This past Thursday, a group of Reform Jewish leaders from the U.S. and Israel tried to hold services in a plaza above the Kotel (Western Wall). In an atrocious display of aggression, security guards roughed up the rabbis to try to prevent their prayers. Sadly, Israel suffers from a deep lack of religious pluralism, where progressive Jews aren’t given any legal stake in the Jewish State. Frankly, even a number of Modern Orthodox rabbis (including in the U.S.) have felt the consequences of this exclusion as the Rabbinate veers further and further rightward. It’s hard to see how excessive state involvement in religion is good for our people- including our religion itself!
And yet. I find something utterly audacious and disrespectful about the way the Reform Movement, of which I have been a part since birth, is handling this situation. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is not my favorite politician, is nonetheless the democratically elected leader of Israel. In a democracy, leaders are selected on the basis of citizens’ votes. It’s quite simple. In the U.S., rather than a parliamentary system, we have Congress- but the principle is the same.
Reform Jews in the U.S. skew very liberal. I myself am a progressive and a die-hard American-Israeli Reform Jew. Name a Reform program, and I’ve done it. Hebrew school, Confirmation, NFTY, my Temple youth group, serving on various boards, leading teen services, serving as president of my college’s Reform Chavurah, hosting the national Kesher convention, traveling with Reform students to Argentina, working at the Israeli Reform Movement’s summer camp, participating in the young professionals group at my Temple in D.C. And on and on and on and on. The movement’s values shape the way I see the world.
One of the movement’s points of activism is campaign finance reform. I wholeheartedly support this endeavor. The American political system is rife with corruption and the fact that corporations can essentially buy elections (and politicians) to me undermines the very nature of democracy. You can read the movement’s positions here.
Yet when it comes to Israeli politics, Reform Jewish leaders in America confront the Israeli government as if they were citizens. While I clearly believe all Jews have a stake in Israel no matter where they live, there is a substantive difference between someone who lives here and someone who doesn’t. As an Israeli, you pay taxes, you serve in the army, you face the brunt of the government’s decisions, you take the risk of hopping on the bus every day knowing it could frankly be your last. That is not how American Reform Jews live. Which is fine, and their right.
But that changes the nature of the conversation. When Prime Minister Netanyahu and members of his coalition have insulted Reform Jews, progressives abroad were rightly outraged. But what I found astonishing was that for many bigwigs in the progressive Jewish world, the reaction was to say they’ll use the “power of the purse“. In other words, to either stop donating to Israeli causes or to shift their donations in different directions. All of which is their right.
But what astonishes me is how tone deaf this argument is. For a movement that fights day and night to protect American democracy and to get money out of politics, how do they think it sounds to the average Israeli when Americans say their going to use their dollars to influence the government? Israelis are already fairly unfamiliar with Reform Judaism, viewing it as an American import (right or wrong), so it doesn’t exactly bolster our case to hear a bunch of rich American Jews threatening the Israeli government.
I have to reiterate- I favor a pluralistic solution at the Western Wall. I am horrified by people attacking fellow Jews simply because they practice Judaism differently. My movement deserves a place in Israel, just like every other faith.
I just don’t think that a bunch of unelected Reform leaders coming from America on their annual visit have a right to speak for me as an Israeli Reform Jew. I know our movement prides itself on democratic values- so why on earth don’t Reform Jews get to vote for our leadership? Rick Jacobs, the current president, may be an awesome guy- I have no reason to believe otherwise. But as they say in the famous Monty Python and Holy Grail scene: “I didn’t vote for you.”
I work in public relations for a living so I know the value of a good protest to raise awareness of your cause. And I think that at least in part motivated this recent activism. And the absolute idiots who run the Western Wall Foundation gave the protestors a ton of free publicity by harassing them in front of a bunch of cameras.
The Reform leadership seems to think that this news will galvanize American progressive Jews to take action. I think they’re wrong. While among the core Reform and Conservative Jews, this may be true, the other 90% who show up twice a year for services are more likely to simply feel alienated from Israel. And decide not to visit. And maybe even decide to distance themselves from Judaism itself.
That is a huge problem. For Israel itself (not just the current government) and for Reform Judaism both in America and especially in Israel. In Israel, we’re facing the fight of our lives to grow the movement. Rather than spending money on public relations and paying for American rabbis’ plane tickets- how about you give those dollars to our movement in Israel? Help us build more schools, more young adult events, and more communities. And send more people to visit, not give them a reason not to.
In the end, Israel, for all its faults, is a democracy. And in a democracy, it’s not money that votes. It’s people. The Prime Minister, be it the current meshuggenah or another meshuggenah, calculates one simple thing: votes. When building a coalition, which party has how many seats based on how many votes. If American Jews are really serious about changing the political calculus in Israel- and helping Reform Judaism thrive here- they should pack their bags. That’s probably not a popular thing to say- I’m sure I’ll get push back from a bunch of friends. Of course you don’t have to make aliyah, but can you imagine how different the Knesset would look if a million Reform and Conservative Jews made Israel their home? At the end of the day, 22% of Israelis are Orthodox (though please, let’s move beyond stereotypes and realize there are bridges to be built here too). And 3% are Reform.
Do I foresee all my American friends packing their bags and making aliyah right now? No. Although if you do, you’d be most welcome and I think you’d find Judaism and life here rewarding. We have a growing and energetic Reform Movement as well. In the meantime, let’s do this. Let’s democratize the Reform Movement so all of our voices are heard. Let’s allocate more resources to the Israeli Reform Movement so we have a larger and legitimate voice in the political system and society. And let’s avoid too many public confrontations that force American Jews to choose between their love of Judaism and their love of Israel.
This isn’t a one-sided issue- to my Orthodox friends reading this blog, I hope you understand the agony my movement is going through because we are being publicly humiliated by the Israeli government. Please help us and raise awareness in your communities. Israel will cease to exist if the sinat chinam, the baseless hatred, between all of our communities continues.
May we come to find a day when the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, is not a place of conflict or control. But rather, a place of joy, a place of holiness, and a place of wholeness. As my cover photo in an Ariel grocery store says: “If I forget thee oh Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning.” Indeed- in loving our holy city, let’s just not forget our shared humanity in the process. Amen.