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Pluralism in Israel

By Shira and friend of the RAC, Ronit Zemel, incoming Assistant Director of Harlam Day Camp

In the front hallway of our home growing up was a picture of our great grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Goldman, standing next to Chaim Weizmann at one of the gatherings of the World Zionist Congress in the late 1930s. This picture is a hallmark of our upbringing as liberal Zionist Jews. We heard lore of our grandmother’s grade school education at the Riali school in Haifa. Our dad told us stories of his first time in Israel as a thirteen year old, peering out into the still forbidden Old City from a lookout tower in Jerusalem. Then we had the opportunity to see Israel for ourselves; to see the vibrant Jewish life in cafes and the shuk, on buses and in kibbutz fields. Israel is a part of the fabric of our family.

As an 18-year-old I spent a year living and studying in Israel. In one class the teacher talked to us about his aliyah experience. He told us that by moving to Israel he could have a say in the Jewish future, because he could vote in the Israeli elections, and that we, in the Diaspora, could never have the same direct influence on Israeli society, or by extension play the same part in our shared Jewish future.

He was right that I wasn’t able to vote in this month’s Israeli elections, but he was wrong about the fact that I can’t have an influence on where Judaism or Israel is going.

Israelis went to the polls to elect a new Knesset for the 20th time in its history on Tuesday, in what was supposed to be one of the closest elections in years. When voting ended at 10 p.m., exit polling predictions showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party, Likud, in a dead heat with the center-left Zionist Union opposition party. When Israelis woke up Wednesday and the votes had been counted, it became clear that Netanyahu’s Likud had won a decisive victory, with 30 seats in Knesset compared to Zionist Union’s 24. Isaac Herzog, the leader of Zionist Union, who had been hoping to become Prime Minister and form the next Israeli government, called Netanyahu earlier Wednesday to concede the election.

Earlier today, Anat Hoffman, the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, called on American Jews to stand with her as she votes in Israel’s elections by voting in the World Zionist Congress elections. To vote in the World Zionist Congress elections, click here, and to learn more about the elections and what’s at stake, click here. In addition, we’ll have coverage of the Israeli elections on the RACblog on Wednesday, so stay tuned!

Israeli citizens will elect a new government in just five days, in what many have called Israel’s most important election ever. Israelis find themselves at a crossroads, with real debates about whether the Jewish state should expand settlements, engage in peace negotiations, ensure protections for women and members of the LGBT community and treat all religions equally.

I don’t remember the first time I skimmed my skull with a bobby pin and pushed a circle of knitted white cloth and strands of hair into its metal clasp. Wearing a kippah felt like a natural extension of the Jewish history I was learning and the Hebrew grammar and vocabulary that was quickly becoming the primary language through which I understood my surroundings. I was 15 years old, and I had chosen to study on Kibbutz Tzuba with Eisendrath International Exchange as a return to both my symbolic, spiritual home as diaspora Jew, and to my familial home, only miles away from the kibbutz where my father grew up and his parents and siblings still lived. I wanted to know, as I began to plan out my college career, if Israel would be my future home, if the army would be my intermediary step and if I would, perhaps, studying at Hebrew University  instead of an American university.

The Israel Religious Action Center has long brought our attention to the long, hard work that needs to be done to rid our Jewish homeland from violence, hate and discrimination. Unfortunately, IRAC was forced to remind us last week of just how much work there is to do. On Wednesday and Thursday, two religious buildings were torched, first a mosque in the West Bank town of K’fir Jab’a, then a Greek Orthodox Seminary in Jerusalem. Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of IRAC, discussed this in the IRAC newsletter, the Pluralist:

When the ARZA slate for the World Zionist Congress elections was officially announced last week with my name on it, I was humbled. The World Zionist Congress is the democratic body of the Jewish people worldwide that will meet this fall for the first time since 2010, and as a member of the ARZA slate, I will have the opportunity to represent Reform values to the World Zionist Congress and advocate for more funding to programs that promote religious pluralism, equality, and peace in Israel.

Yet aside from being humbled, I thought back to my experience on my Birthright trip three years ago. I remembered my night out in Tel Aviv and my trip to the Western Wall, but the most lasting images are from all those hours I spent on our tour bus, crisscrossing from Haifa to Tiberias to Jerusalem to Beersheva. I remember most strongly the scene as we left Tiberias, driving up the winding roads from Lake Kinneret to the hills beyond. Looking out the window, I saw the yellow-brown grass everywhere, green bushes dotting the landscape and the occasional signpost that listed our location in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The land looked so serene from my seat on the bus, equal parts austere and equal parts welcoming.

When I had the chance go to the Kotel, or the Western Wall, I was able to walk up to the men’s section, find an open section of wall, and run my hands over the coarse, grey stone that I’d heard about ever since I learned the letter aleph. I had an unexpectedly intense connection with my Jewish identity, the kind of clichéd connection I thought only existed in the stories of Birthright trip promoters. I treasure that experience, but I know that part of the reason I was able to have that experience was because I’m fortunate. As a man, I could wear a tallit at the Kotel without being arrested, and I could go to the spacious men’s section instead of the crowded, smaller, women’s section. Because of these things, I was able to have a much better experience than my female counterparts.

The (secular) New Year brings new opportunities and new challenges in the world of Jewish social justice. The 114th Congress will convene on January 3, 2015 at noon. As we look towards what 2015 will bring, let’s take a moment to look back at 2014 through 14 RACBlog highlights.

This list is a mix of our most popular blogs or the blogs that represent landmark moments in our programming or observances. Don’t see your favorite blog here? Let us know in the comments!