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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 its destiny.


Courtesy of Kibbutz Lotan
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 that.

 

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 longer matter.

 

How does Israel’s lack of a constitution impact the lives of Israelis and others?

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 second-class citizens.

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 for Israel.

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 public discussions.

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 helpful.

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 recognition.

 

How can the bonds between Israelis and North American Jews be strengthened?

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, literature.

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 edition.

* 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.




 


Union for Reform Judaism.