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I recently attended a Knesset caucus on America-Israel relations during which I addressed the body about two issues of vital concern to North America’s liberal Jewish community: the Kotel (the Western Wall) and Israel’s conversion bill.
The Reform Movement in North America includes more than two million people. With the addition of the Conservative Movement, there are more than three million people on our continent who love the State of Israel. Every day, they stand up for the State of Israel and fight against those who delegitimize her. Wherever there are opponents of the Jewish state – on college campuses, among liberal Protestant groups, and elsewhere – wherever there are opponents of the Jewish state and the Jewish people, we are there.
Imagine, then, how it feels to come to Israel and be told, along with non-Orthodox Jews here and around the world, that we are less than legitimate, less than fully worthy of support in the eyes of the government of this country we hold dear.
That’s exactly what happened when I arrived here on Sunday and learned about the latest conversion bill and that our hard-fought Kotel agreement was to be discarded. These actions are not good for the Jewish people, they are not good for the Jewish state, and they harm the core work that together we should be doing, and building, and making possible.
I’d like to reflect on these two pieces of this complicated puzzle.
For four years, we’ve been involved in intense, but exceedingly respectful conversations around an egalitarian worship space at the Kotel. Throughout, it was clear to us that the Kotel is a symbol of Jewish unity and in that unity, there had to be space for the ultra-Orthodox to have an appropriate place to pray. In fact, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews, as well as Women of the Wall and those of no faith who have a yearning to be close, all deserve a place at the Western Wall. So, we compromised. We gave up things that were important to us because we saw the power of bringing the Jewish people together in that symbolic place.
The Kotel is not everything in this country, however. Nor is the freedom of religion merely a treat that the government of Israel might extend to us like a treat. It is a right. It is a right of a Jewish and democratic state – and that is an issue worth fighting for.
So when we in North America learned that this hard-fought and hard-won compromise was to be discarded, there was a palpable sense that our beloved State of Israel is pushing us away. And, yes, we’re making noise about what we’re hearing, even as we are marginalized and disregarded. Modest improvements to the prayer space at Robinson’s Arch – creating a second-class place for second-class Jews – are not acceptable.
Let me speak for a moment about the conversion bill, which would recognize in Israel only those conversions performed by the chief rabbinate, which primarily is comprised of the Haredi Orthodox. Its presence before the cabinet is one of the most destructive things to be brought upon the Jewish people in as long as any of us can remember.
A personal story: A young woman I know was adopted as an infant and converted in our community. She grew up attending Jewish day school, loving Israel, and speaking Hebrew. As a sign of her deep conviction, she chose – as a single woman – to make aliyah and to make Israel her home. “How will I do in the Jewish state as a Reform convert?” she asked me. I know I need not tell any of you what this bill will mean for this young olah.
What’s more, it’s not only in Israel that people will be affected by this legislative action. It will enshrine ultra-Orthodox standards, which are so far out of the mainstream – and out of the Orthodox mainstream – and will divide the Jewish people in ways we have never seen.
(Late last week, the Israeli cabinet postponed further action on the offensive “conversion bill” for six months. This temporary delay is an important rebuke to the aggressive behavior of the ultra-Orthodox toward Diaspora Jewry and the non-Orthodox streams, and one that we support.
We are hopeful that this decision marks a return to a process of dialogue on this issue. We will continue to insist that the Haredi establishment not have a monopoly over conversion and if necessary, we will not hesitate to return to the courtroom to ensure that others do not tell us how to live as Jews.)
Nonetheless, as long as such injustices ensue, I implore you, as leaders of this Knesset and as one Jewish community concerned about Jewish unity – here and wherever there are Jews – to refuse to accept this divisiveness. As Jewish leaders, we are called to do that which is uncomfortable and that which is unpopular. Indeed, leaders do what is right because we know what is right.
This idea reminds me of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and a beautiful phrase from his poem, "In the Old City." In it, he says that as a people we are negu'ay tikvah (infected with hope). Indeed, we have a sense that there is some better way for us to be. We are not naïve by being hopeful. Rather, hope is a commitment that the world as we see it and as we live in it is not the only one. It is a world we can shape -- for the Jewish people, for the Jewish state, and for all the world.
We are negu'ay tikvah.
Let us not be silent. Let us not be inactive. Let us not let the wheels of this government roll over the Jewish people
We have a role. We have a responsibility. Let us do the right thing.
Watch Rabbi Jacobs’ interview in English on Israel’s Channel 2, the country’s most watched television channel.
This post is adapted from remarks Rabbi Jacobs delivered at a recent Knesset caucus on America-Israel relations.