David Breakstone
Reflections on Israel and the Jewish world

Inside the President’s tent

Panel discussion on national unity on Tisha b'Av with the Old City of Jerusalem in the background
TONIGHT WE DON’T STUDY TORAH Panel discussion on national unity on the eve of Tisha b’Av with the Old City of Jerusalem in the background

Dear Mr. President,

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to tell you privately how uncomfortable I was with the public manner in which you were being taken to task by the Masorti/Conservative Movement, which I am honored to represent in Israel’s National Institutions. The backdrop of the discord was the cancellation of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony for children with special needs that was to have taken place in your residence and presided over by both an Orthodox and Conservative rabbi. The background to that was the earlier cancellation by the mayor of Rehovot of the original service that was to have been held in the city’s Masorti synagogue.

I let you know at the time that I was as deeply pained as my colleagues by the regrettable unfolding of events which caused such anguish among the children and such anger and insult among our members both in Israel and abroad. But I also told you that I did not believe that the way in which you were being portrayed as virulently hostile towards non-Orthodox Judaism could possibly reflect your position accurately, either personally or presidentially, given your remarkable record of speaking out and reaching out emphatically and consistently for inclusivity, tolerance and acceptance of the other in Israeli society since the day we were privileged to have you assume office. I am gratified that now, following the historic study session you hosted in your official home last week in advance of Tisha b’Av, I have the occasion to say publicly how appreciative I am of the effort you made to engineer such a harmonious moment of reconciliation.

The event you sponsored included teaching by three rabbis and an academic, representing the Conservative, Orthodox, Reform and Jewish Renewal movements. What they said was important, but not nearly as important as the symbolic significance of the fact that they were saying what they did in concert with one another at the Presidential Residence in Jerusalem only days before we would be commemorating the sacking of the city and the forfeiture of Jewish sovereignty due to bitter internecine rivalry between competing sectors of our people.

My support for your labors and admiration for the esteem you have brought to the presidency are not to be taken for granted. Truth be told, I was not happy about your election. My views are decidedly left of center and I feared your assumption of office would herald seven bad years of right-wing dogma engulfing our land. It turns out I was ignorant of the teachings on which you were suckled and unaware of the depth to which you remain committed to them. As vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, it would have behooved me to have read Jabotinsky long ago, but my own self-righteous partialities left me trusting I had naught to gain by doing so. I was wrong, and it is your example that has inspired me to rectify this lacuna in my Zionist education.

I didn’t have to dig very deep to discover that your commitment to civil liberties, human rights, and equality before the law regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender or creed was not an aberration of Revisionist ideology but rather its manifestation, explicitly articulated in a draft constitution prepared by the Revisionist Executive in 1934, which incredibly even went so far as to provide that “In every Cabinet where the Prime Minister is a Jew, the vice-premiership shall be offered to an Arab, and vice versa.”

In promoting the document, Jabotinsky wrote “I do not believe that the constitution of any state ought to include special paragraphs explicitly guaranteeing it’s ‘national’ character… The best and most natural way is for the ‘national’ character of the state to be guaranteed by the fact of its having a certain majority,” a message you obviously took to heart in rejecting recent attempts to legislate a Basic Law that would have defined Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.

Furthermore, though circumstances have changed since Jabotinsky’s time, I appreciate, Mr. President, that there are those who would still like to be able to assert, as did he, that “All Jews and Zionists of all schools of thought want the best for the Arabs of Eretz Israel. We do not want to eject even one Arab from either the left or the right bank of the Jordan River. We want them to prosper both economically and culturally. We envision the regime of Jewish Palestine as follows: most of the population will be Jewish, but equal rights for all Arab citizens will not only be guaranteed, they will also be fulfilled.”

Closer to theme of the day, I have discovered that your mentor was also a champion of religious freedom within the Jewish fold, and an ardent opponent of religious coercion. Already in 1917, he lamented that “We surrendered to the militant clericalism that is fighting women’s equality, a principle that was greeted with cries of joy at the First Zionist Congress in Basel some 20 years ago,” and recognized that “We will pay dearly for this weakness… Only a few months ago we had hoped that we could live in peace with the ultra-Orthodox element and many of us were even prepared to make known concessions in our private behavior so as not to offend this passing generation. Now, however, we must fear that a fierce clash of cultures is inevitable in this land as well…”

Twenty years later, defending his visit to a non-Orthodox synagogue, Jabotinsky wrote, “I very emphatically urge our friends to have a more serious view of such principles as freedom of conscience and freedom of thought. I, for one, am not prepared to support the mania of banning spiritual quest…” It should come as no surprise, then, that you have now joined the struggle against the delegitimization of any stream of Judaism.

No doubt your teacher would have taken great pride in your opening words at last week’s learning session, at which you explicitly welcomed women rabbis along with their male colleagues, asserted that no stream of Judaism can claim primacy over the others, and insisted that “the Presidential Residence, as the home of the entirety of Israeli society, is committed to being a home to everyone… not a house of struggle and conflict, but a house of discourse, a house that gives expression to a diversity of views. No doubt this is not an easy mission… but it is a mission which I am determined to succeed in out of an understanding that… striving to develop a common language even in which we might disagree is the mission of this House; it is my mission. ”

I trust, Mr. President, that in pursuing it, you will be inspired by all of the speakers, but I, in particular, was impressed by the words of Rabbi Chaya Rowen Baker of the Ramot Zion Masorti community. The hatred we bear for the other is not without cause, she argued, but its cause is spurious, born of a fear that we might discover in the “other” the grace and the goodness that justifies a way of life different from our own.

By extension, I would argue that redemption will not come about as a result of our sitting together and spouting platitudes about loving one’s neighbor as oneself, but by genuinely listening to those with whom we disagree with an openness that includes the possibility of being convinced that our own truth might not be the only truth, and that another’s beliefs might be cause to reexamine our own.

I began doing that, Mr. President, by looking into the source of your own commitments, and came away enriched. We may yet conclude that we disagree as to how to achieve the ends of a just and moral society at peace with its neighbors that cares for its minorities, its downtrodden, its widows, its orphans and its sick, but it is agreeable to know that we both want to get to the same place. I thank you for having inspired me to discover that.

On this Tisha b’Av, then, I would encourage everyone to examine some stance or notion that they have rejected from afar and consider from up close if they might discern in it something redeeming.

It is not likely, however, that many will listen to me; they just might listen to you. As a follow up to your pre-Tisha b’Av study session, why not establish an ongoing Presidential Forum for National Unity dedicated to this end?

The reading of Lamentations concludes with the plea that God “renew our days as of old.” Having returned unto Jerusalem we now need apply ourselves to its rebuilding. There is no better place to continue doing that than from inside your tent which you have plainly demonstrated is large enough to accommodate us all.

About the Author
Dr. David Breakstone is presently engaged in establishing the Yitzhak Navon Center for a Shared Society. He previously served as deputy chair of the Jewish Agency executive and the World Zionist Organization and was the conceptual architect and founding director of the Herzl Museum and Educational center in Jerusalem.