My late mother never raised a hand to punish me (in the days when it was still politically correct to do so). She didn’t even have to raise her voice when I was out of line. All she did was use “that special tone” and “those special words” kept in her arsenal for these maybe not so rare occasions, and I would dissolve in tears of regret.
There is a phrase in Hebrew “to speak dugri”, which means to be direct and say exactly what you think, leaving no room for interpretation. This way of speaking is unfamiliar for many people from North America and Europe who express fierce emotions in a tactful, polite manner, even when speaking Hebrew. The difference is in the tone, which Israelis often don’t interpret correctly because of the “dugri” attitude.
This week, two prominent Jewish American leaders — Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Rabbi Steve Wernick spoke out in a tone and with words long overdue. Paraphrasing on the known saying “c’est que ton qui fait la musique”, it was definitely a new tone that made new music which cannot be ignored any longer.
It is not the first time North American Jews are angry with the Israeli government. I remember clearly the conversion crisis in 1997 and the depth of anger amongst the North American Jewish leaders. It was clear to me that the tone was too soft and too subtle for the Israeli leadership to take note.
Now, for the first time in many years of activism, I heard a different tone. For the first time Diaspora Jewish leaders, who represent the majority of the Jewish people, spoke “Israeli”. They said things in a manner completely alien to them: direct, blunt, perhaps what they might consider rude. But to me if felt like at last they would be taken seriously.
It happened in a loaded meeting close to the stones of the Western Wall, between Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and leaders of the Reform and Conservative Movements from North America. One could sense how deep the rift is between them and the Israeli government as a result of the Kotel crisis.
It was in that meeting that Rabbi Rick Jacobs spoke to government officials in a language and a tone they understood he said : “On that day in June, atem bagadetem banu (you betrayed us), because the Kotel agreement was passed by the cabinet and there is simply no excuse for the government to simply break that promise.”
Since those bold words were said directly (Israeli style), Minister Hanegbi and MK David Bitan were caught unprepared, expecting again the usual pleasant evasiveness so typical to American Jews. But for the first time, they found themselves dealing with Jewish leaders who were talking “dugri”.
The leaders of the liberal movements are looking out for their constituents. Having negotiated tediously for three years, they came to a good amicable solution. The Kotel Agreement create the base for a new inclusive plaza to be run by liberal Jews and women (unlike the northern ultra-Orthodox plaza). This agreement wasn’t easy, but it was viable. Everyone involved- including the Wall Rabbi, the ultra-Orthodox politicians, the progressive movements, North American Federations and Women of the Wall, signed off on it. The cabinet voted and approved it, only to renege it a year and a half later. For a while, the Israeli government “sang” a soothing lullaby, hoping Diaspora Jews would be lulled to slumber. Now Our Jewish leaders are finally using a tone that is changing the music, and we are all wide awake.