Unfortunately, the meetings I attended in Israel this week were anything but.
On Sunday, the first day of the board meetings, we learned in quick succession about two profoundly upsetting developments. First, the Israeli government decided to “freeze” the landmark Kotel (Western Wall) agreement, which would have redesigned the Kotel plaza and created an appropriate space for women and men to pray together, with oversight by a group including members of the Reform and Conservative movements. Second, the government introduced legislation that — for the first time — would codify the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over conversion in Israel. In other words, should this bill become law, conversions done in Israel by the Reform and Conservative movements would not be recognized as legitimate by the State of Israel.
See here for the statement we issued in response.
At a time of growing divisiveness, with Jewish unity feeling increasingly out of reach, these decisions represent a particularly painful affront to a very large segment of the Jewish diaspora. American Jewry has always stood with Israel — and we always should. But how can we capture the hearts and minds of the next generation who identify primarily as non-Orthodox, and instill within them a strong sense of connection to Israel, when these Israeli government decisions convey that there is only one brand of Judaism welcome in Israel?
I spent a lot of time this week trying to explain to Israelis of all stripes — Knesset members, government ministers (including the Prime Minister), media representatives, and many others — the betrayal felt by many American Jews. But it’s important to understand that, for the most part, these issues don’t currently resonate with Israelis as they do for us.
To oversimplify, it comes down to a matter of identity. Most Israelis identify as either secular or Orthodox. For secular Israelis, their Jewishness is baked into their national identity — which may explain why pluralism, the idea that religious Judaism can be practiced in many different expressions, is still in its nascent stages in Israel. On the other hand, the majority of American Jews have embraced progressive Jewish movements, such as Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist, and Israelis have little awareness of the vibrancy of progressive American Jewish life.
Just today, the Israeli government agreed not to move forward with the conversion bill for six months. While this hardly represents “victory,” as the Kotel deal remains undone and the conversion bill is not definitively off the table, it is welcome news. And, hopefully, it reflects a growing recognition by the Israeli government that this legislation will dangerously accelerate the divide between American Jews and Israel, precisely at a time when global Jewish unity is more important than ever. More fundamentally, Israel must uphold the most basic tenet of Zionism — that the Jewish homeland be a place where all Jews feel at home.
Over the years, UJA has invested significant time and resources in promoting pluralism in Israel and sensitizing the Israeli public to the importance of these issues for the Jewish diaspora. However, in the wake of these developments, it’s clear that we need to do that much more. And we will.
With July 4th approaching, I’m reminded of a basic American value: we are no less patriotic, and have no lesser love for our country, when we protest. In fact, protest is a form of patriotism in action. When you love a country — whether it’s America or Israel — you raise your voice when it matters.
So this week, because we do love Israel, we raised our voice. And in the days and weeks ahead, we’ll keep on doing it — because the future of a united Jewish people demands no less.
Shabbat shalom and happy 4th