Reform rabbis will not stop working to build the Israel of our hopes and aspirations

The Israel of today is complicated and can often be antithetical to the very Jewish values we hold dear. But that doesn’t mean we give up on Israel.

Protesters carry a large copy of the Israeli Declaration of Independence during a protest Feb. 20, 2023, near the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem. Demonstrators oppose plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the judicial system. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

(RNS) — Like many American Jews, I find that my feelings toward Israel are ever more complicated. I both love Israel and I struggle with Israel’s current direction. 

Israel today — right at this very moment — is at an inflection point, as an ultra-right-wing government threatens to create a dangerous new reality. In its aims to deny constituents civil rights, equality and democracy, the Israel of today is in danger of becoming a country that opposes so many of our intrinsic pluralistic values.

The Israeli judicial system stands to be stripped of essential checks and balances, reducing legal oversight of the government. The door has been opened to a new era of disparity, one in which Israel reverses progress in areas critical to a healthy, thriving democracy, including the rights of minorities, women and the LGBTQ+ community.

These extremist measures are not popular with the Israeli public. Thousands upon thousands of Israelis are standing up and taking to the streets in the largest democratic protests in Israel’s history.

This month, 250 of our Reform Rabbi colleagues, some from as far away as Brazil and Ireland, gathered in Jerusalem for the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ yearly convention. We intentionally chose Israel as a destination to gather together to learn and pray. Even though many of us hold ever-more-complicated feelings toward the state of Israeli democracy, we were nevertheless proud to go there at this difficult moment as a collective voice of religious pluralism. We were there to support our partners and to stand with our Israeli Reform colleagues whose core values are being threatened, undermined and limited by the ultra-Orthodoxy in power. 

But we were also there to celebrate. We were there to celebrate the new and flourishing Reform communities that continue to blossom all over the country despite so many obstacles. We were there to celebrate 30 years of women in the Israeli rabbinate, rabbis who have changed the face of Israeli Judaism. Most of all, we were there to speak out — and sometimes shout — about the importance of religious freedom, pluralism, equality and the rights of minorities in Israel. 

We also went to pray openly. To mark our entrance into Adar, over 100 Reform rabbis joined the Women of the Wall in prayer at the Kotel last Wednesday. Despite being screamed at, pushed and actually spat upon by ultra-Orthodox protesters, we remained steadfast and undeterred. I was proud to stand up next to Rabbi Erica Asch, the new CCAR president, as we carried the Torah toward the Kotel, had the honor of an aliyah at the Kotel and lifted up our voices and hands in prayer and song.

As a proud Reform Jew, a woman, a feminist and a Jewish leader, I am bound by my personal values and by our core Jewish values to support not only the Women of the Wall and my Israeli Reform colleagues, but to proudly hold the Torah for all the women in Israel who are told they cannot worship freely and openly. And I am bound by my personal and Jewish values to speak truth to power and to show up in Israel even in the most challenging, most fraught and messiest of moments. It’s times like these — moments permeated with fear, anger, violence and confusion — that we must show up. 

But it doesn’t end there; these times are also for introspection. As Reform rabbis, we must constantly assess how to support the modern state of Israel while holding Israeli lawmakers accountable for the well-being and livelihood for all under their control, including Palestinians. Just as we speak out for justice at home, we have a responsibility to raise our voices to speak out for justice in Israel as well. Just as we believe in speaking up for the powerless at home, we must pursue that in our relationship to Israel as well. Just as we engage in the work of anti-racism and racial justice at home, we must hold that as a value here too.

The reality is, rabbis hold a wide spectrum of opinions on Israel — as do those we serve — and sometimes those views may be in opposition to each other. Even so, we cannot avoid talking to each other about Israel. We have to be willing to have difficult conversations with each other without falling back on accusation and polarization. We have to learn to live with disagreement and be open to considering different perspectives and narratives. We have to be able to move beyond terms like “pro-Israel” and “anti-Israel,” as the reality is much more complex and nuanced than those two binary positions, and the energy we spend on using these terms to discredit each other is a waste of our resources. 

We have to get comfortable with having a large, open tent — in the rabbinate, in our home communities and in our own families. The Israel of today is complicated and can often be antithetical to the very Jewish values we hold dear, and frankly, often unwelcoming to who we are. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up on Israel, or on the array of voices within the tent. Even in, or especially in, the midst of turbulence and violence, we have to keep speaking to and learning from each other, and holding on to the hope that one day Israel may yet become the country of its greatest potential. 

Whether we are in Israel or back home, we will not stop speaking out about and raising our voices against injustice. We will not stop fighting for the protection and vision of Israel as a Jewish and pluralistic, democratic state in which the aspirations of all of Israel’s inhabitants — Jews, Muslims and Christians, religious and secular — can peacefully coexist with equal rights and protections.

We will not stop praying for and working to build the Israel of our highest aspirations and hopes. We will not stop believing in the Israel we know is possible. 

(Rabbi Hara Person is the current and first female chief executive for the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the largest and oldest rabbinical organization in the world. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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