Should we, leaders and members of the North American organized Jewish community, meet with those members of Israel’s ruling coalition whose views are so beyond the pale that the majority of us find them to be abhorrent?
Well, it depends.
This week we learned that two prominent American Jewish leaders Eric Fingerhutt, President and CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America, and William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, met with Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich. Normally, such a meeting between mainstream American Jewish leaders and Israeli ministers is an unremarkable and un-newsworthy item. But in this season of you-can’t-make-this-stuff up, Fingerhutt and Daroff did so amidst a climate in which the leadership of mainstream organizations of the O.J.C. (Organized Jewish Community) was telling the White House not to meet with certain members of the coalition – namely Ministers Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, and in which massive protests had been organized to oppose the presence of Smotrich at the Israel Bonds dinner in Washington DC. This generated a great deal of ire without, incidentally, any focus on what they actually said in the meeting.
Eric Fingerhut told me directly this week how critically important it was to him that Smotrich understand that the fractiousness and divisiveness that the judicial reforms are causing in Israel are also deeply felt abroad. Which, kinda felt like a “speak truth to power” moment.
On the one hand, what’s the big deal?
If we can’t dialogue with the freely and fairly elected representatives of the Jewish State, then we are in even bigger trouble than we thought. What’s more, is that many of Israel’s elected representatives have demonstrated a profound ignorance about Diaspora Jewry – especially the liberal religious streams. Since those who do not understand us are in power, we need to do all we can to educate them and expose them to our values, our institutions, and our diverse expression of Jewish observance, ritual, community, and culture as we contend with the advances of modernity and the reality of life as we know it.
William Daroff rationalized his and Fingerhutt’s decision:
“The meeting was private, low-key, and not about photo ops but about having a conversation. … I think it’s important for the American Jewish leadership to ensure that the Israeli political leadership understands the key issues for American Jewry and understands more fully how the American Jewish community operates, and that our views are important issues of common concern.”
Beautifully put, but…
Meeting with such Ministers or MKs brings a tremendous risk, and that is the risk of legitimizing them.
As veteran Israeli diplomat and journalist Alon Pinkus framed it:
“Some [American Jews] disengaged, hoping that, like so many Israeli political crises and perennial impasses, this too would go away. Others adopted the lazy “Let’s hear all sides” argument. But there is no both-sides-ism here. Israel is in a state of disunion not because of deep political disagreement over policy, but because of a fundamental schism over democracy and the character of the [Jewish] state.”
There are ministers and MKs who have never met Reform or Conservative Jews. Rather than letting them perpetuate their stereotypes and misinformed perceptions, we have an opportunity to correct them. I do not say this with some false sense of idealism or naiveté that a meeting with Betzalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben Gvir, or Simcha Rothman will somehow change their views and send them running through the gates of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion on King David St. in Jerusalem. But I do believe that, in some cases, it can prove helpful.
The mainstream liberal view is that these ministers are beyond the pale. As one Reform leader succinctly commented:
“Smotrich, and other racist members of the Israeli government, should be shunned by leaders of the American Jewish community. He is beyond the pale. We should respect Israeli democracy; at the same time, we must demonstrate our insistence that Israel preserves the democracy and democratic values embodied in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. We should do so by visibly refusing to engage with those, like Smotrich, whose words and actions are antithetical to those values.”
Back in December, a few hundred North American rabbis and clergy members (left-leaning) put out a statement that included the following declaration:
“We, the undersigned, who care deeply about the security and well-being of the democratic State of Israel, are signing this letter of protest, pledging to not invite any members of the RZP (Religious Zionist Party) bloc – including but not limited to Otzma Yehudit leaders – to speak at our congregations and organizations. We will speak out against their participation in other fora across our communities. We will encourage the boards of our congregations and organizations to join us in this protest as a demonstration of our commitment to our Jewish and democratic values.”
But here’s the thing. We don’t make peace with our friends. What if true leadership is about sitting across the table with people we abhor? With people who stand for everything that is antithetical to us? Yitzhak Rabinz”l knew that for the sake of the future of the State of Israel, he had to sit down and try to reconcile with Yasser Arafat, his decades-long arch enemy.
An extraordinary example is the life, teaching, and example of Rabbi Menachem Froman (1945-2015). Froman exhibited an almost saintly err about him. He radically ignored the biting criticism that often had hurtful ramifications for his children and family members, as he crossed all lines to meet with the most extreme players from Hamas and the Palestinians.
Yossi Klein Halevi, in his 2000 memoir At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden wrote about him:
“For Froman, promoting Muslim-Jewish dialogue was part of the same messianic commitment that had led him to settle the West Bank. This was, after all, the age of miracles. If the Jews had been replanted in the biblical land, just as the prophets had predicted, then surely the prophets’ vision of peace between Israel and the nations was also within reach. And the most urgent place to begin was healing the ancient feud between Isaac and Ishmael.”
Rav Froman once reflected that “Many years ago, I suggested to my wife that we change our surname from ‘Froman’ to ‘Purim.’ Instead of people saying: ’Rabbi Froman met with Arafat, he met with Hamas etc.,’ they’ll say ‘Rabbi Purim.’ This way, it’ll sound totally different. No one will take anything I do too seriously…” (Hasidim Tzohakim mi-Zeh, no. 27)
Froman’s story is sui generis, and he is broadly identified as a larger-than-life personality and an exceptional human being. But what should those of us who are not Rabbi Froman do?
The current situation is serious and delicate. The State of Israel is being run by people who have expressed ideas and hold views that many of us in the liberal camp would consider not only to be abhorrent, but dangerous. Many of these leaders are resting on the laurels of their electoral success, and until the massive protests, and even despite them, they haven’t necessarily come into contact with people who think differently from them.
If we shun and boycott them and refuse to meet, we might be successful in getting the message that racists and homophobes are not accepted. Maybe.
But we also do meet regularly with certain members of the ruling coalition and not with others. We have a very strong relationship with the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, whose Minister Amichai Chikli made abhorrent comments this week, and we will continue to work with him and his office in trying to correct offensive remarks.
Now, if we do meet with the extremists, we run the risk of being used, of giving legitimacy to dangerous voices and selling out to our ideological allies.
Alon Pinkus clarifies: “The last six months have been an excruciating and testing predicament for many American Jews; a moment in history that should have compelled them to question things they regarded as truisms about Israel; a moment that required honest reflection; and a possible change of their state of mind and the paradigm their entire connection to Israel is predicated on.”
This is indeed such a moment, and as one who has both joined the protests against members of the ruling coalition and its proposed judicial reforms and met with members of the coalition, I think that this is not a simple yes or no.
There are people who I would not meet with, and there are instances in which, with careful discernment, there is potential for a productive outcome. Many will disagree, and I would love to know what you think?