Why I am a Religious Progressive Zionist

A recent event organised by the Israeli embassy in London made me reflect anew why I am a religious progressive Zionist. The event entitled “The Bedouin Community in Israel” was organised by the embassy in response to the public protest of Jews and non-Jews against the so-called Praver-Begin bill (for background see, for example, http://rhruk.co.uk/what-we-do/advocacy/bedouin-rights/). In the opening remarks, the embassy representative, a Bedouin from the Gallil-region in the north of Israel, explained that the negative headlines concerning the Praver-Begin bill were based on propaganda from, what he called, anti-Zionist groups.

We weren’t off to a good start! I seriously considered leaving the event, but then thought to myself that these views shouldn’t be allowed to remain unquestioned and decided to stick around until the Q&A. I decided to embrace the religious progressive Zionist within me!

The presentation itself focused on how Israel’s plan to resettle the Bedouin was only in their interest and a plan that focused on not leaving any Israeli citizen behind. Explaining that girls in the Bedouin community generally were not allowed to graduate from High School, Lirit Serphos (Head of Policy and Planning on the Development and Growth of the Bedouin Community) said that resettlement of the community was vital to ensure that these children would have full access to education.

In my response to her, I pointed out that the Israeli government currently fully finances a school system, namely the orthodox religious one, which results in all boys finishing school without a High School Diploma because they stop learning maths, English and science at age 10!

Of course, I believe that every child should have access to a good education but I stressed that in light of the treatment of the ultra-orthodox community it seems as if Israel is applying double standards when it comes to the Bedouin. In their case, the government seems to adopt a quasi-colonialist approach of knowing what is best for the indigenous people. Even Lirat had to acknowledge I might be onto something but then quickly added that one cannot compare the Bedouin and the ultra-orthodox community.

I explained that I was opposed to the bill not because I am an anti-Zionist or a self-hating Jew but because I am a passionate Zionist. Because I am a religious Zionist, I believe that Israel should exercise leadership in accordance with Proverbs 14:34: “Righteousness exalts a nation;” placing justice and compassion at the heart of all policy making. I believe that Israel must show each time anew that it legislates according to the precepts of “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel,” as stated in the Declaration of Independence. Because I am a religious progressive Zionist, I believe that our Jewish values must be in constant dialogue with the values of contemporary society and as such, we must ensure that the rights granted, just as the responsibilities demanded, apply to all citizens of the State of Israel equally – be they Jewish or not.

I know the term sounds awkward – religious progressive Zionist – but however awkward it sounds: Israel needs us!

 

Rabbi Lea Mühlstein is a rabbi at Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue in Middlesex, UK. 

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Our Mission As Progressive Zionists

My rabbinical class was the first to spend our first year of studies in Israel.  When we arrived in the summer of 1970, Hebrew Union College was a small but impressive building at 13 King David Street which had served, up till that time, as headquarters for the archaeological school.  But the President, Rabbi Nelson Glueck, had grander plans.  During that year, we witnessed the opening of a Mo’adon (lounge) down the hill, where we had our coffee break and attended special lectures.

Since that time, HUC has grown into an extensive campus that houses, among other things:

All these facilities have a significant impact on our Progressive Jewish communities around the globe.  They remind us that our brand of Zionism works toward a State of Israel that remains both Jewish and democratic.  They promote a religious expression of Judaism that is steadily gaining support among erstwhile secular Israelis.   And they radiate Israeli culture – its music, literature and arts – to enrich our own Jewish life wherever we live.

If you ask the average Israeli (or Diaspora Jew, for that matter) whom they identify as “religious Zionists,” they will probably mention the settlers in the occupied territories, whose home base is located in Mercaz HaRav Kook in Jerusalem.  It is my hope to change that image.  I look forward to working with all of you, to make 13 King David Street the centre of a religious Zionism that is meaningful to Israeli and Diaspora Jews alike, to ensure that our progressive Jewish values become the norm in the Jewish State.

To accomplish these ideals will take some work.  We need to recruit more members to our Progressive Zionist organizations in our home countries and encourage them to vote for Progressive delegates to the next WZO congress.  Even more importantly, we need to teach our people what it means to be a Progressive Religious Zionist.  Together with other leaders of Arzenu, we are preparing educational materials that will highlight some of the issues facing us in the years ahead.  We hope you will take a look at them, adapt them to your own region and study them together in your community.

Just as the Israeli Reform movement helps to shape our own Jewish identity in the Diaspora, so does our support have a significant effect on Israeli life.  This mutual relationship is best expressed in Psalm 122, which is read each Shabbat at HUC:

Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem;

May those who love you be at peace.

We need each other.  Let’s work in concert toward our vision of an Israel that is truly a “light to the nations.”

Rabbi Lawrence A. Englander is Rabbi of Solel Congregation of Mississauga, Ontario Canada, and President-Elect of Arzenu.