In a little more than a week, much of the Jewish community in the New York metropolitan area will come to Manhattan for the annual Celebrate Israel Parade up Fifth Avenue (I am proud that the parade is organized by Eventage, the outstanding South Orange based event planning company owned by Oheb Shalom members Matt and Jennifer Glass). If you’ve never watched or marched in the parade, you’ve missed an exciting experience. It’s a great thrill to see so many supporters of Israel out in force on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, singing, chanting pro-Israel slogans and celebrating Israeli culture, music and society.
The spirit of the parade is unconditional love of Israel. The people who come to the parade, aside from a few extreme fringe elements, are there to affirm that Israel is loved by the Jewish people. That does not mean that all North American Jews agree with every policy enacted or proposed by the Israeli government, nor does it mean that those of us who live here in America do not see any problems in Israeli society. There indeed are problems, including stagnation in the peace process, issues of social injustice, poverty and the corrosive and unreasonable power of the Chief Rabbinate, that can and should be addressed by the Israeli government with greater focus and commitment. American Jews have opinions on all these issues and rightly should be concerned with how Israel addresses them.
Thus I was taken aback this past week when a leading figure in the Conservative Movement suggested publicly that American Jews might become so disgusted with the Israeli government’s inaction on the question of official recognition of Israel’s Masorti Movement (Conservative) and Progressive Movement (Reform), that they could feel alienated from the Jewish State. Responding to Knesset Member Aliza Lavie of Yesh Atid, who addressed the annual Rabbinical Assembly convention held in Dallas, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, chief executive of the Rabbinical Assembly, said “My fear is that world Jewry is becoming deeply alienated from Israel…Israel finding itself alone when facing a nuclear Iran, confronting a world which, taking sides, blames Israel for its very existence.” Rabbi Schonfeld, wishing to motivate Lavie’s Knesset faction to take legislative action to recognize the legitimacy of non-Orthodox religious movements, added: “Yesh Atid must intervene and put a stop to this, otherwise there will be no Jewish people to speak of or a world Jewry left to defend Israel. If you delay in addressing this issue, it will be too late, and you will have lost the world’s Jews.”
I know Rabbi Schonfeld, and her comments made headlines in Jewish online and in-print publications for their passion and candor. No one should question Rabbi Schonfeld’s personal commitment to the vitality and security of the State of Israel. Yet, I think her comments are subject to significant misinterpretation and misunderstanding. It’s one thing for an American Jew to be passionate about change in Israeli society. Passion, even activism, in support of a cause should be respected and admired. In the aftermath of the convention, several of my rabbinic colleagues commented that the best way for Conservative Jews in America to increase the prestige and potency of the Masorti Movement is to make significant financial donations to the movement. If the movement could expand its programs, train and hire more rabbis and educators, and open more synagogues and schools, it would be harder for the Knesset to ignore them.
But it’s entirely something else to imply that American Jews could become so upset and disgusted with Israel’s inaction or indifference on a particular matter, that they could become so alienated from Israel, that they would withdraw support. While a person may privately express their concern and upsetness with policies of Israel’s government, to publicly state that a significant part of America’s Jews might become so disenchanted with those policies that they would no longer stand up for Israel, especially in a time of crisis, is simply irresponsible and dangerous. Doing so gives cover and sanction to all those who are attempting to delegitimize Israel in today’s world.
We know that Israel is not a perfect society. We ought to debate Israel’s problems and discuss solutions to those problems. We should become active in causes that are meaningful to us, and we should invest in organizations and programs that promote the values that we wish to see take root and grow in Israel. But we should never suggest that we might one day distance ourselves from Israel or allow any disappointment we may feel about how social problems are being addressed separate us from our spiritual homeland. Caring for Israel means staying by her side.
On Sunday, June 1 I will be on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan celebrating Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. I will celebrate Israel as the region’s only democratic state that has become in 66 years a world leader in enriching humanity. Fully aware that Israel is not a perfect place, I will recommit myself to working to help Israel grow and change. And I will feel and express my unconditional love for Israel.