Rabbi Yoffie's Message from Jerusalem, June 27, 2005
Amy and I are currently in Jerusalem, halfway through a two-week visit to Israel. It is a trip that has developed in some unexpected ways, and I would like to share with you some of my thoughts.
A few hours after I arrived on June 19, I received a call in my hotel room from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Yes, I was surprised, and no, the Prime Minister does not regularly make personal calls to me. The reason for this call was to ask the help of the Reform Movement in supporting the Prime Ministers candidate for chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
The Jewish Agency provides social services in Israel, works with immigrants, and offers educational and religious programs to Jews throughout the world. It is a partnership among the Israeli government, Diaspora fundraising leaders, and representatives of grassroots Jewish organizations throughout the world as selected in the World Zionist Congress elections. Because ARZA has done well in these elections, the Reform Movement has substantial representation in the Agency. When the current chairman of the Jewish Agency resigned, the Prime Minister nominated a new chairman, Zev Bielsky, the mayor of Ranaana. In normal times, the Prime Ministers choice for chairman would be quickly approved by all parties.
But these are not normal times. Mr. Sharons plan to disengage from Gaza has elicited vigorous opposition from Israels right wing, including his own Likud party. Opponents of disengagement in Likud rejected Bielsky and decided instead to nominate Natan Sharansky for Jewish Agency chairman. Sharansky is a hero to the Jewish world because of his courage as a refusenik in the former Soviet Union. Since coming to Israel, however, he has moved dramatically to the right and recently resigned from the government because of his opposition to disengagement. If he were chosen to lead the Jewish Agency, his election would be seen as a slap in the face to Sharon and to disengagement; in addition, since the chairman of the Jewish Agency is Israels ambassador to the Diaspora, Sharansky would be bringing his anti-withdrawal message to Jewish communities throughout the world.
In his call, Mr. Sharon asked the Reform Movement to officially endorse Bielskys candidacy. He did not have to say very much to convince me. While we do not agree with Zev Bielsky on all things, he is a moderate, a supporter of disengagement, and a strong manager who leads one of Israels best run cities. Sharansky, on the other hand, is not only an opponent of withdrawal, but he is a strong supporter of the Orthodox monopoly in Israel and has always refused to be helpful to us on matters of religious pluralism. He is also a notoriously weak administrator.
That evening, I met with ARZA leaders, and after some discussion we agreed to endorse Bielsky. We were the first major group in the Agency to take this step and by doing so we encouraged others to follow our lead. We coordinated closely both with the Prime Ministers office and with American fundraisers and federation leaders, who also favored Bielsky; while the fundraisers do not take a position on disengagement, they want the Agency, which is funded by our charitable dollars, to be efficiently run, and they correctly saw Bielsky as far more likely to accomplish this.
The result of all this activity was that the Sharansky challenge was turned back and Bielsky was elected. The story caught the attention of the Israeli public and remained in the headlines for much of the week. In this way, we made our own modest contribution to strengthening Israels pro-disengagement forces. Our special thanks go to the ARZA delegation led by Rabbi Stanley Davids, Mark Anshan, Phillip Meltzer, and Rabbi Andrew Davids who did the difficult, day-to-day work of making this victory happen. Their accomplishments remind us of how important it is that we do well in the upcoming WZO election.
Disengagement, by the way, is literally the only story in Israel right now. No one talks or thinks of anything else. The opponents of disengagement have turned out to be more ferocious and extreme than anyone imagined; in most cases, they are not the Gaza settlers themselves, but outsiders who have flocked to Gaza in recent weeks. The question on everyones mind is whether or not they will use violent means to oppose the evacuation of settlers homes, scheduled for 50 days from now. Increasingly, it seems likely that they will.
This morning, I had a private meeting with the Prime Minister. I began by thanking him for his support of Jewish education in the Diaspora and for some progress that has been made on the conversion issue. (These will be subjects for me to share with you at another time.) He expressed his appreciation for our movements support of Bielsky, and we then moved on to the matter of disengagement. I assured him that we would continue to actively support disengagement in the North American Jewish community and that we were planning an educational campaign aimed at combating the propaganda that would be disseminated by right wing Jewish groups once the disengagement actually begins. He stressed that such education is critically important and he asked that I meet with a general who could give additional details about what the disengagement entailed; that meeting will take place before I leave Israel. Mr. Sharon assured me that under no circumstances would a delay in the disengagement be considered for any reason.
I have had other meetings while here: I met with other ministers. I met with Reform leaders, of course, and was much encouraged by recent developments in our Israeli movement. I also spent two days at the residence of President Moshe Katzav meeting with Jewish leaders from throughout the Diaspora and discussing the Presidents ideas on creating a forum for world Jewry to consult regularly with Israels leaders on matters of mutual concern. But again, these will be topics for me to discuss with you at another time.
For now, let us pray that a determined Prime Minister succeeds in carrying out his plan that, however painful to implement, will leave Israel stronger militarily and diplomatically and will keep alive Israels hope for peace. Let us pray that the cries of extremism are overcome by the voices of sanity and moderation. Let us pray that our hearts, mind, and spirit will embrace the challenges and extraordinary possibilities of this historical moment.
Warm regards from Jerusalem. Have a wonderful summer.