Steven C. Wernick

Toward the Promised Land?

The essential message of the Passover Seder is “B’khol dor vador hayav adam leer-ote et atzmo ke’ilu hu yatzah miMitzrayim – ­in every generation, a person is to view themselves as if they, personally, escaped Egypt.”  Why does the Haggadah exhort us to re-enact the Exodus from Egypt as a personal experience?  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’l teaches that it is because “the journey from slavery to freedom is one we need to travel in every generation.”

As I watch Israel tear itself apart over the Judicial Reforms proposed by the current government, never before has Passover’s message of freedom seemed so urgent to me.  To me, these issues transcend the politics of the left and the right.  They go to the core of what “freedom” means in our generation and also to the very essence of how Israel will be governed.

What distresses me most is not only the total lack of willingness of Netanyahu’s slim majority in parliament to discuss or debate the reforms, but their apparent desire to ramrod them wholesale through the Knesset.  Fundamental changes to matters of the separation of powers and the independence of the Judiciary are not in and of themselves intolerable, but they should be enacted after scrupulous study and evaluation, and only by the broadest consensus possible.  This government may have won the election, but its mandate remains razor thin, which is why so many Israelis – including military and security professionals at the highest levels – and Israel’s allies around the world are urging caution and a more deliberative process.

In the Diaspora, there is a feeling of helplessness.  Other than being asked to explain what exactly the issues are causing this turmoil, the question I am asked the most of late is “what can I do to express my point of view and support those who are protesting for compromise?” and the related worry about how, as “outsiders” one can weigh in on domestic affairs in another country, with both moral authority as Jews and appropriate respect for Israel’s prerogative to chart her own course.

Here are my recommendations, with the caveat that Jewish leadership worldwide is still trying to pick their way through one of the most complex situations of our lifetimes:

  1. Write to Israeli leaders. I suggest writing to Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Galant (Likud), MKs David Bitan, Yuli Edelstein of Likud and Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid and the leader of the Opposition, and President Herzog.  Copy your local Israeli Consulate so they, too, are aware of your concerns and your commitment.  You can find their contact information here.

It is important to be willing to be on record about matters of great importance.  They themselves may not read our letters, but their staffs do.  And their staffs keep a tally of the correspondence they receive and the positions they represent.

Some say that we, as Diaspora Jews, have no right to insert ourselves in Israeli politics.  That’s for Israeli citizens.  I couldn’t disagree more.  Israel exists in partnership with the Diaspora.  The vision for a Jewish Homeland was articulated and declared in Basel 125 years ago, by Diaspora Jews.  The National Institutions of the Jewish People raised the money to finance the creation of the state, bought the land, supported the pioneers, and advocated passionately to their respective world governments to ensure its creation and success.  This we continue to do to this very day. Diaspora Jews emphatically have skin in this game and there is no harm in saying so aloud.

Furthermore, we unflinchingly challenge the internal affairs of foreign governments when their laws and actions impact Jews negatively.  As a teenager and young adult, I remember each Tuesday evening gathering with my USY chapter and writing letters to the then-Premier of the Soviet Union.  I wore the names Natan Sharansky, Yosef Begun, and Yuli Edelstein on my wrists.  I learned the story of their oppression and advocated for their release.  Every letter would be punctuated by the cry “Let my People Go!” inspired by the message of the Haggadah.  I have the privilege of knowing each of these three prominent Israelis and am proud that my generation was largely responsible for their Aliyah to Israel.  We were motivated by the lesson of the Haggadah and a sense of Jewish peoplehood.  Their destiny was our destiny.  So too is what is currently going on in Israel.

The Judicial Reforms being discussed will have an impact not only on Israel’s citizens but on those of us in the Diaspora as well.  For decades I have been on the front line of the fight for religious pluralism in Israel supporting the Masorti (Conservative) Movement for equal rights, access, and funding.  Specifically, I was a member of the negotiating team on the Kotel Agreement, which attempted to craft a respectful, mutually tolerant agreement on the sharing of Israel’s most sacred space.  If this government gets its way, they have already declared a desire to turn back the clock on the meager gains progressive Judaism has achieved in Israel.

The impact will be sweeping. Conversions conducted abroad will no longer be recognized.  The egalitarian prayer space at Robinson’s Arch will be dismantled.  And the sparse public funds supporting Jewish pluralism in Israel will be revoked and more.  On issues of contract law and broad family law, the Chief Rabbinate will rule supreme without accountability to the pluralistic Jewish values contained in the Declaration of Independence and the Basic Laws.  This is not a conflict that ends at Israel’s borders, but rather one that touches every Jew with a connection to their homeland.

  1. Make it clear to our local and national Jewish leaders that we expect them to voice their opposition to the dangerous and divisive impact of the Reforms being pushed through the Knesset when they interact with Israeli officials and influencers. They need to hear from them that these reforms are having, and will increasingly have, a detrimental impact on Israel’s relations with the Diaspora.

If it was challenging enough to encourage Jewish young adults to support Israel before this crisis.  It is now even harder.  Previously we could talk about shared values with the State of Israel.  Should these Reforms become law, we may no longer have those values in common.

Let me be transparent: Those of us who are staunch pluralistic Zionists are already finding it exhausting to engage with an Israel that is governed by a vision that does not recognize us, and that we find increasingly difficult to recognize.

We need Federations, Israel Bonds, Israel Advocacy organizations like AIPAC, CJPAC and CIJA in Canada, as well as others that continue to have great influence and direct millions of dollars annually that support the Jewish State, to become more visible and vocal.  They need to use their clout and speak out against the Netanyahu government’s reforms and reconsider their priorities.

  1. In your charitable giving to Israel, you must direct it to those organizations that shore up your values. Many worthy groups work to strengthen Israeli democracy and pluralism, build a shared society, and protect the vulnerable.  They need you now more than ever before.

In addressing the current Israeli crisis, we have the uphill short-term challenge of how to get the two sides of this debate to the table to work out a much-needed compromise.  The long-term challenge is clear and follows from this – to regain the Israel Theodore Herzl imagined and the founders of the State of Israel envisioned in its Declaration of Independence. That declaration was clear as to its values:

“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it 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; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

This is not the moment to give up on that dream of what Israel has been and could be. This is the moment to support and encourage those who work to further that dream.  Furthermore, our challenge to the Netanyahu government in Jerusalem does not absolve us from continuing to support the Israeli people in this time of serious internal crisis.

As Passover approaches, we the Jewish People again find ourselves in a mitzrayim*, struggling toward a vision of freedom that is both elusive and also clear.  It will be up to all of us in this generation to lead our people to the Promised Land.

* The word for Egypt, meaning from a narrow place referring to the Nile River.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven C. Wernick is the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Tzedec in Toronto. Rabbi Wernick currently serves as Vice-Chair of the Jewish Agency Aliyah Committee and as member of its Government Relations Committee and as Chair of the Strategic Planning Committee of Mercaz Olami, the Zionist party of Masorti Judaism. He has been named one of Newsweek’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America and was on the Forward's List of Influential Jewish Leaders.
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