We Must Address Illiberalism in Israel — in all of its Forms

Rabbi Andrea London Image
Rabbi Andrea London
on September 17, 2017

The experience of praying with the Women of the Wall in Jerusalem can be a trying one: huddling together and praying in hushed tones, while being bombarded with insults from angry onlookers, men and women alike. It is no wonder that Jews from the liberal movements have sought an egalitarian prayer space in which to worship according to our own practices, without fear of harassment or violence.

I found myself reflecting on that painful and moving experience last week for two reasons. First, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) released a poll definitively showing what we’ve long known: An overwhelming majority of American Jews — 73% — favor the creation of an Egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.  It also showed an erosion of support for Prime Minister Netanyahu among American Jews, 47% of whom now disapprove of how he is handling the US-Israel relationship. Second, two leading voices in the Conservative Movement — Rabbis Julie Schonfeld and Steven Wernick — published a stirring op-ed in the Times of Israel warning of fraying Israel-diaspora ties over issues of religious pluralism.

So it was no surprise that liberal Jews reacted with anger and in one voice in June when the Israeli government recently reneged on the deal to create an alternate prayer space at the Kotel (Western Wall).  Our outrage was compounded by a ministerial committee vote to move forward a bill that denies recognition of conversions in Israel outside of the state-sanctioned Orthodox system.

Not long after, the official rabbinate in Israel blacklisted a number of American rabbis whom it does not trust to perform conversions or to affirm the Jewishness of people seeking to make aliyah.

These actions draw our ire as American Jews because they have a direct impact on us. They are also deeply painful because they discount and disparage the way we practice Judaism and because they denigrate those we have chosen to lead us.

Yet these recent expressions of ill-will on the part of the Israeli government must be seen within the context of a broader set of issues that should concern all Jews worldwide who care about the democratic and Jewish future of Israel. If we want Israel to be a nation that embodies our values and aspirations, we must confront illiberalism in all its forms and address the full breadth of causes behind the fraying ties between Israeli and diaspora Jewry.

The absence of true religious pluralism in Israel is part and parcel of discrimination that has a history of marginalizing many communities, include Palestinian, Mizrachi and Ethiopian citizens of Israel and, of course, all those who live under occupation beyond the Green Line. The current governing coalition in Israel is built on an alliance between ultra-Orthodox political parties and the settlement movement, that, time and again, have placed their own narrow agenda above the long-term welfare of Israeli and Palestinian society. On a wide range of issues, this government has acted against the goals and values of the vast majority of American Jews.

We have to recognize that all of these issues are connected. Successfully standing up for our own rights will means fighting for the rights of others, and, with it, for Israel’s democratic future — even if that means confronting its government.

What Israel will do with the territory it occupies and how it will coexist with the Palestinian people are questions directly related to the country’s ability to survive and flourish as a liberal democracy, respectful of civil rights, dissent and diversity. Our communal institutions can’t hope to make an important impact on Israel if we ignore the larger struggle taking place over Israel’s future.

When anti-democratic laws crack down on groups that document and oppose the occupation, we must speak out. When Israeli politicians proudly proclaim that they will never allow the creation of a Palestinian state, we must speak out. We must make sure our elected officials know that our love for Israel does not equate to support for all of its current laws or policies. And even when our communal institutions and leaders don’t see eye to eye with each other, we should vehemently support the right of fellow Jewish groups to publicly disagree with the Israeli government.

We must learn about, and learn how we can support, organizations that promote democracy and equality for all Israelis and for Palestinians. We must stand with our many friends and allies in Israel — from veteran security officials to peace activists to bereaved parents — who are committed to pursuing peace and justice.

The last time I prayed at the Kotel, I left the women’s section still wearing my kippah. A man promptly hissed at me in Hebrew, “There is one Torah!” “Yes,” I replied, “and it is also my Torah.” Our Torah, which teaches me about the dignity and worth of every human being. Our Torah, which demands one law for the native born and the stranger alike.

As a community that values these ideals from our tradition, we must strive to apply them not only when we, as liberal Jews are affected, but in all the areas of Israeli society where discrimination and injustice prevail. We must have the confidence and the courage to join with our friends and allies from all walks of life to work toward a more secure, democratic and equitable future for our Jewish homeland.


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