Among the most inspirational hours I have spent of late was in a meeting I had this week with 20 Israelis visiting Los Angeles who are traveling around America meeting Jews. Part of the “Gesher” program of the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs of the Israeli Government, they come from all over Israel, mostly Israeli-born. They are television reporters, correspondents with Haaretz and Israel Hayom newspapers, educators, political leaders, civil servants, military commanders, Ultra-Orthodox Haredim, and secular Israelis. I was invited as a representative of J Street, the largest pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy PAC in Washington, D.C. advocating for diplomacy, democracy, and a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I asked their leader how they all get along with each other – knowing of the enmity that can characterize such a diverse group of Israelis. He said that after every meeting with American Jews from across the spectrum, they talk and listen to each other with respect and attention, and have become friends. “If only American Jewry could do the same,” I said.
The group’s mission is to create a “bridge” – hence the word “gesher” meaning “bridge” between the two largest Jewish communities in the world – Israel with 6.5 million Jews and the United States with 7.5 million Jews.
In my prepared remarks, I told them who I am as a liberal Reform American rabbi and Zionist, and my family roots in Ukraine and Palestine. I told them about my great-grand uncle Avraham Shapira whose family are among the founders of Petach Tikvah from 1880 (half the group knew of him), and about the situation of the American liberal Jewish community in our relationship with the people and State of Israel. I quoted to them the most recent poll numbers about the 550,000 Los Angeles Jewish community – 48,000 from the Former Soviet Union; 46,000 Israelis; 22,500 Iranians; 32,500 Jews of color; 430,000 Ashkenazim; 77,000 Sephardim; and 22,000 Mizrachim.
LA Jewry includes ultra-Orthodox, modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and “Just Jewish.” We are Westside Jews, Valley Jews, Hollywood Jews, and secular Jews. Politically, 75% vote with the Democratic Party and 25% vote with the Republican Party. 80% feel that Israel is an important part of their Jewish identity, though increasingly growing numbers of young liberal American Jews under the age of 30 feel alienated from Israel because of the right-wing government and the lack of a just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I explained that 40% of America’s 7.5 million Jews have been to Israel at least once. 5-10% speaks Hebrew; 50% reads from the Siddur and understands a few Hebrew words; 40% are members of synagogues or other Jewish communal organizations; 75% support a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in principle, but recognize that given the weakness and corruption of the Palestinian leadership and the new right wing government of Israel, 2 states for 2 peoples is not coming any time soon.
I told them about my worries as a liberal American Zionist, that the recent election of the most extreme nationalistic ultra-Orthodox government in Israel’s history is abhorrent to the Israel most American Jews love, to our liberal Judaism and liberal Zionism, that North American Jewry’s relationship to Israel going forward is fraught with tension and risk, that we are holding our breath about what the new government will do concerning Israel’s High Court, the settlement enterprise, settler violence, the rights of the Palestinian Arabs under military occupation, and the violence that is taking the lives of Palestinians daily and Israelis weekly. I told them of our worry about the cohesiveness of Israeli society (their group notwithstanding), Israel’s relationship with world Jewry (their group is one important effort to help bridge the chasm between our communities), and Israel’s standing in the international community.
I spoke for about 15 minutes and then we talked. They asked me the following:
- How do you define Judaism?
- What are your red lines beyond which you believe someone is anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, and antisemitic?
- Palestinians have missed so many opportunities to make peace. What do you think is going to happen if there is no one to talk to on the other side?
- Do you and American Jews understand the fear we Israelis feel when missiles are fired at our people and we have to run into bomb shelters?
- You say that only 40% of the American Jewish community has ever been to Israel. Why don’t American Jews want to visit us more?
- Do you feel that American Jews should have an equal say about our policies concerning our security?
- What will you do, Rabbi, if American Jews want to take away support from Israel financially, militarily, and diplomatically if Israel’s government becomes more extreme?
- Do you think that Netanyahu doesn’t like the American Jewish community?
Here are my quick replies (in order of the above):
- I define Judaism as a civilization with all the markings of the great civilizations – history, land, government, law, language(s), faith, ethics, customs, religious practice, life cycle celebrations, holidays, culture, and the arts.
- Someone who does not support the right of the Jewish people to define ourselves and to a state of our own is antisemitic. Though there are Jews who do not believe in a state of Israel, such as the Haredim, and it is hard to call them antisemites. Someone who accepts that right but criticizes policies that they believe are not in Israel’s, America’s, or the American Jewish community’s best interests are not antisemites or anti-Israel.
- Yes, Palestinian leaders could have negotiated a 2-state solution after Oslo on at least 4 occasions with 4 Israeli Prime Ministers (Rabin, Barak, Olmert, and Netanyahu). That said, it is not in Israel’s interest if it seeks to remain both democratic and Jewish if there is no resolution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. So patience is required. Many thousands of Palestinians want peace and a state of their own and accept Israel’s existence. The Palestinians need new leadership just as Israel needs the leadership of someone like Israel’s last Prime Minister Lapid. It is inevitable that a 2 state solution of some kind (Confederation is one viable option) but I may never see it in my life time (I am 73 years old).
- Yes, I know the fear that Israelis feel of Arab terrorism and war. I spent my first year of rabbinic study in Israel during the Yom Kippur War and I have been back 25 times, and so many of those times there was violence in Israel’s streets. In March 2002, I was in Jerusalem and walked by the Moment Café one hour before a Palestinian suicide bomber murdered 75 young Israelis. Bombs were exploding all over Jerusalem that month. It was the only time I was afraid to be in Israel. The second Intifada and the terrorism emanating from the West Bank was the reason PM Sharon ordered the building of the Security Fence. It is a necessary evil because it stopped Palestinian suicide bombers from coming into Israel from the West Bank and killing Jews. One day, in a peace agreement, I hope it will be taken down.
- I believe that many American Jews are afraid to come to Israel (unless they come with their rabbis). They read only the bad news in the headlines and miss the extraordinary society that Israel is, that it is a vital democracy inside the Green Line, that it has more patents per capita than any nation in the world except the United States, that it is a leading nation in hi-tech, bio-technology, cyber, medicine, climate change and ecology, agriculture, the arts and music, and that American Jews need to see it and feel the pride in the miracle that Israel is.
- I explained that only Israelis have the right to take the hard decisions about war and peace and their security. American Jews don’t send their children to the military nor pay taxes. However, we have a right and duty to share our ideas about matters that have an impact on our security as American Jews here, our identity as lovers and supporters of the State of Israel, that 80% of American Jews have said that Israel is important to their Jewish identity, and that we have a right to advocate for our liberal American Jewish Zionist values in the halls of the American government.
- I explained that I fear that Israel’s new extreme right-wing nationalist ultra-Orthodox government will seek to annex the West Bank and foreclose a two-state solution altogether, act to take rights away from non-Orthodox Jews, and create a theocracy. Then I will not know what to do. I’ll still support Israel because Israel represents the hope of the Jewish people and the greatest experiment in Jewish living in the last 2000 years testing our ethical tradition in the context of our having sovereignty and power, and I will fight for justice for the Palestinians even as I advocate for Israel’s security and well-being amongst American Jews and in the halls of American government. I hope that day never comes when extremists in Israel destroy democracy in the State of the Jewish People for Israel’s sake and for ours here in America and around the world.
- Bibi, clearly, does not like the American Liberal Jewish community or the Democratic Party. He prefers to align with 80 million evangelical Christians and the Republican Party. But he is a savvy politician, and he did reserve the right to veto Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s actions in his agreement with their parties should he think those actions will alienate the United States. We will have to wait and see.
There were many more questions we did not have time to discuss. I left feeling exhilarated that Israelis from every demographic group are interested in building bridges with the American Jewish community in all our diversity and talking with us, listening to us, as we listen to them and try and understand their lives and circumstances.
As a parting gift, they gave me a paper cult of Jerusalem with the Hebrew inscription “Kol Yisrael aravim zeh lazah” (All Israel is responsible one for another), and I gave each a copy of my book Why Israel [and its Future] Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by my sons, Daniel and David Rosove.
It was an important hour we spent together and I was grateful to meet them all and have the privilege of speaking with them.