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This is the most Jewish thing about the Jewish State

Building a loving and respectful shared society with non-Jewish minorities is an ancient biblical imperative. Today, it is Israel's most important mission.
An arab woman making pita bread in a taboon stove in Wadi Nisnas market in an Arab neighborhood of Haifa during the Festival of Festivals, Dec. 22, 2007 (Jorge Novominsky/Flash90)
An arab woman making pita bread in a taboon stove in Wadi Nisnas market in an Arab neighborhood of Haifa during the Festival of Festivals, Dec. 22, 2007 (Jorge Novominsky/Flash90)

The Israeli mosaic in our diverse and multicultural city of Haifa is exciting and complex. Jews, Christian and Muslim Arabs, Druze, Circassians, Baha’is and other national minorities live here, making life an ongoing, delicate challenge and one we cannot take for granted. This is our reality; it has been ours since the days of Abraham; it is our fate, all of us intertwined together.

Our role as educational, spiritual and communal leaders is to encourage sensitivity and to foster interpersonal connections, shared society, tolerance and acceptance.

The positive relationships between us are vibrant — an empowering reality for anyone who experiences them. They are not obvious, nor simple and it is not easy to make them happen. The current events highlight how important it is to work together to cultivate our shared existence. There’s a Hebrew aphorism, “hard to build, easy to destroy.” We must heed this warning, and we must not let it become reality.

The Torah professes the abiding values and principles of a society based on justice in which all its members, Jews and non-Jews, are entitled to equality, recognition and dignity. This is the essence of Judaism, and of the State of Israel that adopted, in its Proclamation of Independence, this Prophetic vision.

The Leo Baeck Education Center is a Jewish liberal and pluralistic educational-community center, in operation for more than eighty years. We are, by definition, a Jewish institution and all our activities are rooted in Jewish values. However, to my mind, what makes us especially Jewish is the fact that non-Jews are integral to our school. Together, every day, we build a true, shared community based on partnerships, respect and equality.

In the educational frameworks we created, Jewish secular, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox students study and live alongside Druze, Christian, Muslim and Baha’i students. Hundreds of non-Jews participate in our wide range of educational and community activities, as we are not only a school. The Leo Baeck Education Center also includes a progressive congregation and a community center. They are an important and inseparable part of us. It is key for us to not merely get along with each other, but also to celebrate our differences; one human fabric, alive in the city of Haifa.

I do not deny the importance of continued creative development of Jewish culture, and we invest in this significantly. However, at this time, the existence, future and resilience of Israeli society depend first and foremost on being a society that cares for all its citizens, and upholds the promise in our Proclamation of Independence that Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” We believe that it is, in fact, because of our Jewish identity that we must ensure that ours is a society of equality, justice and pluralistism.

I believe it is possible, in fact, I know it. This is our obligation, and primarily the responsibility of the Jewish sector in Israel.

We must remember the words of Hillel the Elder: “In a place where no one behaves like a human being, you must strive to do so.” (Mishnah, Avot 2:5). To be a human being is the most difficult task and something you must do intentionally. It’s no accident that our holy Torah commands us to love the stranger and treat him/her with respect more times than any other commandment. Thirty-six times! The rationale for this commandment is “because you were a stranger in the Land of Egypt.” This is a central aspect of our Jewish conscience.

We know what it is like to be a minority. We were there.

The Torah formulated this guiding principle for us three thousand years ago: “the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens, you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” (Lev. 19:34). If these words are correct for the stranger who comes into our land, then how much more so are they true for those who are also the children of this land in which we live together.

The tragic current events provide for us an important lesson in civics, Zionism and Judaism. A lesson about unity, equality and mutual responsibility. A lesson in unconditional love (as opposed to baseless hate).

May the one who creates peace on high bring peace to us, to all Israel and to all humankind. And we say Amen.

About the Author
Rabbi Ofek Meir, Headmaster and Managing Director of the Leo Baeck Education Center. Also served as the Director of the Israeli Rabbinical Program at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, from which he was ordained and earned a master’s degree in Jewish education. He also holds a musician’s degree in classical guitar from the Royal College of Music in London.
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