Why Should We? — A Defense of North American Jews

I am constantly in conflict. I love Israel. I studied there for a year. When there I was frequently encouraged to make aliyah and become an Israeli citizen. But I don’t know if I could do that because the way I practice Judaism is delegitimized by the Israeli government. I’m an active Jew: I’m president of Rutgers Hillel and I frequently defend Israel and insist that Israel is a democratic, pluralistic state. That Israel has full rights for everyone whether you are Jewish, Arab, Druze, Gay, Straight, Bi-sexual, whatever, but I get no religious help from Israel. From where will my help come?

Prime Minister Netanyahu travels the world and addresses governments seemingly as a spokesperson for the Jews. But he does nothing to help millions of North American Jews. His government regularly alienates Reform and Conservative Jews by denying our rights to worship according to our beliefs.

I am a Conservative Jew. I believe the Torah was not given to us at Sinai and that it is a human creation. I keep Shabbat and I keep kosher not because the Torah is divine, but because the Torah is the code of law and traditions that hold our people together. The way I practice Judaism is almost identical to how many Orthodox Jews practice Judaism. But because I prefer an egalitarian prayer space and because I don’t believe that a Shulchan Aruch boxed set was handed down to Klal Yisrael at Sinai, I, and others, are regularly marginalized within Israeli society. I know. I felt this prejudice when I lived in Israel.

Let’s first look at what it means to identify as a Reform or Conservative Jew. It means we choose to live a certain life-style. We have Judaism as an active part of our life. We go to Hillel for prayer services and Shabbat dinners. The number of people who choose to go to Shabbat dinners instead of out to fraternity parties would astound the religious establishment in Israel. We choose to spend our time promoting free trips to Israel. We choose to spend out time promoting Israel’s sincere desire for peace.

Recently, MK Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid), in response to the Minister of Tourism, said, “The Jews of the Diaspora are our defense against those who defame us abroad.” Many Jews of the Diaspora don’t feel like they can be welcome in Israeli society. This possibly explains the ever growing Jewish support of the BDS movement, Israel isn’t for all the Jews. It’s for only a handful of Jews.

The establishment of Israel regularly attacks religious groups like Women of the Wall and Masorti Olami. Rabbi Lau, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, recently criticized a member of the Israeli Cabinet for visiting a Conservative School, makes American Jews who are not Orthodox feel like Israel is not a place where we can feel at home. Last year, Jerusalem mayor, Nir Barkat, stopped a special needs Conservative Bar Mitzvah. And just today it came out that several government officials praised a Haredi student who burned a Reform siddur, with God’s holy name written inside. This is unacceptable.

Let’s shift to campus. Defense of Israel tends to be the one thing that unites entire Jewish communities at a university. One of the Israel Co-Chairs at Rutgers Hillel is Reform and the other one is Conservative. Why should they go to the mat for a country that demonizes the way they choose to practice Judaism? Yet they do.

Jews will only support Jews so much. Why should the Reform and Conservative keep fighting for Israel if Israel won’t fight for their rights? The answer is that there is no answer beyond North American Jews supporting Israeli Jews because of our Jewish heritage. We want to fight for Israel. It’s our duty to defend Israel, but my call to Israel is to stop taking advantage of us. It’s hypocritical of Israel to not be more accommodating to Jews who are fighting BDS movements and anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attacks.

This isn’t an anti-Zionist or anti-Israel manifesto; this is a humble request for reciprocity. We are asking for you to respect and and acknowledge our right to worship the way we want. Fair warning, if you don’t, more Jews will drift away from Israel and likely Judaism. If you don’t recognize our religious rights, we won’t want to make aliyah. And more Jews will start supporting those who seek to demonize Israel. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not such a big ask of a democratic state.

About the Author
Alex is receiving is Bachelor's Degree in Jewish Studies with a focus on religion in the political arena from Rutgers University. He is also serving as Student Board President at Rutgers Hillel. Rutgers has the largest Jewish undergraduate population at a university in North America.
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