There is a lot going on in Israel right now. More than I can possibly contemplate at this late hour in Israel. There were protests and border infiltrations by Syrians and by Lebanon in their “celebrations” of a “Nakba Day” (Nakba is the Arabic word for “catastrophe,” marking the day after Israel celebrated its independence). They are preparing for a new flotilla in a few weeks (another one was stopped today). Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, is rewriting history in order to get sympathy for the Palestinian cause as he advocates for the United Nations to unilaterly recognize Palestine as an independent state. (See http://blogs.jta.org/telegraph/article/2011/05/17/3087743/does-abbas-know-much-about-history) I haven’t even mentioned Iran or the renewed alliance between Abass’ Fatah and Hamas yet.

And with all of these tremendous challenges, something else has preoccupied my day in these learning sessions with the World Zionist Organization and the Israeli Foreign Ministry…

Yesterday, we met with Minister of Transport Uzi Landau. Today, we met with Members of Knesset Shlomo Mula (Kadima), Daniel Ben Simon (Labor) and David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu)

The messages that I received from them were stirring, to say the least. While I thought the presentations of Mula and Ben Simon were really outstanding, I need to speak more to Minister Landau’s and MK Rotem’s words.

The issue of religious pluralism came up. Our conversation with MK Rotem was most disturbing. Basically what I heard from both of these men – a Cabinet minister and a Member of Knesset – was that Israel needs you…but don’t push too hard. You aren’t here and we have bigger issues to worry about than the recognition of Reform and Conservative rabbis. (In Israel, Reform is called Progressive and Conservative is Masorti).

You see, MK Rotem is promoting a bill in the Knesset that is designed to address the monopoly over the power of the Chief Rabbinate’s Office (the Rabbanut) over conversion. There are hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants whose Jewish status is questionable by classic understanding of Jewish law (halachah). Rotem wants to make it easier for them to convert with local (Orthodox) rabbis in Israel. But his law has a potential backlash to Jews converting from abroad who will find it harder to make aliyah (immigration to Israel) and be recognized by the government.

In these two meetings with these particular men, their message was clear: the Reform and Conservative movements are not authentic here and your efforts all of these years have not borne fruit, no matter how hard you have tried.

We countered that such positions are part of the problem for American Jews to engage with Israel in meaningful ways. The idea that the Israeli government is still, in 2011, not recognizing a major stream of Judaism is beyond understanding.

I am not naïve. I know it is politics. No political party has a majority of seats in Israel Knesset (a parliamentary democracy), so you need to build coalitions. The country’s political system is so fragmented that the minority of Orthodox political parties are necessary to make a coalition to govern (61 out of 120 seats in the Knesset).

There is much more to say about this. But this is the most important part of this update:

I will not diminish my support for Israel because of these men. I am a Zionist. I believe in the enterprise of the building of the State of Israel. I believe that serving as partners to Israel is a component of striving for a spiritual redemption in the world.

But my partnership is going to be more focused. I will remain focused on Israel’s security, to be sure. But I will focus my attention now on ARZA—the Association of Reform Zionists of America, to help build a stronger progressive Jewish Israel. I will focus on the New Israel Fund, who advances the rule of law and strengthens Israel’s democracy. I will focus on the Israel Religious Action Center, an arm of the Progressive movement in Israel that is our advocacy arm, to advance the status of women in Israel and yes, to advance the idea that there is more than one way to be Jewish.

Because some in the Knesset have the votes…does not mean that they are right. And I believe with all my heart that they don’t represent the majority of Israelis. Every security expert and diplomat we met said how crucial it was for Israel’s security and vitality to have a strong relationship with America’s Jews. They acknowledged that Israeli Jews just don’t have any grasp of what American Jewry is or does.

This is where we need to do better.

I still stand with Israel. I will not yield my support. I might have been disappointed by these meetings, but Israel is more than the leadership of the current government.

Am Yisrael Chai – The People of Israel Live! ALL OF US.

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