I am a Liberal Zionist and this is NOT the End.

A recent NYT op-ed by Anthony Lerman left me both puzzled and insulted. As a liberal Zionist, I am not at a crossroads, as Lerman directly accused in his sweeping and generalizing editorial, “The End of Liberal Zionism,” wherein he has unfairly categorized many of us in a camp to which we do not belong.

I would like to offer a different picture than that of Lerman’s portrayal of liberal Diaspora Jews getting fed up with Israel’s conduct. On the contrary, this summer’s war has been a wake-up call for many liberal Zionists. So many have come to the realization that now, more than ever, is the time to be involved. Liberal Zionists realize that they have the opportunity and ability to help foster Israel’s Zionist core, which dates back to its “romantic” foundation. Our own Reform movement has worked to provide critical support for a variety of projects since the beginning of the current escalation of violence and rioting this summer. This support has led to the enhancement of co-existence projects between Jewish communities and their Palestinian-Israeli neighbors, and more.

As a liberal Zionist, I take pride in the fact that we openly express sympathy for the loss of Palestinian life in Gaza, question the necessity of ground incursions and targeted strikes, and actively support Israel’s ongoing – but lesser known – humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. Further, I take pride in the notion that we do not turn our back on Israel, even though we may be at times critical. We do not view our connection to or support for the Jewish State as conditional, and we recognize that as Diaspora Jews we do have the luxury to choose how to support Israel. Israelis, however, do not have the luxury to ignore constant attacks on their fellow citizens, and Lerman, in his accusation of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s failure to establish an independent Palestinian state, fails to see that there are, in fact, other parties involved. Does being a liberal mean that the Palestinians must be absolved of all culpability for determining their own destiny? Even if Israel has the upper hand, which it clearly does militarily, should the international community give Hamas a carte blanche?

Furthermore, why does Lerman accuse liberal Zionists of being torn during times of war? The liberals that are my friends and colleagues have become more united in affirming Israel’s right to defend herself while staunchly believing in the need for a negotiated two-state arrangement. Let us remember how many reservists heeded their summons and went in to fight despite their own political opinions.

Also, to which rising trend in Israeli politics is Lerman referring? To the trend that turned out in Rabin Square last Saturday night? To the thoughtful discussion between famed left-wing laureate David Grossman and modern Orthodox Rabbi Yuval Cherlow? There has always been vitriol and intolerance from certain Israeli politicians. We are a people who take words seriously and cannot ignore threats or blatant illegal racism. Today, sadly, the examples of these are plentiful. Is this a trend worse than ’95-’96, where the Oslo process passed by a 51% majority?

Liberal Zionism does not lack agency. It is working hard to help its educators, rabbis, youth advisors and affiliates find a voice in the storm. It is mobilizing its constituency to support Israel, as Zionists and as liberals, and to deplore dangerous and demagogic voices coming from the right to far-right. While Lerman does not supply us with the vast research conducted and on whose behalf he writes, I can say personally that being a Zionist means to work to improve Israeli society and hold Israel up to high standards, in addition to wanting Israel to reflect our values. Most importantly, being a Zionist means that Israel is our family with whom we will always be connected, despite how each of us might chose to act were we in the Prime Minister’s chair. As a liberal Zionist I would encourage the government to look towards important diplomatic steps to end the current war – which would result in more than just another abbreviated ceasefire. We must look to the international community (including the Arab states) to help ensure that Hamas will stop firing rockets and mortars so that we can open the strip and aid in the rebuilding of Gaza.

Lerman does, however, make an important point with which I agree wholeheartedly – that now is the time to embrace the challenge of reclaiming Zionism and working to change Israel’s perceived image from its grassroots. Many years ago, I, like Lerman, fell in love with the romantic Zionist ideal. Now, as an adult, I am well aware that Israel is not perfect and has made its fair share of mistakes. I also know that Israel has had to deal with more strife, threat and unfair judgment than most, and that today’s Zionism of consequence must be an enlightened and thoughtful Zionism that admonishes racist and intolerant rhetoric while being cautious regarding those who wish to cause us harm. We liberal Zionists, therefore, continue to pray for peace and work to do what we can to improve the lives of those affected by the throes of war.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, and a Res. Lt. in the IDF Spokespersons unit.

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Join Us For a Webinar on August 24 – Making Sense of the Middle East

Behind the Headlines: Making Sense of the Middle East

Recent events in the Middle East have once again thrust this volatile region onto the world’s headlines.  The speed in which new developments occur in this troubled part of the world can often times confuse even the most educated person.

Currently, the Arab world is deeply divided between radicals and “moderates.” There are also growing tensions between Shiites and Sunnis. Israel’s role in this dangerous neighborhood is consequently changing, presently allying itself with moderate Sunnis against the Islamic fundamentalists.

However in the Middle East, the concept of allies can be best defined as “who one hates least”.

The Gaza War has unmasked the face of that most ancient of hatreds, anti-Semitism. It seems that regardless of Israel’s behavior certain Europeans blame the country. Yet, the atrocities being perpetrated in nearby Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East are consistently and disconcertingly ignored.

This webinar will consider the challenges facing the Middle East, Israel and global Jewry.

This webinar, hosted jointly by ARZENU and the World Union, will be led by our guest presenter Prof. Paul Liptz, a social historian who lectured for 35 years in the Tel Aviv University Department of Middle Eastern and African History. Liptz has taught IDF Reservists as well as Israel Studies at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. He has published many articles on contemporary Jewry and Jewish history, as well as having lectured and conducted workshops in 12 countries. Currently, Professor Liptz is the Education Director of the World Union’s Anita Saltz International Education Center.

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar. By registering, you will be able to view the webinar even if you are not able to join during the live session. After the event, you will be sent a link to the entire webinar.

  • Title: Making Sense of the Middle East with Professor Paul Liptz
  • Date: Sunday, August 24, 2014
  • Time: 8:00 PM – 9:00 PM IDT 

Space is limited.
Reserve your Webinar seat now at:
https://www4.gotomeeting.com/register/566833503

In Response to a Colleague’s Question

Dear…….,

You raise so many very important questions. We Jews are described as being captives of hope, but sometimes that hope is very difficult to find. I can’t respond to you in any formal or official fashion. I am not a social scientist, I am not a talking head or a political columnist. I am just a Jew, a liberal Jew, a political activist, someone who cares passionately not only about Israel’s survival but about the quality of the Israel that will survive.

My biggest source of hope is in the area now being called “the day after.” The cease-fire is in effect, negotiations are beginning in Cairo, and there is little to no likelihood that the situation will return to the status quote ante. The +80% support for Bibi’s handling of the war will now begin to erode in the aftermath of that war. That is only natural. The right wing will demand answers as to why Bibi did not complete the process of totally annihilating Hamas. The left wing will resume its criticism that much of what led to the current war could have been avoided if there had been a cessation of the building of settlements and a willingness on the part of the government to treat Abbas as a real negotiating partner.

Rivlin’s role in all of this will be absolutely unimportant. Peres still has far greater impact on the Israeli political scene and on the international political scene than Israel’s new president.

Bibi will be confronting an increasingly fractured coalition. He knows that from Bennett to Danon to Lieberman, the challenges to his leadership will be rapidly increasing. Bibi is an historian, and he certainly realizes that he has a long way to go to guarantee his own positive slot in the history of the Jewish people.

Will the prime minister use the opportunity to shake up his coalition, to bring Labor into the government and thus strengthen the power of the Center?

The answers are not written in stone, and therein lies my hope. Those of us living in North America have to do more then worry and kvetch and criticize. We have to be involved in creating coalitions of strength and of influence that can mobilize the power of the North American Jewish community to influence the shaping of political realities in Israel. We have to be willing to express our profound concern over the building of settlements and the lack of engagement with Abbas and his government. We have to be willing to express our profound concern over the lack of Jewish religious freedom, of true democratic pluralism, within the Jewish state.

The changes that must come within Israel’s foreign policy must be paralleled by changes within the Israeli society. And all of those long-overdue changes will only come about with the strong, positive support of the North American Jewish community. Far too often, the liberal wing in North America has held itself off from what it considers to be “inappropriate involvement” in the shaping of Israeli society. We have to get over that hesitation.

There are signs that such strong, positive support may in fact be consolidating. Each of us must take up the responsibility of personal involvement in that consolidation.

We have no control over what the responses will be, in the foreign policy arena, from the other side. We can only be certain of one fact: the status quo cannot be maintained.

And we can be very certain that there are elements within Israeli society that are more than willing to take to the streets in a violent response against any and all efforts to bring true democratic religious freedom to Israel.

The risks in all of this are monumental. If we do not handle our relationships in the foreign-policy arena well, Israel could be exposed to immediate existential threat. If we do not handle the reshaping of Israeli society carefully, we could lose Israel as a 21st-century democratic country. But if we fail to take those risks, the even greater risk is the collapse of the Zionist enterprise.

Literally.

The battlegrounds for North America Jewry will be found in the meeting rooms of all elements of the Jewish Federations of North America, in the American Jewish Committee, in Hiddush, in the URJ, in ARZA, and in other like-minded organizations. Coalitions need to be formed. Activists need to sit together. And hope must be embraced.

In any event, just one person’s opinion.

With warm regards.

Stan

—-

Rabbi Stanley Davids serves as the president of ARZENU. He currently resides in Israel with his wife Resa. 

Living Near the War Zone

Several friends and family members have sent emails with words of support and empathy, and have asked about my thoughts and experiences during this time of war. 

It is harder for me this time to reflect upon my reality in a coherent and insightful manner. It is even more difficult to be optimistic and confident in sending out a certain message about what we can do in order to bring about a better reality. Lately, I am less positive that bringing peace is in our hands, that it is mostly an Israeli challenge.

Two things contribute for my new sense of pessimistic powerlessness. 

The first is the discovery of the immense system of terror tunnels leading from within Gaza to Israel. It is a shock to realize that our intelligence have missed such a huge threat. Some of the information was out there, almost obvious, yet our army has developed no strategy to face this threat. 

Beside the danger these tunnels pose to Israel, they reflect the vast investment the Hamas leadership has devoted to planning destruction.  Almost all their resources, efforts and creativity are directed to attacking Israel, rather than to helping and advancing their own people. Money and energy, which Hamas should have directed to building the infrastructure of their cities, was directed solely to attack and murder of Israelis (and in a twisted turn of their own people). 

Is there any hope to negotiate peace with this leadership? Can we ever trust them in a future compromise? I am afraid the answer to both questions is negative. 

The second is the reaction in the world to the current fighting in Gaza. The huge rallies and demonstrations all over the world, condemning Israel for “genocide” in Gaza fail to impress me as an honest expression of empathy for the Palestinians. Where were all these protesters during the 3 years of war in Syria or in Iraq? I am convinced now, that the Israeli – Palestinian conflict is but an excuse and an outlet for something bigger and deeper. 

Unfortunately, even if Israel was to withdraw tomorrow from all the territories it occupied in 67, these waves of antisemitism and hatred for the West will probably not disappear. Such withdrawal is necessary if Israel is to remain a Jewish state and a (better) democracy. However, it seems an illusion to think it will bring an end to hostility and hatred.

 

Life near the war zone

In Caesarea, we heard the sirens go off less than 10 times. It is next to nothing, really. A man from Ashkelon told me “this is what we get in one hour, on a bad day…” Still, there is a sense of insecurity wherever one goes. The last alarm went off when I had a Pool Party for a few women Rabbi friends (and their families). We collected the 10 children and toddlers from the pool and rushed to the tiny shelter in the house, trying to ease the atmosphere as much as possible. One Rabbi, who left her 11 and 14-year-old daughters at home, apologized and left immediately, because both she and her daughters suddenly felt insecure and needed to be together. The rest of us went back to the yard, but it was no longer a party.

Living in Israel at a time of war, one constantly feels the need to help, to assist, and to donate. Like many in Israel, we are giving money and buying goods for the soldiers- from snacks and underwear to Ceramic combat vests (really!). This is how I found myself sitting at the entrance to our local supermarket twice this week. Most people give 100-200 NIS. A child came and emptied her bag of coins, demanding to know exactly what we are going to do with it. Then came a woman with a check for $10,000… A second truck departed the next day from Caesarea to the troops near the Gaza Strip. 

A far more gratifying opportunity came when 150 mentally handicapped people came from Ashkelon to our local country club, for a few hours of relief.   Serving them lunch and talking to them, I felt useful for the first time in days…

However, most of the time I feel helpless and very sad. So many people have lost their lives or their health. Many soldiers and civilians will suffer from post trauma syndrome. The accumulated death toll of innocent people in Gaza is horrifying. I do blame Hamas for their fate, but grieve over the terrible loss of life.

Stubbornly, I still believe that only negotiation with the Palestinian Authority and compromise can end the cycle of war. Will this round of violence push our government to try that channel seriously?

I pray for better times.

——–

Rabbi Ayala R. Samuels is one of a growing minority of Liberal female rabbis in Israel, and leads the first Reform congregation in Caesarea. Rabbi Ayala Samuels is married with three sons.