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Chaim Y. Botwinick

Israel at a Crossroads: Where Do We Go from Here?

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These past several weeks of protests, anger, consternation and heartbreak in Israel came to an exploding climax just prior to Tisha B’Av  with the Knesset’s recent  passing of its reasonableness law amendment  – the precursor to future judicial forms and the first phase of it’s judicial reform campaign.

The scenes of angry protests, civil disobedience and unrest in the streets of Israel – from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – were painfully breathtaking. They were beyond our wildest imagination. And for many of us living in the States, as we were glued to social news media platforms or cable news networks, we felt a sense of helplessness, hopelessness and profound frustration disappointment and sadness. By the same token, and much to my surprise, there were a sizable number of American Jews who were (believe it or not) totally unaware of the current matzav (situation) in Israel….. How this is possible or even plausible, is a topic for another interesting post.

I will not use this Blog to opine regarding the logic, efficacy or wisdom of the Israeli Government’s recent vote. Nor will I attempt to duplicate, replicate or mimic the hundreds of editorials, statements, articles and resolutions which are in support, condone or bemoan what is now unfolding in Israel. It would be less relevant than a drop of water in a bucket of overflowing emotions. One the one hand, doing so,  may be somewhat cathartic for me to articulate my feelings or emotions regarding this crisis, but in all probability, it would not move the needle of insight or understanding on the gauge forward one iota.

What I can and will attempt to do however is begin to get us thinking about the relevance and implications of these events for the American Jewish community; and the articulation of several suggestions in support of the perplexing question,”where do we go from here?”

The great management guru, Dr. Stephen Covey is quoted as saying that one should never be occupied, obsessed, or concerned about events in life, over which one has no control or influence. To do so according to Covey would be a waste of time, and futile; and can become beyond  frustrating. One should rather spend there precious and invaluable time on issues, concerns, approaches and solutions which are relevant, realistic and doable.

So, as I began to reflect about the host of American Jewry responses to the recent Israeli Government’s course of action and vote, I am amazed and intrigued by the public response. They run the gamut from anger, disappoint and hurt to that of  praise and support (and everything in between).

Although we are all entitled to our individual and collective opinions (the power of democracy), I am a bit concerned when I hear or read about national Jewish communal institutions that take a public stand on this very sensitive issue. Truth be told, I have more respect and admiration for those organizations and institutions that remain neutral and that “stay in their lane”, do not make public statements or pronouncements and which continuously encourage and publicly support compromise and achdut bnai yisrael.

I am now hearing and continuously reading that what is now happening is Israel is a “battle for the democratization of Israel and for its very existence.” Existential? Really? What evidence, short of hyperbole  do we have that supports this powerful statement or sentiment?

What is now happening in Israel is not necessarily an existential challenge, event or a direct threat to its democracy. It is indeed a huge and profoundly difficult, serious  and arduous bump in the road. But, it should never be mistaken for being existential.

As my dear Holocaust survivor friend shared with me over Shabbat Nachamu, with tears in his eyes…”.these events in Israel are not about a threat to Israel’s democracy or its existence……. It’s about what happens when a 75 year old child matures, grows up in the real world.” The events of  Holocaust and the current Iranian nuclear threat to humanity was and is about an existential threat….. not what is now unfolding in Israel. Israel was and always will be a proud democracy. It now needs to get these pent up growing pangs out of their system; and unify itself around those ideals and principles which unify a people with a common destiny.

Yes, as American Jews, (not living in Israel) we are all trying, albeit difficult, to do our very best and fair share by publicly supporting the decisions of  the Israeli government. But, as a collective, we are frequently fragmented, divided and lack cohesiveness regarding support for specific Israeli policies. This my friends is healthy and is proof positive that Israel is and will remain a proud democracy.

Although many national Jewish communal organizations and institutions need to play to the pressures and desires of their donors and supporters, it should be made clear that they DO NOT represent the totality of American Jewry. To be sure, irrespective of institutional ego, there is not one Jewish communal organization in America that represents the entire Jewish community. Yes, there are organizations and institutions that represent segments of our population or community, and there are those that strongly opine regarding Israeli positions and policies. But, they have not been empowered by the millions of  Jewish people living in America, as a collective to represent them in the court of public opinion. So, the next time we read in the anglo Jewish press about a public policy position being taken by these institutions effecting Israel, lets please view them…with clarity, circumspect and perspective. To be sure, these organizations are not our representatives, except in cases where we actually pick and chose who we follow. This is particularly the case when we defer to many of our world renown spiritual and rabbinic leaders …and, when and where daat torah becomes the public policy for that segment of our community.

Tangentially, I wish we would have experienced the same heightened level of public consternation, anger and protest by self-empowered “national Jewish communal organizations” when millions of our brothers and sisters were being transported in cattle cars to Auschwitz and other death camps. Strong language? Indeed. But lets be honest….we could have and should have had more Jewish communal institutions protesting in the streets of  Washington and Manhattan, as our Jewish blood was spilling over in the  streets of Nazi dominated Europe. Yes, there were many Jewish rescue and relief organizations that played a very significant (existential) role in helping Jews escape the horrors and  ravages of Nazi Europe and then resettling  them in safe spaces throughout the world. They did not have to be appointed to  “represent” the American Jewish community. They were on a sacred mission and were doing G-D’s work by actually saving lives. They were not motivated by communal politics or by private or personal  organizational agendas, but by a higher calling.

Finally, there will always be those who  posit that times were different in the 1940’s. and that today’s generation of Jews are  different  than that of our parents and grandparents generation. Ergo their fear that Israel is losing its democratic edge. That may be so. But it nevertheless does not change the calculus or the reality that Israel remains a strong democracy and will never ever succumb to a power or influences which diminishes its role as an independent sovereign democratic country and homeland. To do so, is to sell Israel short and minimize its impact, potential and role as a light unto the nations.

My second point is that all of the drama, which we are now collectively experiencing like most events of similar nature in history, will eventually become yesterday’s news. This is not to suggest that all will disappear. We still have a very long and arduous road to travel over the next several months as well as scars which will remain with us for decades. To be sure, we all hope and pray that compromise will be reached and that communal shalom bayit will prevail. But, its a sure shot that the current unrest and protests will dissipate as the Israelis return to a level of normalcy, when pendin  strikes will be averted; when the IDF reserves will return to their responsibilities with dignity and honor; when hi-tech start-up nation companies and their executives will continue to innovate and when  scientific institutions will continue to invent and cure; and finally when the Israeli  Government will continue to govern for the people who voted for it through a democratic system.

Having said all of this, what does concern me the most is the immediate aftermath, fallout and impact on the American Jewish community. We need an exit ramp that is safe, respectful and one which can rise above the ruthless politics of the day.

In light of these realities, I would like to propose a course of action which might help move us in this direction.

The Establishment of a new Global NGO

As envisioned, I am respectfully and humbly proposing the creation of a new NGO which would serve as a representative buffer, sounding-board and intermediary structure between Knesset proposed recommendations/reforms and agreed upon final votes, ratification and/or policy implementations.

The NGO, to be entitled the Achdut Bnai Ysrael Forum, would serve as a Commission, Think Tank, Consortium or a Task Force (in Israel) and which would serve as an interim platform for discussion, debate, reflect and consensus building.

The rational for the establishment of this NGO is based on the premise that the judiciary reforms trajectory from the Knesset  floor to actualization are way too dramatic and abrupt. There must be a place to park recommendations in order to review and debate them respectfully, thoughtfully and plainfully.

With regard to the composition of the NGO, it is recommended that the organization be comprise of select American Jewish communal institutions, Rabbinic leadership groups, the Jewish Agency for Israel, United Jewish Federations and select business and philanthropic partners and representatives from the health and welfare sectors and academia, These representatives and the governing leadership group of the NGO. would be appointed (elected) to the NGO on a rotating basis

In order to manage the group effectively, the NGO will create several significant working committees and subcommittees which would help facilitate deliberations and conversation; and, hopefully  prevent any  bottle-necking impasse of issues and concerns.

Although I will not get into any additional structural or organizational guidelines or recommendations, it is essential to keep in mind that in order for this new entity to succeed , it must be apolitical, balanced and staffed by senior leadership who have the skills,  experience and bandwidth to help move the NGO mission forward.

Alternatively, this new entity may be the first step in encouraging Israel to  review and possibly reinvent its Constitution through new 21st century realities. Having said that, this is a challenge which transcends this writers purview and/or expertise, but may warrant conversation, review and debate.

End Note

Although the aforementioned recommendations are not an end-all or be-all to help move Knesset judicial reforms forward, it is but one (of many) attempts to restore the Israeli government’s democratic process to a level that can be embraced and celebrated by Israelis, Americans and diaspora Jewish communities..

One can make a cogent case not in favor of the establishment of such an NGO; and may feel that this proposal is but the creation of yet another organizational bureaucracy. It is important to note that what  makes this body somewhat unique  is that it will respect the democratic autonomy and dignity of the Jewish state and it will provide those outside the government orbit a fair and balanced opportunity to review, debate and opine about these critically important potential reforms in a civilized, respectful and organized manner.

We have approximately three months for the Israeli governmental to get its house in order. I am most hopeful and optimistic that we will end up in a good place….and, maybe even in a far  a better place than prior to the recent Knesset reasonableness reform vote.

At the end of the day, its not about Israel’s democracy or its  existential well being; but rather the essential importance for  Achdut Bnai Yisael  tomorrow and for generations to follow.

Achdut will become the primary catalyst and driving force for Israel’s future, not quarrel, debate or criticism. But above all, it must become be laser-focused in going about its business as an Am Kadosh and B’tzelem Elokin.

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is a senior executive coach and an organizational consultant . He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami; in addition to head of school and principal for several Jewish day schools and yeshivot. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, resource development, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011