its
population, whether they be women, gays, blacks, or Palestinians, is destined to
rot and deteriorate from the inside. If today we rationalize denying
Palestinians rights, tomorrow other populations will also be deemed unworthy.
Until we free ourselves of this burden, we will never be able to move on to the
real reason we are here: to build and create a new Jewish democratic state based
on the values and visions of Jewish tradition.
Michael Livni (author of books on Reform Zionism; chairperson of Kibbutz
Lotan’s ecological society): The greatest threats come from within. We’ve
lost our Zionist purpose. Israel has become like all the nations—Hebrew speakers
assimilated culturally to the Western mores of competitive materialism—the
modern manifestation of worshiping the Golden Calf. Adding to the problem is the
fact that the ultra-Orthodox, which constitute 13% of the Knesset, reject the
very symbols of the state. They do not raise the flag or sing the national
anthem. Most do not serve in the army. While they do engage in the political
process, their commitment is to their rabbis’ interpretation of halachah
(Jewish law), and their members of parliament refer to rabbinical councils for
voting guidance. Given all of our internal differences, it remains uncertain
whether Israel can survive without a common denominator of Zionist ideas and
ideals to weld it together.
Israel also faces an ecological threat. The worldwide phenomenon of
desertification as a result of global warming and population growth has hit hard
in all of Israel, the Palestinian autonomy, and Jordan. The combined area of
Israel and the Palestinian territories is 10,000 square miles—approximately
equivalent to the size of Vermont or New Hampshire. Vermont has a population of
some 650,000. New Hampshire has 1.4 million. The combined population of Israel
and the Palestinian territories is 10 million. Water in particular is a scarce
resource and becoming scarcer. Through a national effort, Israel now recycles
more than 70% of its waste water, but it is not enough. Further massive
investment in desalinating seawater is necessary.
Dalya Levy (executive director of ARZENU, the umbrella organization for
Reform and Progressive Zionists): Corruption, moral turpitude, and lack of
principles, which have led to disillusionment and despair. When Israelis see
their presidents indicted for rape or financial scandals (Moshe Katzav, Ezer
Weizmann); watch their prime ministers being questioned by police for improper
and possibly criminal behavior (Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak); observe
their ministers being convicted and going to jail (Aryeh Deri, Rabbi Shlomo
Benizri, Abraham Hirschson) or “getting off” with public service (Haim Ramon),
this undermines the will of the people to resist outside enemies.
Hanan Cidor: The greatest threat to Israel is internal strife amidst
the loss of our collective Jewish identity. For more than 60 years the most
powerful incentive keeping us together as Jewish Israelis has been the outside
threat to our physical existence. If some day, hopefully, those threats are
removed and we are left to deal with our internal differences, I fear that our
nation may just fall apart because we haven’t done nearly enough to create a
model society based on humanistic and Jewish values, heritage, and culture. The
Zionist dream of Israel, beyond the sense of being a safe harbor for Jews
fleeing persecution, is still largely just a dream. If we fail to create a model
Jewish society that is truly a light unto the nations, Jews will eventually
start to question why they live in Israel—and, to an extent, a lot of them
already do. If Israelis stop seeing a reason to stay, the outside threat will no
How does Israel’s lack of a constitution impact the lives of Israelis and
Stacey Blank (rabbi of Congregation Darchei Noam in Ramat HaSharon):
According to my husband, a human rights lawyer, the Israel Supreme Court holds
that Israel has a partial constitution consisting of a series of basic laws
dealing with human rights and the relations between various branches of
government, which the Knesset enacted over the course of a number of years—these
laws can override other laws. In a recent Supreme Court decision, the court used
the basic law of Human Dignity in deciding that a main road leading from
Jerusalem to Tel Aviv through the territories should be opened to Palestinians
as well as Israelis, ruling that denying Palestinians use of the road infringes
upon such basic rights as movement, health, and well-being.
However, the impact of not having a full constitution is felt every time
there is a new government, as every new minister can drastically change the
policy of his department. For example, the current Shas Minister of the Interior
decided to expel the children of foreign workers. The decision has been
“postponed” because of public outrage, but it still stands.
Nancy Reich: To my mind, the more pressing issue is our form of
government. Coalition government as practiced in Israel is a failure. Too many
times we have witnessed small parties holding the government hostage, as it
were, in order to have their demands met. I would prefer to see a coalition
government with fewer parties; a higher percentage of votes required to “pass”
the threshold to obtain a Knesset seat would accomplish that.
Tamara Schagas (a first-year student at HUC-JIR’s Israeli rabbinical
program; national coordinator of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism’s
Young Adult Forum): I was born in Argentina, a country that has a
constitution but still has not always respected its citizens’ basic rights. I
don’t think that Israel’s lack of a constitution is the problem. Deeds matter
more than words.
Reform Judaism still does not currently enjoy the same rights and
privileges as Orthodox Judaism in Israel. What is the best approach to achieving
Jewish religious pluralism?
Rich Kirschen (director of the Anita Saltz International Education Center,
part of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in Jerusalem): This problem
and its solution hinge on demographics. I am not expecting hundreds of thousands
of Reform Jews to move here tomorrow, but such an infusion would greatly improve
our status in Israel. Approximately 650,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews live in Israel
today. They comprise 20% of the country and now hold 17 seats in the Knesset. If
Reform Jews had close to half that number, we could either create our own party
or join and influence another party to support religious pluralism and freedom.
Religious pluralism will not be handed to us on a silver platter; we have to
build facts on the ground, beginning with more Reform schools, camps,
synagogues, and rabbis.
Levi Weiman-Kelman (rabbi of Kehillat Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem; a
founder of Rabbis for Human Rights): We need North American Jews to help
strengthen Reform communities in Israel. We are not competing on a level playing
field. The Israeli government is expanding its funding for Orthodox institutions
while we receive barely enough support to maintain our existing institutions,
and then we are criticized for not growing. How about a campaign whereby the
North American Reform Movement matches the millions of dollars the state
provides for Orthodox synagogues, schools, and more in Israel. Or give as much
as Orthodox American Jews give to support Orthodox institutions in Israel: I
suspect the figure is in the millions. With serious financial support we could
open new Reform synagogues, schools, senior facilities, youth programs, and
summer camps. We could also get our message of Progressive Judaism out to the
public daily, as the Orthodox do. Instead, many Israelis perceive the lack of
outside financial support as proof that American Reform Jews don’t believe
Reform has a place in Israel.
Dalya Levy: Every Reform Jew should become a member of ARZA (www.arza.org), the
Reform voice for connecting with and supporting Israel. If another 50,000 Reform
Jews joined ARZA, we would be the undisputed leading Diaspora voice in the World
Zionist Organization—the “Parliament of the Jewish People”—influencing the
Israeli political parties that are also at the WZO table, and by extension their
representatives in the Knesset, on such issues as recognizing Reform rabbis in
Israel and publicly funding Reform synagogues and schools. With a clear majority
in the WZO, the Reform Movement could pass and implement resolutions according
full recognition for all streams of Judaism and equal religious rights for all
Israeli citizens. The Kotel (Western Wall) could also be liberated from
those who have turned it into an ultra-Orthodox synagogue—with women as
Miri Gold: Join the nearly 15,000 Reform Jews who have signed the
Israeli Religious Action Center petition (www.irac.org) declaring that
I, the rabbi of my community, Gezer, should receive a state salary, just as the
16 Orthodox rabbis in my region do. This case against the Israeli government has
been before the Israeli Supreme Court three times. Recently the court ordered
the lawyers on both sides to find a solution. Over 100,000 signatures will show
Israeli decision makers that the Reform Movement consitutes a significant part
of world Jewry.
Stacey Blank: Visit Israel, and mention that you are a Reform Jew to
everyone you meet—your tour guide, the hotel concierge, the shopkeepers you buy
from, the young Israeli soldier that your kids ask to take a photo with, the JNF
guy who helps you with tree-planting. Tell your tour operator to add visits to
Reform communities, especially on Shabbat, to your itinerary. And if your
congressperson will be visiting Israel, write a letter saying that as a Reform
Jew, you would like him/her to address the issue of Jewish pluralism in meetings
with Israeli officials.
Do Jews outside Israel have a right to criticize Israel?
Miri Gold: Jews outside of Israel have a right and even an obligation
to criticize Israeli policies when they do so out of a love and sincere concern
Stacey Blank: Diaspora Jews also need to be well informed and proceed
with humility, recognizing that, because they don’t live here, their perspective
lacks firsthand experience.
Michael Livni: I have never heard a criticism of Israel voiced by Jews
outside of Israel that was not voiced by part of the Israeli public as well.
Matthew Sperber: The most effective way to communicate is through the
Israeli media. Op-ed articles in the Hebrew press are read and truly influence
Michael Livni: To increase the likelihood of your perspective being
heard, offer nuanced criticism that takes into account the context in which the
criticized action occurred. For example, any criticism of Israeli military
operations in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead should be made in the context of
the rocketing of Israeli settlements by Hamas and Islamic Jihad—groups that are
committed to Israel’s destruction.
Tamara Schagas: The relationship between Jews and Israel ought to be
like a good family relationship—based on love, respect, and self-determination.
In a well-functioning family, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses; we
accept our differences. We disagree, criticize, even get angry; still we support
each other and seek compromises for the sake of solidarity. We make the effort
not to be judgmental, to understand the other’s point of view; we try to be
Criticize Israel because it is also yours, because you know it, you love it,
you are committed to make it better.
Of course, this is not as easy as it sounds. Family relationships never are,
but we work on them because the rewards are worth the effort.
Michael Marmur: Strong engagement between you and us is the only way
for us to save each other. Just don’t be surprised: If you say something an
Israeli politician likes, s/he’ll tell you that you’re a great visionary and
humanitarian—but if he/she doesn’t like your message, you may be attacked on the
basis of your zip code. In any event, the real reward of engaging with Israel is
not having a VIP slap you on the back, but the sense that you’re part of
building a Jewish future.
Does Israel have an image problem?
Rich Kirschen: We are judged differently than the rest of the world.
The U.S. has killed 100,000+ people in Iraq and there’ve been no rallies around
Europe accusing American leaders of war crimes. Yet when 1,400 people are killed
in Gaza, it is decried as a holocaust. Don’t get me wrong: We do make mistakes.
Moreover, we are in a terrible situation; Israel has not fought an army in
uniform in 30+ years. So when a terrorist launches a rocket at us from a
position between a mosque and a kindergarten, any way we respond will look bad
on CNN or BBC.
Hannah Yakin:The main reason for Israel’s perception problem is that
we are no longer the underdog. If ever Israel is on the verge of being
annihilated, the world may not rush to rescue us, but imminent death will do
wonders for our image.
Paula Edelstein (chairperson of the Israel Religious Action
Center’s Steering Committee; member of Har El Congregation, Jerusalem):
Delegitimization of Israel has become the new anti-Semitism. No matter what
we do, many people in the world will judge us harshly and wrongly. That said, if
our leaders were more sensitive to how their public statements resonated around
the globe, they would provide our detractors with less ammunition.
Nancy Reich: Our image problem is a consequence of our oppressing
Palestinians—the occupied territories, roadblocks, separation barrier,
humiliating identity checks. That said, on the issue of morality in armed
conflict, the world nonetheless holds Israel to a higher standard.
The best we Israelis can do is to continue making important advances in
science, medicine, technology, literature, etc. Perhaps in these ways, plus
better public relations—or dare I say propaganda—we will garner deserved
How can the bonds between Israelis and North American Jews be
David Forman z’l* (founding chair, Rabbis for Human
Rights; member of Congregation Kol HaNeshema, Jerusalem): North
American Jews have to broaden their definition of what it means to be a Jew.
They cannot define themselves as faith-based only, seeing Judaism solely as a
religious expression; Jewish identity must also include history, peoplehood,
statehood, and the Hebrew language. For many in the Diaspora, the rush to
spirituality has become narcissistic, concentrating on “what I believe, what I
feel.” We Jews are a collective; we pray in the plural. If North American Jews
continue to perceive their self-identification in exclusively religious terms,
they will create a brand of Judaism that is legitimate in their own eyes but
will have little in common with the Jewish historical experience—and the
emerging gap between Israelis and North American Jews will become permanent.
Michael Marmur: Get involved. Learn more Hebrew. Read Israeli
newspapers and web reports. Explore developments in Israeli music, film,
Hannah Yakin: The only way to strengthen bonds is through personal
involvement. Many members of Har-El Congregation invite tourists to our homes
and do our best to make their visits special.
Dalya Levy: Join individual and congregational trips to Israel.
Sign up for URJ Kallah in Israel. Send young people on leadership programs that
expose them to the vibrant Israeli life hidden behind the headlines: the
Eisendrath International Exchange program for high school students, Birthright,
the Shnat Netzer gap-year program, and MASA.
Michael Livni: Every young North American Jew should ideally spend a
year in Israel on a Reform Zionist program to round out his/her Jewish
identity—and a similar framework for introducing young Israelis to the Diaspora
needs to be developed.
Edgar Nof: Every year, a group of our Or Hadash youth visits 10–15
U.S. Reform synagogues, staying with American hosts; and 40+ U.S. synagogue
groups visit us. We also connect with 1,000+ families from nearly 50 U.S.
synagogues: Our b’nai mitzvah children write to children in the States,
preschoolers exchange artwork, we facilitate foreign exchange trips and then
keep in touch with the participants. We strive to create the feeling of being
one big family. If every Reform congregation in America and Israel connected on
this level, our relationship would be much stronger.
Michael Marmur: Come to Israel and find someone or something that
speaks to you—a silversmith, a rock star, a Reform rabbi, or a maverick Orthodox
rabbi—and hang on. Don’t allow us to grow apart. There is too much at stake.
At the end of the seder, North American Jews say, “Next year in
Jerusalem.” What do you Israelis say?
Rich Kirschen: “Next year in Jerusalem”…we have the seder in Modi’in.
Dalya Levy: “Next year in Jerusalem.” But what we mean is, “Next year
in the best possible Jerusalem we can create.” For us, the physical journey is
over; our task now is to embark on the spiritual path of perfecting the world.
Paula Edelstein: “Next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem,” meaning a city
that is worthy of being the spiritual center for all of world Jewry.
Nancy Reich: “Next year in rebuilt Jerusalem,” and I choose to believe
this refers more to strength of national character than it does to Jewish
dominion over the city.
Michael Marmur: “Next year in Jerusalem, my home. Next year in a
Jerusalem of justice, peace, education, nuance, rationality, and spirituality.
Next year in a Jerusalem where the Arab neighborhood is funded like my
neighborhood and where all citizens pay their municipal taxes. Next year in an
earthly Jerusalem which is a little closer to its celestial counterpart.”
Editor’s Note: In this “Focus: Israel by Israelis, Part III,” all
symposium participants’ bios have been shortened to conserve space. To learn
more about them, consult the Spring 2010 printed or online
*Rabbi David Forman passed away on May 3, 2010,
after these interviews were completed. David was an inspiration to tens of
thousands of young people who went on NFTY Israel programs. His commitment to
Israel knew no bounds: He pursued justice regardless of controversy, and the
impact of his work will be felt for years. May his memory be a blessing.