Mercaz (Masorti’s political arm) sermon: What can we do as U.S. Jews to make our voices heard to preserve Israel’s democracy?
Heidi Schneider, past chair of the Masorti Foundation
Our parasha today, Nitzavim, begins in a powerful way. Moses addresses the Israelites and assures them of a long-term promise. He tells them that the covenant between the Divine and the people includes EVERYONE.
“You stand this day, all of you, before your God Adonai—your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials. Every householder in Israel.” That is the list of the leadership and property holders. But Moses goes on. Who else is included? “Your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer.” This list includes those whose voices are mostly overlooked in society, the people without property, or power, or a vote. And Strangers—the promise is not limited only to Jews. Moses emphasizes that ALL are included in relationship with the Divine.
Might we call this a promise of “radical inclusion,” imbedded in Deuteronomy, in the last words of Moses?
And as if this countercultural message is not enough, Moses has more to startle us. This relationship with the Divine is not only with those present to hear Moses’ words, but those who are not present as well! The rabbis have interpreted this to mean that all generations, past, present, and future, Jews by birth and Jews by choice, are included in the Divine promise. Everyone!
What a contrast this message is to what we are experiencing today. The Us vs. Them mentality that infuses what we read and hear. Both in the United States, and sadly, in Israel, where my focus takes us today.
Israelis have been making their voices heard for months, every Saturday night, protesting in the streets. Liberals, centrists, members of the military, and conservatives are dismayed. They believe that their interests have been ignored by the current Netanyahu coalition, which has been taken over by ultra-Orthodox and other extremist minority parties. A coalition uninterested in compromise.
Ten percent of Israel’s population has taken to the streets, waving the flag of Israel, and carrying banners calling for the end of the current coalition’s efforts to defang Israel’s Supreme Court. Think about those numbers. If ten percent of our population took to the streets, over 30 million people would flood our city centers.
Why does undermining the authority of Israel’s S.Ct. matter so much to Israelis? Unlike in the U.S. where we have two legislative branches, Israel as a unicameral legislature—the Knesset legislates alone. There is no check or balance from the executive branch, either, because the Knesset selects the PM. The Israeli S.Ct. alone is independent of the Knesset. The S.Ct has exercised its independence by protecting the civil rights of groups that are not part of the majority in Israel.
The current coalition in Israel opposes the independence of the S.Ct. and has proposed multiple laws that would make the court beholden to the will of the governing Knesset. The first law limiting the decision-making power of the S.Ct. in Israel passed in the Knesset on July 24.
The current coalition see Israel as Us vs. Them. It does not want to be restrained by the S.Ct’s protections of women, LGBTQ people, non-Orthodox religious streams, like our own, the rights of people with disabilities, and Palestinian Arabs. The coalition has threatened to change the Law of Return, severely limiting immigration to Israel by converts to Judaism and their children unless their conversions are done by approved Orthodox rabbis.
We can understand what is going on in Israel. We too live in a polarized world. There is little political will to work toward compromise because people are so rooted in their own opinions and politics. But compromise is what is needed most right now, according to Rakefet Ginsburg, the CEO of Masorti (the Conservative) movement in Israel.
As Rakefet pointed out in an Opinion published in the newspaper Israel Hayom on July 26, the Conservative Masorti movement has nearly always taken the middle ground, seeking inclusion and diversity, offering spiritual solace to observant and disaffected Jews alike. In Israel, Masorti has always been outspoken about supporting pluralism, allowing all streams equal access to government funding, to grants of land to build synagogues, to pray at the Kotel, to grow and flourish. As Rakefet notes in her editorial, compromise is not always popular, but it is necessary to a functioning democracy and a healthy Israel.
In April, I had an opportunity to see compromise at work at the WZ Congress in Jerusalem. I participated as a delegate to the Mercaz party, which is the political arm of the Masorti movement. Mercaz worked hard to develop resolutions that would have sufficiently broad support to pass. Our resolutions supported Aliyah and the current Law of Return and the recognition in Israel of the conversions performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis. Mercaz aligned with Reform, Meretz, and Yesh Atid to adopt resolutions on the status of women and LGBTQ people in the Jewish state. Mercaz also reached out to Sephardi religious parties and Likud members to find ways to win their votes for our resolutions by agreeing to support their resolutions. In our committees, we saw this preparatory work pay off, as these resolutions passed with votes to spare.
What happened in the final days of the WZ Congress were a mirror of what is happening in Israel’s Knesset today. A small contingent of Haredi/Ultra Orthodox parties hijacked the Congress, using a little used procedural maneuver, to halt the final vote on the resolutions. As a result, over 1000 delegates were unable to cast their votes in person at the Congress. Instead, the World Zionist Organization had to spend valuable resources to build a secure website and all the delegates voted online about a month later. As expected, the Resolutions of Mercaz and its allies passed, the Haredi resolutions were roundly defeated.
Just as the WZO rejected extremist views, the vast majority of Israelis oppose the anti-democratic priorities of the current Knesset coalition. If the Israeli govt were to fall, and a new vote taken today, many believe the governing coalition would change. In the meantime, Israelis must live with the new laws passed by a coalition they do not support. That is why they continue to protest in the streets en masse.
Is there any reason for optimism, as we see our beloved Israel divided by these challenges? Those of you who have supported Masorti know that discrimination against our movement in Israel has been a constant. The minority Haredi factions in the government consistently make it difficult for egalitarian Jews to enjoy the same rights as the Orthodox, such as space at the Kotel plaza, places to build our synagogues, and funding to support our rabbis. Until now, centrist and leftist factions have seen this discrimination as our problem, not theirs. I believe that attitude is changing. Israelis now see that the illiberal factions that opposed our inclusive Judaism, also oppose democratic values. Now that a majority of Israelis see this intolerance for themselves, there may very well be a sea change in the next election that benefits Masorti.
I’m sure you are asking, what can we do here in the diaspora, in Minnesota to show our support for the majority of Israelis. In a recent Mercaz briefing, we heard from Asaf Zamir, the Israeli Consul General for NY, who recently resigned in protest over coalition policies that he could no longer support. At the briefing, Consul Zamir urged Americans to contact their local Israeli consulates and express our support for the protesters. He cautioned however, that U.S. public protests against the current Knesset coalition could provide cover for anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, which is already on the rise in the U.S.
As Masorti supporters, there are several ways to have our voices heard. One is to continue our support of the Masorti movement in Israel through donations to the Masorti Foundation. As Adath and its members have done for decades, we support our movement in Israel.
There is a second way. That is through the World Zionist Organization, which represents the interests of diaspora Jews. There are elections for delegates to the WZO every four years, which is how I became a Mercaz delegate to the WZO Congress in Jerusalem this year. The WZO election is not only about using our collective voice in Israel; it is also about how worldwide donations to the Jewish National Fund, the Jewish Agency, and other Zionist institutions are spent in Israel. In the last election, the Haredi parties turned out their voters in very large numbers, and they currently have positions of authority at the WZO. They were also able to hijack the final vote at the Congress in April.
If we believe in compromise and bringing a diverse coalition together to support Israel, we must do better in the next WZO election. That election will take place in two years. We must get out the vote of like-minded Zionists to vote with Mercaz/Masorti, to assure that leadership and assets go to support a democratic and pluralistic Israel, an Israel that respects and includes many different voices.
It is time to start thinking now about how you will help this effort. It will not be enough for you to cast your own vote, or convince your spouse to join you. Can you join Adath’s Israel committee and offer volunteer support to our GOTV effort? Who can you think of on your contact list to invite to vote for Mercaz? Who can you contact and convince them to invite ten other people they know to vote for Mercaz? It is not too early for Adath to start building its list of voters and another list of volunteers who will help call those voters and assure they vote when the election takes place. Please let me know if you are interested in volunteering to build our election team. You can also give your name to Rabbi Weininger, Rabbi Kravitz, Hazzan, or our dedicated Israel committee co-chairs, Kim Gedan and Scott Gordon. I want to express particular thanks to Kim who has single-handedly made Adath one of the biggest Mercaz voting blocs in MN!
Who knows what will happen in Israel in the two years before the next WZO election. We hope and we pray every Shabbat for a positive resolution to the current crisis. But there is more we can do to assure the ongoing success of the Masorti movement in Israel and a democratic Israel that values pluralism and inclusivity and diversity, not only today, or two years from now, but for decades to come.
And as we pray for the peace and good of Israel, let’s also take the lesson of radical inclusion of Nitzavim seriously as we head into the High Holidays.
Adath clergy, staff and congregants share