OBSERVATIONS FROM A VISIT IN ISRAEL by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
February 24, 2003 22 Adar I, 5763
I have just returned from a very busy week in Israel and want to share with you some observations from my time there.
A major reason for my trip was to visit our 33 Eisendrath International Exchange high school students who are spending the spring semester at Kibbutz Tsuba. These kids arrived only a few weeks ago, but they have adjusted quickly, feel completely safe, and have gotten into a routine that involves study of Hebrew and English subjects, social action projects, and some limited touring.
We moved the program from Jerusalem after the beginning of the second Intifada, and our selection of Tsuba has turned out to be a wise one. The kibbutz is a half-hour drive from Jerusalem and offers a beautiful college-like environment, excellent accommodations, the security of a guarded and fenced-in campus, and superb food. (Yes, believe it or not, superb food; everyone raved about the food.)
As you would guess from the timing of their departure, these are our most committed youth. Virtually every one has attended a UAHC camp, and most are leaders in their youth groups. They discussed with me their desire to do some serious exploration of their Jewish identity, and to learn how to defend Israel in a sophisticated way. The only complaint I heard was about too much homework?and that, I admit, was not something I took too seriously. About 30 parents will be arriving in a few weeks on a parents? tour that we are offering. There are not many foreign students in Israel now, and the kids are proud to be there?and we are proud to have them there representing us and Reform Judaism.
Speaking of pride, 40 of the 60 first-year HUC students?rabbinic, cantorial, and education?are studying at our Jerusalem campus this year. (The remaining 20 students in the first-year class will be required to spend their fourth year in Israel.) More than a quarter of the students are beginning second careers, and many of them are there with children. The security situation in Jerusalem has required some common sense adjustments in life style, but spirits are high, the studies are intense, and the class has formed a tightly knit community.
I spent an evening with the students, sharing with them some thoughts on synagogue life in North America and some of the challenges they will face when they get back home. We talked quite a bit about what can and cannot be done to get more Jews to visit Israel. In response to their questions, I told them what the Union and our congregations were doing and stressed the importance of leadership in these matters, while noting that in times of terror and impending war, visits would be limited no matter what we did.
Rabbis David Ellenson, Michael Marmur, and Shaul Feinberg are to be commended for their superb work with and support of this class. I would note, in addition, that the College-Institute now has 36 Israelis studying in its Israel Rabbinical Program, and this year a special effort has been made to bring the Israelis and North Americans together for joint activities and study.
As I always do, I began by asking each student who was the individual most responsible for bringing him or her to the College-Institute. Special congratulations are due to Rabbi Steven Chester of Oakland, CA, who was named as mentor by three of the students. I expressed the hope that if this question were asked 30 years from now by another President of the Union, their names would be prominent among those mentioned.
I also met with the leaders of all the Reform institutions in Israel, and spent an hour with the board of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. Our Israel movement is always short of resources, and the difficult economic times that have affected all Jewish institutions in North America have, of course, had an impact on them as well.
My remaining time was devoted to political matters. In an exceedingly busy few days I had private meetings with more than a dozen Israel political leaders, followed by television and radio interviews about the sessions. In addition to a meeting with President Katzav I saw political leaders from across the political spectrum. Among others, I met with Benjamin Netanyahu, Natan Sharansky, Yuval Shteinitz, and Dan Meridor from the Likud party; Amram Mitzna, Fouad Ben-Eliezer, Shimon Peres, Michael Melchior, and Avrum Burg from the Labor party; Tommy Lapid from the Shinui party; and Yossi Sarid and Yossi Beillin from the Meretz party.
A few thoughts and highlights:
I invited President Katzav to attend our Biennial or, alternatively, to visit Reform leaders and institutions on his next trip to North America. To the best of my knowledge, no President of Israel has ever made an official visit to a Reform synagogue or the Reform Movement while in the United States or Canada, and I urged him to be the first. The President noted that his own religious outlook is Orthodox, but he expressed appreciation for the work of Reform Judaism and openness to a visit in the near future.
Should the recent election results be seen as "a vote against the peace process"? Not at all. The fact is that most Israelis did not see a peace process. What they saw was an ongoing struggle against the Palestinians, and they believed that Prime Minister Sharon was the best person to carry on that struggle. Amram Mitzna of Labor essentially agreed with this analysis; he said to me that most polls showed significant majorities in favor of his policies, but at the same time Israelis simply did not believe that those policies could be implemented now.
There is a grim mood among Israel?s political leaders. With the exception of Shimon Peres, who is always optimistic, no one with whom I met spoke very hopefully about prospects for peace, at least in the short term.
There is genuine confusion and uncertainty about what kind of a government will emerge from the current negotiations. The Israeli politicians whom I know are usually filled with ideas and predictions about what will be, but not this time. They all acknowledge that Prime Minister Sharon has tremendous political skill, but they simply do not know where the talks will lead.
Israel?s political leaders are resolute in the face of crisis and absolutely determined not to surrender to terror. But there seems to be little consensus beyond that on what is the best political strategy that will lead to peace. There are differences between right and left, and significant differences within each camp. On the left, some spoke in favor of unilateral withdrawal, some spoke of the need for immediate negotiations, and others talked of the advantages of a security fence. On the right, some support a Palestinian state as part of a two- state solution, and some do not. The task of the Prime Minister and the new government will be to forge the consensus that does not now exist.
Both right and left expect that eventually the American government will intervene in the conflict, and, off the record, at least they seem to welcome that intervention. Most do not want the Americans to impose a solution, but they do want American help and see a solution as impossible without it.
The Shinui party: Tommy Lapid heads the Shinui party, which went from six mandates in 1999 to 15 in this election. Lapid offered a centrist position on peace and territories, roughly midway between Labor and Likud, but he attracted attention primarily by his demands for an end to the coercive power of the Orthodox establishment. The fact that the third largest political party in Israel is loudly demanding religious freedom and equality for all streams of Judaism is a development of potentially historic importance.
Mr. Lapid invited me to address the 15 members of his Knesset faction. In my remarks, I congratulated the party on its victory and noted that in the past other parties had made similar promises but none had ever delivered. I expressed the hope that Shinui would be different, and that for their faction, religious freedom was not a political tactic but a matter of principle. I noted that I did not agree with those who characterized Shinui as "anti-religious," and that in fact the best way to strengthen religion and Torah in the Jewish state is to tear down the Orthodox establishment and foster religious pluralism. Following my remarks, several of the Knesset members shared stories of their connection with the Reform movement ? one had been married by a Reform rabbi, another?s son had celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in a Reform synagogue, etc.
We need to be realistic about the prospects for change. In my meeting with Lapid, I asked him if he would be successful in the religious area, and he replied that if a coalition were formed with Likud, Labor, and Shinui, very significant reforms might be enacted. Such a coalition would be the first government in Israel?s history not to include an Orthodox party, and in his view it also would offer the best prospects for movement toward peace. In any other government in which Shinui would be a partner, there would be at least one Orthodox party, and progress on the religious front would be exceedingly limited.
It is clear that Prime Minister Sharon will be very reluctant to form a government without an Orthodox presence, but a Likud-Labor-Shinui government remains at least a small possibility. But is such a government good for Israel? Should the Labor party enter the government at all?
There are profound divisions within Labor on whether it should be part of the government. Some fervent champions of peace in Labor told me that Prime Minister Sharon is certain to set the tone of the next government, that Labor?s impact will be minimal, and the party should now go into the opposition and rebuild its base. According to this view, when the Prime Minister falters, as they are sure he will, Labor will then be in a position to offer a credible alternative.
Other Laborites, no less devoted to moderation, argued the opposite. One Knesset member told me with great fervor that Labor does not have the luxury of going into opposition. He pointed out that more than 200,000 settlers now live in the territories, and without a change in policy, this number will continue to grow through "natural increase" and illegal settlement. If nothing is done, in a few years Israel will have 300,000 settlers; when that happens, physical separation between Palestinians and Israelis, while theoretically possible, will in a practical sense be impossible. And the result will be that Israel will be on the verge of becoming an apartheid state. Therefore, Labor has no choice but to enter the government and to demand as its price for entering a change in settlement policy and a more moderate political course.
I came to Israel thinking that Israel needs a vital opposition and that Labor should stay out of the government. When I left, I was simply no longer sure.
(NOTE: Developments yesterday and today indicate that the government most likely to emerge from the negotiations will be made up of Likud, Shinui, and the National Religious Party, a modern Orthodox party with rightwing views on peace issues. At this moment, it seems unlikely that Labor will be part of the coalition.)
What is the impact on Israelis of the possibility of an American attack on Iraq? There is some worry and concern, of course. But many Israelis, shell-shocked by more than two years of terror, seem mostly oblivious, and they go about their lives in a more or less normal way. It seems that there is only so much tension, fear, and disruption that the human system can tolerate, and Israelis have already been pushed to the limit. My own relatives told me, almost proudly, that they absolutely refused to seal off a room or make any other preparations for an attack. Enough is enough.
Israelis despise Saddam Hussein, who attacked Israel in 1991 and is a villain in every way. No one in Israel will mourn his departure from the scene. At the same time, his overthrow?in and of itself?is of little concern to them. I heard from government officials that Saddam Hussein has no major involvement in the terrorism that plagues Israel, and his overthrow will have little impact on Israel?s situation. What is important to Israelis is whether an American victory will be used by the Americans, and seen by the Arabs, as a means of sending a message to Iran and Syria. If they attack Iraq, the Americans are presumably making it clear that rogue states will not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons and to sponsor terror. Iran right now is doing both, and doing it openly; Syria too is a major sponsor of terror. Both countries are increasing their involvement with terrorist networks in Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza. Israelis are hoping that in the period immediately after the war in Iraq, the Americans, strengthened by their victory, will send a clear message to the Iranians and Syrians that the development of nuclear weapons and the support for terror must stop. If this does not happen, Israel?s position will not necessarily be enhanced by an American success in Iraq.
I wish that I had some clear insights and profound conclusions to offer, but I do not. I can only say that it is always exhilarating to be in Israel, which remains a home to heroism and holiness. Those who represent us there do so with exceptional skill and devotion, and despite the dark times in which we find ourselves, there are some encouraging developments for our movement. And the people of Israel, now and always, are tough and determined, bearing burdens that we do not bear, and sustaining a messy democracy that struggles with the threat of terror and the challenges of peace.
And what is our task?
To embrace Israel, to do everything possible to assure her security, and to pray that somehow our brother/our enemy will learn to live with us and we with him.
Our task, even now, is to be champions of a liberal faith in Israel.
Our task is to be thankful for the blessing that Israel has become, and to join with our Israeli brothers and sisters in advancing the partnership of the Jewish people.