Progressives should be respected, not told to ‘bug off’

Progressives should be respected, not told to ‘bug off’

In its Dec. 7 issue, NJJN published “Bug off, liberals,” an ill-informed and mean-spirited letter to the editor about Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Jews — it cannot go unanswered. 

The letter writer, S. Scheininger of Union, demands that liberal, non-Orthodox Jews of North America stop “imposing your will” on the State of Israel. “Israel is not yours,” Scheininger sanctimoniously proclaims.

Let me set the record straight. Israel is a democratic state whose citizens elect members of Knesset, who in turn legislate for those who voted for them. Israel also has an independent High Court, which rules on nearly 1,000 cases a year. The justices perform their duties with an independence and integrity that should make every Jew proud.

We American Jews have neither the right nor the power to “impose” anything upon the sovereign State of Israel, nor should we — ever. At the same time, we have a stake in the Jewish state. We care deeply about Israel’s security and about the health and well-being of its society. Every Israeli prime minister has declared that Israel must be the Jewish state for all Jews. Leaders of Israel consistently ask for political and financial support from the Jewish communities in America and elsewhere, urge us to become involved in Israeli society, and welcome the free expression of our ideas. 

Those ideas encompass an unwavering commitment to Israel’s security; encouragement of civil rights and civil liberties; and strong support of the nation’s educational, health, and social service efforts. We “liberal” Jews also care about religious freedom and are opposed to any religious coercion. We reject any one group’s “imposing” its beliefs on another (to use Scheininger’s term).

So what do we liberal Jews do? 

We support a multitude of Reform and Conservative synagogues throughout Israel that are used by Israelis who wish to pray in a setting of gender equality. In those venues, Israelis are able to study Torah in an atmosphere that encourages a wide range of beliefs about the origins of Torah and the flexibility of Jewish law and tradition. Our religious movements in Israel are governed exclusively by Israelis and dedicated to the needs of Israelis. They advocate for equality for all segments of Israeli society, especially for women, who live with restrictions that we believe are incompatible with Jewish values. 

More than 50 percent of all secular Israelis have participated in a life-cycle event in a Reform or Conservative synagogue in Israel. Not because they were forced to, but because they wanted to. Eleven percent of Israelis identify as Reform or Conservative (that’s more than the ultra-Orthodox segment of the population).

Last month, the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem ordained its 100th Israeli Reform rabbi. Those rabbis serve numerous progressive synagogues, communities, schools, kibbutzim, and organizations that enrich the spiritual and social fabric of the Jewish state. Nobody requires Israelis to attend these synagogues, to send their children to progressive schools, to live in the movement’s kibbutzim, or to seek the counsel of its rabbis. Israelis do so of their own free will. 

We also take pride in the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) in Jerusalem, which is governed and staffed by Israeli citizens. IRAC responds every day of the week to the demands, not of American Jews, but of Israelis themselves for a society powered by democratic values and basic human rights. 

When hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union are denied basic rights to marry, divorce, or be buried in Israel, IRAC is there for them. When members of Israel’s LGBTQ community face discrimination in the workplace or the public domain, IRAC is there for them. When foreign workers are denied basic civil rights, IRAC is there for them. When women are informed that they must give up their seats on an El Al aircraft because their presence offends someone, IRAC is there for them. 

In recent months, it has become clear to most of us that Israel-diaspora relations are undergoing a dramatic transformation. We American Jews and Israeli Jews are co-equal partners who often see the world differently but are bound together by destiny. That bond is central to who we are and must not be ruptured. Respectful, informed dialogue is indispensable to our future. 

I wish the letter writer, and others who may identify with these views, deep fulfillment as they pursue, in their own way, a Jewish life of Torah, prayer, and good deeds. They are an important part of amcha, the Jewish people, and they deserve our respect.

So too do the vast majority of the Jews of the world who pursue their Judaism in different ways; they deserve respect and understanding, whether they reside in North America, other places in the diaspora, or in Israel. 

It does none of us any good to insult or demean our fellow Jews. It does us a world of good to understand that each of us is created in the image of the Divine, each endowed with the potential to shape a bright Jewish future.

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