Our 330 Israeli, American, Canadian, and European Reform colleagues of the Central Conference of American Rabbis after Shabbat will conclude a week of meetings in Israel. We’ve spent time in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and have traveled far and wide around the country.
It’s increasingly my feeling that there are at least two “states of Israel” here: the “state of Jerusalem,” an inspiring, ancient and modern mess dominated by right-wing ultra-Orthodox and settlers movement Jews who want to establish a new Jewish kingdom to replace the democratic Jewish state of Israel to be controlled by them, the most reactionary elements in Israeli society today.
The other “state of Israel” is the “State of Tel Aviv” composed of politically middle-left Israelis, propelled and sustained by the liberal spirit of democracy, openness, and inclusivity where differences between people and cultures are celebrated, where Palestinian citizens of Israel have equal rights, where LGBT Jews are accepted, where women are treated with respect and dignity, where Reform and secular Jews live and thrive as envisioned by Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and where the spirit of the nations also is embraced.
The common concerns of most Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians in both “states of Israel” are security on the one hand and social justice on the other.
The income gap has widened and the numbers in poverty are growing. Though there have been some gains since the 2011 social justice movement that brought hundreds of thousands of young and middle class Israelis to camp out in tents on Rhov Rothschild in Tel Aviv, the cost of living has risen and most Israelis are working harder and longer for less.
Israelis in the middle-left respect Zionist Union opposition leader Isaac Herzog as a decent and honest man, but believe that he will be successfully challenged for leadership in the next Zionist Union election. His proposal to separate Palestinians from Israelis while retaining the hope of a two-state solution reflects the Zionist Union’s recognition that security is the number one issue on Israeli minds. However, even those who like Herzog wonder where his moral voice is. Why, they ask, is he not talking about Palestinian suffering and only about Jewish suffering? Where is the universal thrust in his liberal Zionism? Why is he not calling for immediate negotiations for a two-state end of all claims resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a matter of Israeli enlightened self-interest and as a moral necessity?
I spent a day and a half with colleagues visiting a High School in Lod that is dramatically improving educational achievement and bringing hope to more than 1000 Palestinian Muslim high school students. We visited the Arab Jewish Community Center in Jaffa that brings together Israeli Palestinians and Israeli Jews to learn about each other. It has numerous programs to assist unemployed Palestinian Arab women, and fights against the humiliation that comes with Arab security profiling. There are language courses in Hebrew and Arabic, choirs of Arab and Jewish children singing their hearts out, and classes teaching the Jewish and Arab narratives of the conflict. We visited the only Arab-Jewish preschool in the country located in Jaffa and created and led by a married Palestinian Sufi-Jewish couple in which 200 two-five year old children and their families learn together and develop community and friendship. We visited in Modin with leaders of the Reform movement who have formed bridges all over the country between Arabs and Jews.
Every time I visit Israel my hope in this grand experiment and miracle of the Jewish people is restored and strengthened. We hear so much bad news about what’s happening here in the media, and we who passionately support the peace movement and the two-state solution can become frustrated by the deterioration of conditions. In despair, many think to throw up their hands and turn away. But, there’s an expression – “B’Yisrael y’ush lo optsia – In Israel, despair is not an option.”
Not only that, but there’s still so much good here being done by so many people, causes, NGOs, Reform synagogues, foundations, and the Israel Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism that we need only to stay focused and strong for Israel’s sake.
To those who believe that Israel is a “failed experiment,” as I heard by one prominent and respected Jew in the pages of Tikkun this past week, I have this to say – you are tragically wrong. Israel is and will be our people’s greatest HOPE.