As the June 1 Israel Parade draws closer, some organizations are threatening not to march. They are protesting the decision of parade sponsors to allow organizations like the New Israel Fund– a favorite target of the right wing of the Zionist movement– to be included in the parade, because of its alleged sympathy for the BDS strategy (boycott, divestment and sanction) designed to modify Israel’s position on settlements in the West Bank. The NIF steadfastly denies supporting BDS. They (the more right-wing organizations) feel that the NIF and its friends should have no place at the Zionist table, or at a parade that salutes Israel. And as long as they do, these more right-wing organizations won’t march.
Before I go any further, let me make it perfectly clear that I could not disagree more with BDS. I think it is immoral and hypocritical, and serves no useful purpose at all for those who would like to see Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians be modified. If anything, the only effect that is has is that it aids those organizations and nations that are surely not Israel’s friends, or supporters.
That said, I view it as equally wrongheaded and arrogant to boycott the parade because organizations like the New Israel Fund, which support and sustain an eclectic variety of wonderful and worthwhile programs in Israel, are participating. This parade is about supporting Israel, whether one finds oneself on the right or the left side of the Zionist spectrum. The parade should be about Israel, not about the preferences or deeply held ideological opinions of its supporters. It’s all about Israel.
In a related vein, as I write this article, a “spirited discussion” is taking place among my colleagues in the Conservative rabbinate over remarks made by the Executive Vice-President of the Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, to Israeli Knesset Member Aliza Lavie, from the Yesh Atid party, at our recent convention in Dallas. Lavie presented a fairly standard “be patient, you have to understand that these things take time” address to our rabbis. She was referring to Yesh Atid’s support of a bill that would allow non-Orthodox rabbis to officiate at civil ceremonies in Israel– something Yesh Atid is pushing hard for– but not at religious ceremonies, where the Orthodox rabbinate still wields exclusive control. An article about their exchange in Ha’aretz has received wide play in the social media.
Rabbi Schonfeld made it clear that the rabbis of our movement have been extraordinarily patient, and continue to be. But, she continued to say, the failure of Israel’s government (not only the current one, but a series of governments going back decades) is to not understand that Israel’s exclusionary policies in matters of religious pluralism have served, and continue to serve, to alienate large sectors of the American Jewish community that already have a tenuous connection to Israel. Saying that Conservative rabbis would be given the right to officiate at civil ceremonies is almost inexpressibly insulting.
We, who officiate at countless weddings here in this country with huppah and kiddushin, and whose rabbis in Israel do outstanding work with Israelis profoundly alienated from Judaism, are to be graced by the State of Israel with the right to officiate at a civil ceremony? Thanks, but no thanks. And most Israelis, including members of the Knesset and those who are most sympathetic to our cause, are so tone deaf to our sensibilities that they don’t even hear how preposterous what they’re suggesting is.
That’s essentially what Rabbi Schonfeld said, and what Lavie responded to. As anyone remotely connected to Israel will know, this is not a new issue. The struggle has been going on, as I said, for decades. Rabbi Schonfeld merely articulated the deep resentment that many in the non-Orthodox world feel when purported friends within the Israeli government patronize them.
Many of the organizations that regularly march in the Israel parade stand significantly to the right of Lavie on this issue, and would deny– often in vitriolic terms– the very legitimacy of a non-Orthodox rabbinate, whether in the Diaspora or in Israel. But never have we ever suggested withdrawing from the parade in protest because some of the groups that are marching hold views that are antithetical to our own. Many of my colleagues in the Conservative rabbinate disagree with the settlement policies of the Israeli government, and would like to see it more aggressively pursue a peace agreement with the Palestinians. But never has the Rabbinical Assembly; or the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; or MERCAZ, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement, ever suggested to its members that boycotting the parade is the appropriate response to our differences.
The Israel parade is about Israel. No one group or ideology owns “love of Israel,” or commitment to her security and wellbeing. To be sure, we may express that love differently, and that is the way it should be. The Knesset itself is no different. Different parties have dramatically different ideas about how Israel might best address the issues of the day. Diaspora Judaism is no different. No one ideology has the right to bully the parade organizers into conforming to its idea of right and wrong.
How long will it take the American Jewish community to learn this lesson?
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.