Good morning, Israel — you have a new government!
Israel’s President Isaac Herzog recently acknowledged concerns over far-right parties rising to power but still said that Israel-Diaspora ties can weather it. But I say no.
We cannot weather it and we should not weather it. We should face it head on, with everything on the table.
This morning is scary and quite nerve-wracking. In a few days, Benjamin Netanyahu will begin negotiations to establish the most right-wing, halachically observant government Israel has ever had.
This is a fact we cannot dispute –- this is the government and the Knesset that Israel democratically elected, and of course we have to accept it. But we do not have to be happy about it. We don’t have to brush over it, and say let’s weather this. It will pass. Extremism will not pass unless people take a stand.
It’s okay to disagree with someone you love. It’s okay to disagree with Israel’s government and still love Israel. But simply disagreeing is not enough. We can and should take a stand and make our voices heard.
How can we do that from abroad? Yelling on social media may be comforting, but it definitely is not the way to make our voices heard.
As an Israeli-American who’s talked and taught about Israel all his life, I’d like to point out that the way we talked about Israel up until only a few years ago needed a serious revamp. It still needs it. The “Let’s focus on the good” approach, while well intentioned, inadvertently hides what is really going on, and it seriously lacks nuance.
Pluralistic Jews are less and less welcome in the Jewish landscape in Israel, the Israeli ultra-Orthodox don’t recognize their Jewishness, the egalitarian section of the Kotel is not being built, and the contemporary secular Israelis often consider themselves more Israeli than Jewish.
Which brings me to the common Israeli, who is moving further and further away from Judaism. I’m not talking about prayer and ritual, but about Jewish values — the values of tikkun olam and loving your neighbor as yourself as Leviticus 19:18 puts it. We have reached a point that sometimes just by mentioning these quotes from the Torah in a Hebrew-speaking public school in Israel will cause a parent to complain that teachers are trying to turn their kids more religious. Why is this, you might ask? Quite simply, the common secular Israeli is not aware that another way to be Jewish exists.
But there are now many places in Israel where this is different. In Modi’in, for example, Rabbi Nir Barkin and the Yozma Reform congregation have been making a real difference for years, with their kindergartens and afterschool programs. Kids and families know that you can live as an active and religious Jew without necessarily being Orthodox. The same goes for Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem in Holon, which does wonders for the community and now has an elementary school dedicated to progressive Jewish programing. Rabbis Meir Azari and Galia Sadan in Tel Aviv have a wonderful outreach program for all of the second graders in town who come to Beit Daniel to have a Torah consecration ceremony each year. Rabbi Or Zohar created a Reform community in the Galilee. I could go on and about the many wonderful projects that more and more people are seeking in Israel.
Their struggles are real as well. Like Rabbi Rinat Zefania’s congregation in Shoham, which, after years, finally collected enough money to build their own home. Or Rabbi Ayala Ronen Samuels in Caesaria, who also struggled for the right to build a building. Or the Women of the Wall, who fight so much hatred for the right to pray like a human being.
To me, these stories are essential to Israel’s future, and the more successes we have as a movement, the better Israel becomes.
That is the Israel I know and love, but sadly many in Israel don’t. In the Israel I know, love, and envision, a child is born to love their neighbor and to wish for their success. They learn that people are different, and that Jewish values can be a source of inspiration. It reminds me of what we teach our students here at Temple Emanuel of Westfield, where I am currently serving — to embrace their Jewish identity, and that there is such a thing as Israeli-Jewish, not just Israeli.
Let me be frank with you, my fellow progressive and Reform Jews. Bibi does not like you. Smotrich and Ben Gvir not only do not like you, they are afraid of you. When Smotrich says as part of his victory speech that he wants to make Israel more Jewish, he is not talking about the Arabs. He doesn’t much care about them. No, he is talking directly to Reform and progressive Jews. He’s hoping that the 14% of Israelis who now consider themselves affiliated with the liberal Jewish movements will lose interest and realize there is only one way to be Jewish. He’s hoping that the 70% of us who are religiously progressive will listen to Israel’s president and not overreact, not be hysterical, and act like everything is okay.
So how can I disagree with Israeli policy, yet keep the conversation going? How can I show my support while not approving of what is happening?
The answer is simple in my mind. It is time to yell and scream, and reach for the hands reaching out to us, saying where are you? I hope we will finally listen.
Israel needs our help, but the struggle is no longer just about security. The struggle is within. There are people trying to make Israel a better place, and they are the ones who need and deserve our support.
How can Israel make a peaceful solution with its neighbors when there is so much hate within? What more needs to happen for all progressive Jews to join with our Israeli partners to create a home for all Jews? In order to have strong, progressive, and pluralistic communities in Israel we have to keep building, to keep supporting. The support from here, in North America, is everything. That’s where every dollar should go. That’s where we should visit when we go there, and those are the success stories we should amplify.
Enough about Israel’s cherry tomatoes, drip-irrigation system, and the Start-Up Nation. Start amplifying common values. We can and must be proud of the progress being made. But so much more needs to be done.
We need to take a new stance on Israel in 5783/2023 and beyond.. We have to start supporting our values, and start seeking out those who hold them dear.
These elections were hard for me. In fact they were the first ones in 20 years I couldn’t vote in, because I’m abroad. We moved here after our daughter was born to be closer to my wife’s family, but the Israel I love is on my mind every day.
Shimon Smith moved to Israel from New Jersey when he was 5 years old. He was an officer in the IDF and was a shaliach in the USA for two years. He became very active in the Israeli Reform movement, working for pluralistic change within Israel. Shimon recently moved to Cranford with his wife, Rebecca, and their daughter, and he is cantorial soloist for Temple Emanuel in Westfield.