Of Shimon, Shilo and the Spirit of ’76

Has it only been one week since Shimon Peres, our last link to the generation of Israel’s Founders, was buried on Har Herzl? How fitting that the world said goodbye to Shimon Peres in the waning days of 5776. How remarkable that representatives from 70 countries attended the state funeral for this beloved Jewish Stateman.  How unfortunate that the beginning of 5777 is marked by yet another controversy over a building decision in an area of the West Bank that remains under dispute. How does a passionate Zionist understand and respond to this flow of events?

Much has been written about the impact of Shimon Peres on modern Jewish history.  For me, his legacy is one of hope and optimism, even in the midst of a very difficult and raw reality.  His legacy is one that demonstrates that true leadership has the courage to adapt to changing circumstances.  His legacy is that in the face of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, be proudly Jewish and share the best of the Zionist enterprise with the world.  He was a man who while grounded in Israel’s past, always looked towards Israel’s future.  Finally, he was an Israeli with a fiercely proud Jewish identity who understood how important Diaspora Jewry was to Israel. How fitting that while it was David D’Or who sang Max Janowski’s “Avinu Malkeinu” at Peres’ funeral, it was Barbra Streisand who sang this prayer for our Founding Father at his 90th birthday party in June of 2013.

During these Ten Days, Jews are acutely aware of the power of words as well as the power of our deeds, as we are reminded that repentance, prayer and acts of tz’dakah may avert a severe decree from Above.  The words that we choose matter as we attempt to behave better than we have behaved in the past.  In a similar way, the words that our leaders use make all the difference in how an issue is seen.  For the Israeli government, the 98 housing units are a “satellite” of another settlement that lies within the redrawn boundaries of Shilo, a well established settlement.  For the United States, these units are illegal settlement activity.  In other words, the same set of facts are seen and described by the two parties in very different ways.  The art of politics is bridging those gaps between the competing narratives that different groups have of their past, present and future.  Hopefully, this is done in a way that averts the communal severe decree.

Political social change is grounded in this fundamental truth that the same set of facts are viewed differently through different lenses.  In other words, your “ism” is your prism.  As an American Jewish woman with deep roots and property in Jerusalem, my Zionism is infused with my modern Judaism which emerged within the context of my American Patriotism.  As a result, for over six years, I have been analyzing the facts on the ground in Israel, especially at the Kotel, through new lenses.  These new lenses are framed by the concepts of “the modern Jewish democracy movement,” “spiritual civil rights” and “Public Jewish Law.”  These new lenses bring into focus ideas such as “religious freedom for all Jews, regardless of gender or adjective” and “Jews, Other than Orthodox.”  Inspired by the language of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, words embraced by a young Shimon Peres, the Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project is challenging American Jewry’s complacent acceptance of the historic status quo arrangement that gives Israeli Orthodox politicians control over matters of Jewish personal status and public Jewish life.  Looking at the facts on the ground through the lenses of “Sacred Rights, Sacred Song”, we are trying to spark a firestorm of concern over the state of democracy in the Jewish State.

While it is true that the United States and Israel share democratic aspirations, it is also true that the facts on the ground in Israel are causing great concern not only to activist American Jews but to a majority of Israelis, as reported by The Times of Israel on October 3.  As an educated Jew, Shimon Peres knew that the American “Spirit of ’76” was rooted in Biblical notions of justice and equality and thus had no qualms embracing these values as fundamental to the political culture of the modern Jewish State.  However, the conflict between a Public Jewish Law that is now based on ultra-Orthodox interpretations of Jewish Law and evolving notions of equality, justice and freedom are too often decided in favor of an oppressive Jewish law.  How reassuring for us activists that the Israeli Supreme Court recently directed the Israeli Government to begin to take steps to “expand the Wall;” in other words, to begin implementation of the Great Kotel Compromise Agreement, spearheaded by the great Jewish leader Natan Sharansky, in January of 2016.  Let us hope that the government’s deeds will follow in the wake of the Court’s powerful words.

While words alone are powerful, words set to music hopefully move the listener to take action.  On Sunday evening, November 13 at 7 pm at the Kimmel Center, Perelman Theater, the SRSS Project will present “Sacred Rights, Sacred Song” – A Philadelphia Concert of Concern.  Singers, instrumentalists and audience members alike will raise their voices in concern and send the message to the leaders of the Jewish State that  5777 must see changes that are inspired not just by the blessed memory of Shimon Peres, but by the shared US/Israeli “Spirit of 76.”

G’mar chatimah tova/May you be sealed in the good Book.

About the Author
Francine M. Gordon is an artist/activist who maintains homes in New York and Cleveland. From November 2010 through November 2016, through The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project, she produced over 10 Concerts of Concern in the US and Israel. Since establishing her New York residence, Ms. Gordon has become a member of the New York Federation’s Israeli Judaism committee which focuses on exactly the same issues as SRSS. In addition, she has become a proud member of the Zamir Chorale which allows her to express her Zionism through song.
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