My name is Miri Shalem. I am an Orthodox woman of Sephardic descent, married and mother of four children, living in Beit Shemesh, and I am the CEO of the Institute for Zionist Strategies – a research think-tank active in forging a liberal national identity via research studies, educational programs and field activities.
My home city Beit Shemesh is subject to a deep social-religious conflict and is undergoing an accelerated process of growth of its Haredi (ultra-orthodox) population. As a concerned resident of the city, I have assumed an active role in the struggle to prevent the change of the face and character of Beit Shemesh, and in so doing, have become more involved in many state-religion issues and questions such as majority and minority rights, the exclusion of women from the public domain, the power of the religious establishment in Israel, issues related to conversion and kashrut, mikvaot, the status of the Shabbat in Israel and others.
This was also my springboard to the job of managing the Institute for Zionist Strategies that promotes a combination of national and liberal values. For example, the Institute is active in reinforcing the State of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish People, in refuting accusations of apartheid leveled against the State of Israel, and in advancing issues of state and religion and human rights. As someone who grew up and was educated in religious Zionist circles, in the heart of the Israeli right-wing, I feel that the Institute offers a new and, in my eyes, topical discourse, of a liberal and pragmatic right-wing stance.
Myself possessing right-wing views, I think that the reality in Israel whereby we have been in control over the Palestinians for already 50 years, is far from an ideal state of affairs. It would possibly have been preferable to leave those areas with a high concentration of Palestinian population. In my estimation, the majority of Israelis would immediately sign an agreement to leave Judea and Samaria in exchange for guaranteed peace and security. Most people however, myself included, do not yet believe that there will actually be peace, the other side lacking the necessary partner for completing such a move. Leaving Judea and Samaria today will expose us all to real personal danger and even risk the destruction of the State of Israel. All Israeli residents will be under constant threat of missiles, similar to the present situation in southern Israel. I for one am not willing to risk our continued existence here – the Jewish People has already borne a terrible cost in its return to the Land of Israel and the building of a State here, and we cannot permit ourselves to place that in jeopardy. A diplomatic solution is therefore, seemingly unlikely to transpire in the near future.
I am happy then, that the Institute for Zionist Strategies does not engage in diplomatic solutions but rather, in humanitarian questions – such as how we can assist the Palestinian population in this current given reality. The Institute strives to advance Palestinian human rights and also engages in various issues of religion and state in Israel, without becoming involved in the political questions that so fragment Israeli society. The Institute seeks to introduce a sober discourse that is based on viewing a constructive reality, one that will lower the flames separating the different sectors of the population. Only thus will it be possible to create a consensus of opinion and break the dichotomy of the Israeli public discussion that is characterized by a lack of ability or willingness to listen. The Institute’s right-wing views regarding diplomatic and security issues, tend to attract less antagonism from the Israeli right-wing that is more willing to listen to its liberal standpoints rather than reject them out of hand.
In the State of Israel, the term ‘liberal right’ is an oxymoron. In general, the right-wing holds conservative views while the left-wing espouses liberal standpoints. This dichotomy fragments the public and creates an automatic discourse in which someone expressing a liberal opinion is ‘accused’ of being left-wing, while someone expressing an opposite view is ‘accused’ of racism etc. Consequently, the questions bothering many of the Jews in North America – issues related to conversion, religious pluralism, women’s rights, etc. – are in Israel, chiefly the domain of liberals who, in accordance with the dichotomic Israeli identity, are mainly of a left-wing political tendency, and generally less occupy people from the right.
Not everyone in Israel has had the opportunity I recently enjoyed when I experienced the connection with the Jews in North America, visited their communities, met with significant figures, all enabling me to fully understand the deep crisis that threatens the Jewish People – a rift between its two main centers: in Israel and in the United States. It would seem that due to the abundance of wars, the cost of daily living and housing, terror attacks and corruption, liberal values and questions regarding relations of religion and state are perceived in Israel as a discourse detached from reality. Accordingly, the connection with the Jews of the Diaspora, and chiefly with the Jews in the United States, is not regarded as burning an issue as the daily local news headlines which change with bewildering speed.
I recently returned from a week-long visit in New York during which I met approximately twenty leading figures from different Jewish communities. I asked each one of them as to their opinion on the Israeli government’s decisions regarding the Kotel and conversion that had aroused such a storm only a week previously. The replies were varied but I can summarize by saying that the Jews in the United States (especially the liberal denominations that comprise the majority) view the Kotel and conversion crisis as a deep and critical rift between themselves and their fellow Jews in Zion and their leaders, so much so that many philanthropists are considering whether to continue donating to organizations, institutions and projects in Israel.
It is interesting to note that a dichotomy also exists in the United States between the liberal left and the conservative right, and that American philanthropic organizations operate accordingly: right-wing organizations in Israel enjoy widespread support from right-wing Jewish Americans, and left-wing organizations benefit from the aid of those on the left in America. This state of affairs only serves to reinforce those already convinced and does not encourage a softening of the existing dichotomy whereby liberalism belongs to the left and conservatism to the right.
In times like these, it seems to me that every Jewish American concerned about the proposed solutions for the Kotel and conversion problems, should ask himself not how to support those who reflect his own political viewpoints but rather, how to strengthen organizations that can influence liberal attitudes so critical to relations with the Jewish People, specifically in the seemingly more unnatural domains of liberalism.
Any American philanthropist angry at the way the issues relating to the Kotel and conversion have played out, needs to ask himself as to where he can divert his resources so that additional sectors of the Israeli public can understand the need to allow egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, the importance of accepting all the Jewish denominations thereby preserving the Jewish People and others. A real change around issues of state and religion and the Jewish People will not occur by means of any legislation but rather, must grow from the roots up with opinion-changing work in the field.
My humble advice to the Jews in the United States is that if you believe in liberal values and are concerned about the growing distance from the Jewish People in Israel and the divide that threatens it, invest specifically in the Israeli liberal right-wing. Herein lies the key to changing public awareness and narrowing the vast rift between Israel and North America. At the same time, such an investment will also influence the polarized internal discourse in Israeli society and strengthen its social unity.