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Jerusalem

For better and probably for worse, I am a Facebook user. I have a ridiculously large number of friends, including a few that I’ve never met and, embarrassingly, people I knew 30 years ago whom I don’t remember but who remember me. I have friends in Indonesia and Israel, but for the most part, about half of my friends live in Australia and the rest in the United States. On Thursday, there was a clear split between the two groups: Australian friends had painted their Facebook feeds rainbow colours and were crowing about the extraordinary vote in Parliament. The image of those four, barely visible MPs hunkered down on the “no” side of the House is now etched pretty indelibly on my brain. But the American, Israeli and even Indonesian side of my feed was all about Jerusalem.

Moshe Manakha, a proud Jewish leader living a humble life as an English teacher in the Spice Islands of Indonesia, posted, “To Trump who bravely recoqnises Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to his act of moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem: From the bottom of my heart I salute you.” My high school classmate Nigel Spier (yes, I do remember him!), living a modern Orthodox life in Florida, wrote, “I don’t need or want the least credible, most socially reprehensible, morally corrupt president ever to pronounce that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, only to exploit my people for the sake of the evangelical vote and to distract from his money laundering scandals. As the saying goes…”with friends like that…” For a bit more guidance, I looked to my rabbinical school classmate Sue Fendrick, who sometimes seems to spend all of her time posting and reposting on Facebook. She included this quote from Fordham School of Law professor Jed Shugarman: “Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel today is not accidental timing. It is a political act to stabilize the Christian evangelical base in the middle of disastrous Russia conspiracy news (especially Flynn and Deutsche Bank), and also to bolster Roy Moore. It is a pure wag-the-dog, but worse: create a foreign policy crisis to distract, but also to mobilize religious zealotry.”

Outside of Facebook, the commentaries raged as well. On ABC’s Breakfast program, Palestinian representative Mustafa Barghouti declared that Trump should not have recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, because it was the capital of Palestine. His wording was extremely unhelpful, but explained in a few words why Trump’s move was so incendiary. Long-time Middle East observer Thomas Friedman wrote a column for The New York Times entitled “Trump, Israel, and the Art of the Giveaway”–riffing on Donald Trump’s huge bestseller The Art of the Deal. Friedman wrote that never had a world leader given away so much in return for so little. He wrote, “Every Israeli government since its founding has craved United States recognition of Jerusalem as its capital. And every United States government has refrained from doing that, arguing that such a recognition should come only in the wake of an agreed final status peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians — until now. Today, Trump just gave it away — for free. Such a deal! Why in the world would you just give this away for free and not even use it as a lever to advance the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian deal?” Friedman went on to discuss how Trump should have first demanded of the Israelis that they stop building settlements outside of the two areas in the West Bank already generally understood to be land that will be ceded to Israel in a final peace deal. After all, the more Jewish settlements are built in Palestinian areas of the West Bank, the further away we drift from a two-state solution. Mustafa Barghouti noted that the United States can no longer claim to be an impartial mediator working towards a two-state solution. President Trump’s unilateral and unprovoked endorsement of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital takes America out of the bargaining process, and that is really a shame. Who else can step in who will take act with impartiality towards Israel but also give the Palestinians a fair deal?

Of course Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, as anyone who has visited the country knows. It has been the capital of Israel since 1948. The Knesset was built in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv. Foreign embassies are located in Tel Aviv, but most countries have a residence for their ambassadors in Jerusalem to save them the constant commute. And of course for the last 69 years, and especially since 1967, subsequent Israeli governments have lobbied the international community to recognise the reality. So you would expect me to rejoice at this endorsement.

But I do not. I worry, along with my friends living in Israel, that the American announcement may lead to renewed violence and terrorist attacks in Israel and beyond. Our gates are closed today for just this reason. But yielding to threats of terrorism is not a good enough reason. My greatest concern is that President Trump’s announcement plays directly into the hands of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who is himself currently the target of a number of very serious corruption charges. I know that Mr. Netanyahu has a lot of fans, but I am not one of them. I fear that his government, which is now in its ninth year, is coming perilously close through a variety of policies towards passing the point of no return both for the peace process and for the future of Israel as a democracy. Netanyahu does need the United States to obey its every whim and command. It needs the United States to look at the challenges facing Israel as well as the Palestinians and provide much-needed balance. That no longer appears possible.

If you’ve been coming to Beit Shalom for a while, you’ll know that I almost never speak about Israel. The topic divides Jews in a way that no other issue does, and for me Shabbat is not about division. Today I am seeking to state my opinion so that no one will make assumptions about my views because I am a rabbi and care about Israel. In Judaism we have a concept called Shalom Bayit–peace in the home. The idea is that family harmony is so important that nearly any concession is acceptable in the cause of peace. I would argue that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is even more precious because it touches so many lives. I see the events of this last week as an obstacle to that peace, and I am deeply concerned. May we all have a peaceful Shabbat, and the same for those we love in Israel.

Panorama of Jerusalem, Israel. View from the Mount of Olives.

Thoughts to Ponder

The Progressive Jewish community worldwide has been in a frenzy this week as a result of two dismaying pieces of news from Israel. The first–and by far the more worrying–is that a bill is advancing through the Knesset that would grant oversight of the conversion process in Israel to the Chief Rabbinate. The Chief Rabbinate is dominated by Haredi rabbis. They have little interest in Jews outside of their closed communities and even less interest in admitting new Jews who in all likelihood will not live lives in strict accordance with Jewish law as they understand it. The Chief Rabbinate have already demonstrated a disturbing tendency to reject overseas conversions even when they have been facilitated by Orthodox rabbis. What hope do Israelis whose Judaism is suspect have if these men are charged with deciding who gets to be Jewish?

The story that has gotten more coverage and apparently has inspired much more outrage is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reversal of his promise to set aside a section of the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer. Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman of Kehillat Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem wrote, “World Jewry was shocked that Prime Minister Netanyahu reneged on his commitment to developing a pluralistic space at the Kotel so that all Jews could feel comfortable and respected praying there.  The timing, when the Governing Board of the Jewish Agency, filled with representatives of North American Jewry, was in town seemed particularly insulting.

In these past few days, we’ve seen passionate Zionist politicians become hardened cynics. First and foremost, our Prime Minister spat in the faces of all the representatives of Israeli and Diaspora non-Orthodox leadership. These servants of the Jewish people negotiated in good faith and made far reaching compromises to reach an agreement. The Prime Minister spoke at length of his commitment to the making Israel a welcoming place for all Jews. It turns out to have been lip service. The only question is how cynical is Prime Minister Netanyahu. Did he ever mean to implement this agreement? Does it matter? He completely lacks the political will to do the right thing.”

It has now been nearly thirty years since the first women gathered at the Western Wall with the simple intention of holding a Rosh Hodesh service. I was in my very first year in seminary, when an international women’s gathering in Jerusalem attempted to conduct a morning service. The women were attacked both verbally and physically, and so the efforts of Women of the Wall began. There have been legal victories and considerable setbacks in the years since then, and still the Western Wall remains a battleground. Early on, Haredi rabbis argued that even though a women’s prayer service was completely permissible within Jewish law, different rules should apply for that most sacred Jewish site. According to a timeline available on the website of Women of the Wall, the low ebb came in 2000, when the Knesset considered a bill that would punish women who wore tallitot and read from the Torah at the Kotel with seven years imprisonment. Thankfully, the bill never became law, but women have been arrested in recent years for these violations. Women of the Wall eventually acquired a very small Torah, which they have managed to smuggle in on several occasions, including for a bat mitzvah not too long ago.

In a column in The Jerusalem Post, American-born Israeli Daniel Gordis wrote that Israelis really don’t care what happens to the Kotel. Secular Israelis have long ago ceded that tiny piece of territory to the ultra-Orthodox and have stopped fretting about it. But for us Progressive Jews, this issue is about principle as much as it is about the specifics of the Wall itself. We know that freedom of religion is enshrined in Israel’s declaration of independence and in its law code, and we think that such freedom should apply to us. We are accustomed to worshipping in mixed-gender settings, and we don’t think it is so crazy that such worship should be permitted at Judaism’s holiest site. What’s more, the antagonism that women’s worship services have encountered at the Kotel has been particularly galling. When women are arrested for wearing tallitot and carrying the Torah, we feel as if it is we as committed Jews who are under attack. It is particularly hurtful to see women mistreated by the Jewish state at a site that has such deep emotional resonance for us.

Dismay at these decisions has come thick and fast. Daniel Gordis suggests that Jews who wish to visit Israel should boycott El Al and fly with another airline. This would send a pointed reminder to Prime Minister Netanyahu of the financial power of the diaspora Jewish community. The Jewish Agency, whose director Natan Scharansky was a driving force in the original decision to sub-divide the Kotel, cancelled its gala at which the prime minister was to be honoured. The Federation of Chicago, essentially the UIA of the U.S., has issued a statement that no member of Knesset who supports the changes to the conversion laws will be welcome in that city. The one-two punch in such a short period has awakened the wrath of non-Orthodox Jews, and there’s no telling what might happen now.

Of course, these developments are important because Israel matters to us. Many of us still have a vision for Israel, and it is not one where Haredi rabbis get to decide who is Jewish or whether we get to worship at the Kotel. In the days ahead, we will continue to seek ways that we can truly make a difference and shape a Jewish state that has space for all Jews. Shabbat shalom!