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Deborah Lipstadt at Haaretz Judaism Conference: Israeli Government 'Sold Out' Memory of the Holocaust

Haaretz hosted its first ever Judaism, Israel and Diaspora Conference. Its vision: To expand the definition of Judaism

Deborah Lipstadt at the Judaism, Israel and Diaspora Conference, Jerusalem, October 30, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Haaretz's first-ever Judaism, Israel and Diaspora Conference concluded on Wednesday, with President Reuven Rivlin and Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog among the speakers gathering to try to answer the fundamental questions regarding Jewish identity in Israel and the ties with the Diaspora. The conference was held at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem.      

Judaism is often viewed in Israel through an exclusively religious perspective that manages to exclude large parts of Israeli society and Diaspora Jewry. The vision of the conference was to expand the definition of Judaism.

5:45 P.M. Former Strategic Affairs Ministry chief criticizes anti-BDS 'travel ban'

Brig. (res) Sima Vaknin Gill, former head of the Strategic Affairs Ministry spoke out against Israel’s controversial barring supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement from entering the country, saying that she herself would never have formulated a list of people to ban. 

Israel “Could have done without” the ban, she said, although she noted that coutries have the right to decide to whom to permit entry.

Gil said Israel is facing a serious challenge in BDS. “There is a place for criticism and God knows we make a lot of mistakes,” she said, “but what we are experiencing is not just criticism,” it’s about criticizing Israel’s right to exist.

She offered her “five rules for fair criticism of Israel”: A willingness to hear criticism; basing arguments on knowledge; not “defining to me who I am” (“If I decided we are people and religion,” she elaborated, “then we are”); not dealing in double standards; and not demonizing Israel.

If a critic is “fair and balanced,” she said, “then I’m here to talk.”

4:30 P.M. Deborah Lipstadt: Israeli government “sold out” memory of the Holocaust in Polish deal

Deborah Lipstadt, one of the world’s leading historians of the Holocaust and the history of anti-Semitism, called out the Israeli government for its agreement with Poland last year. She said that it had “sold out” the memory of the Holocaust.

In July 2018, Netanyahu announced that the special committee he had appointed reached understandings with the Polish government about amending the Polish law to permit civil action against anyone who asserts that the Polish nation bears responsibility for the horrors of the Holocaust instead of subjecting them to criminal proceedings.

The statement was released in Israel and Poland simultaneously, saying “the Holocaust was obviously an unprecedented crime perpetrated by Nazi Germany against the Jewish people, including Poles of Jewish descent.

Lipstadt was speaking on a panel, which was asked whether anti-Semitism is uniting or dividing Jews. The conversation got heated when the subject of the Israeli government’s cozy relations with the far-right governments of Poland and Hungary, which have been accused of embracing anti-Semitism .

Yigal Palmor, head of the international relations unit of the Jewish Agency, tried to position Israel’s diplomatic ties as complex.

Richard Schneider, editor-at-large of ARD German TV, lashed back: “I think it’s nonsense. Realpolitik is one thing, but if the Jewish state makes compromises with anti-Semites – this is a no-go. And I feel betrayed as a European Jew.”

He charged that Israel was motivated for its own cynical reasons, among them to fashion a diplomatic cushion against pushback over the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. 

“To give up moral values of ethics regarding anti-Semitism,” Schneider said, “that makes us weak. How can we ask for non-Jewish governments to fight anti-Semitism if we are working with anti-Semites?”

2:20 P.M. It's time to address 'the elephant in the room' 

Speaking on a panel on Israel and American Jewry, Danya Ruttenberg, an American rabbi and author, said it’s time to address the word that she called the “elephant in the room” – the occupation.  

“For many American Jews occupation is a massive moral human rights crisis and I think it is as well,” she says.

Ruttenberg thinks the anti-Zionist camp among young Jews is fairly small. “But it’s a response to despair. People want to have a loving relationship with this country but [it's] easier to deal with the complexities when there are peace efforts.” And then, she notes, they are given the argument that supporting Israel means supporting the country’s right-wing policies. “When given a binary choice, they will say, ‘Fine, bye.’”

When asked if there is still hope, Ruttenberg replied: "There is a longing to see Israel as the country it can be". 

Ruttenberg warned that what she called the “Trump-Bibi Bromance” also has liberal American Jews perplexed and angered by Israel’s political behavior.

Nitzan Horowitz, head of Israel’s left-wing Democratic Union alliance, described the situation as “putting all the (Israeli) eggs in one right-wing political basket.”

Citing the 12 Jews murdered last year in Pittsburgh and Poway synagogues, Horowitz said: “Look at the response of the Israeli government. He (Netanyahu) waited and hesitated and mumbled …. And Jews in the U.S. were deeply offended.”

After returning from the annual J Street conference in Washington earlier Wednesday, Horowitz told the panel that presidential Hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren spoke in terms never heard before among Democratic presidential candidates about conditioning U.S. aid to Israel. 

1:35 P.M. The Gatekeepers of Judaism Include Women and Liberal Jews

Delphine Horvilleur, the third female rabbi in France who leads a liberal congregation in Paris, recalled the many times she is often asked the same question at public events in France: Does she have the legitimacy to speak as a Jewish leader.  

“They never ask that question someone who has a beard, one slightly longer than mine,” she says to applause. Horvilleur is also is co-leader of the Liberal Movement of France.

She says that the question revolving the place of women in Judaism is essential. “Because a system that does not make room for women, does not make room for anyone else either considered ‘other’." 

President Reuven Rivlin at Judaism, Israel and Diaspora Conference, Jerusalem, October 30, 2019.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, president of Israel’s Reform movement said that he and Horvilleur had come to the conference from a prayer gathering by Women of the Wall. They were yelled at and prevented from brining in a Torah.

Kariv pushed back on the power of Orthodox authorities in Israel. “There must be ground rules for the gatekeepers - they need to have the support of the public. And polls show the Israel's Rabbinate does not have a mandate from the country's citizens to behave in the way they are behaving.”

He added that “Israeli rabbinic leadership fails time and time again - and they use their role in corrupt and coercive ways.”

Kariv also called others to task, including conference co-hosts Haaretz and the Hebrew University, to do a better job pointing out the role pluralistic Judaism has in Israel.

12:23 P.M. Lior Schlein, Israel’s Stephen Colbert, calls out Israel’s secular leaders

Lior Schlein, Israeli comedian and popular late-night show host, said he’s angry not with Israel’s ultra-Orthodox rabbis and religious extremists, but with its secular leadership for not having the courage to stand up and say there are other ways of being Jewish.

“I don’t blame the ultra-Orthodox, the extremists – I blame politicians like Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and [Isaac] Buji Herzog who don’t stand up strongly against them and pander to them,” he told Haaretz’s Ravit Hecht in an on-stage conversation. He

Schlein waved the flag of secularism saying he was well aware of his family’s history, of Jewish history and is happy to be part of the Jewish story, but in his own way.

12:02 P.M. Has anti-Semitism helped Keep Jews Jewish?  

 A panel on “What is Judaism” sparked extensive talk about self-identification and seeking unity among so much difference.

But Eva Illouz, a sociology professor at Hebrew University, argues anti-Semitism has also played a role in keeping Jews identified as Jews – not just from the outside but also from within.

“I think anti-Semitism plays an important role of the existence of Jews, who existed most of their history among wider populations but also the awareness of our difference from them safeguarded our identity.  The awareness we were different is part of what characterizes the Jewish people.”

11:50 A.M.  Netanyahu's action on Western Wall was betrayal

Speaking on the "What is Judaism" panel, Natan Sharansky credited Netanyahu with understanding the importance of Jewish peoplehood in supporting Birthright and other issues, but ultimately betrayed them in the Western Wall deal because it threatened his own political survival.

“He betrayed everything he did,” the former chairman of the Jewish Agency said. 

Sharansky, an iconic figure himself in modern Jewish history as Soviet Jewish dissident turned Israeli politician said: "Judaism is belonging to a direction, being part of a story, and wanting your children to continue to be part of that story and that path.

"The definition and practice changes and evolves with the generations - religion, nationhood, history … When we choose only one of those aspects and say that this is the only legitimate manifestation of the path of Judaism, trouble begins," he said.   

10:53 A.M. Discord in Jewish world? The Jewish world version of Sunni vs. Shia

Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn and Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog spoke — and sometimes sparred — about the fissures in the Jewish world. Benn pointed out that ultra-Orthodox leaders rejected invitations to the conference saying they would not speak at the same conference as Reform Jews. He asked, only half-joking, if we are heading into the Jewish version of rival Sunnis vs. Shiites in the Muslim world.

Herzog said he calls it "Jerusalem and Babylon. We are not walking step-in-step.” Instead, he suggested, the separation was only broadening. He spoke of the interaction of different kinds of Jews he sees gathered at events in the United States. “You see every kind of kippahs, from all possible streams (of Judaism) and I look out and say: it’s my dream to see that in Israel.”

Herzog added that the best way to resolve the long-standing tension around the Western Wall – and access of Reform and Conservative Jews to it for their own services was behind closed doors – “because if it's public it becomes political." It was an argument Benn disagreed.

Herzog spoke of the thousands of young Israelis who set out every year to work at Jewish camps and communities in the diaspora, seeing the rich pluralism and return to Israel baffled. “They come back and say: We did not know about this," Herzog said, to which Benn responded  "That's because the Jewish education Israelis get is all rote memorization of facts like "how many seeds in a pomegranate" and they don't get a wide liberal Jewish education.  

10:14 A.M. President Reuven Rivlin says Haaretz is a 'flag of democracy'

Rivlin spoke to the role of Haaretz in Israel, describing it as a “flag of democracy” in the country - one that commands attention from its supporters and its foes.

“It's a fact. Haaretz and its English edition is a gateway for Israel to the Jewish world. It's one of the biggest stages for Judaism in the world. Because of this, Haaretz has a great responsibility,” he told the conference.

He called on even more coverage of Judaism and Israel-Diaspora relations. 

Rivlin observed that where the essential conversations of the Jewish world once took places in synagogues and in institutions, debates have moved to social media and WhatsApp, reminding us even more the role of the media.

"A large part of this is the Jewish press, on whose pages the dialogue and discussion takes place ... important Jewish conversation and debates have taken place on the pages of Haaretz," Rivlin said.   

9:50 A.M. Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken calls for Israel to be more just

Amos Schocken opened the conference with a call for Israel to be a more just, humanistic country – one that is true to its founding vision. He recalled the murder of eleven Jews gunned down in Pittsburgh exactly a year ago and the shooter citing his hatred of the Jewish organization HIAS. He contrasted the open, welcoming vision of HIAS to the policy of the Israeli government which has rejected the 40,000 African asylum seekers in Israel and shut its borders to other refugees in 2013.

Schocken said “Israel is denying its responsibilities to them,” adding that there is an opportunity for the next government formed to create a liberal government that cares about human rights - one that Diaspora Jews and Israelis, Arabs and Jews, can be proud of. 

9:12 A.M. The status of anti-Semitism in contemporary America and Britain

Neither of the authors of two new books on trying to understand and combat present-day anti-Semitism had planned to write them. In their new books, Bari Weiss and Keith Kahn-Harris tackle how ‘the oldest hatred’ plays out on the right and left of the political spectrum. Read Dina Kraft's full analysis here...

8:51 A.M. Immigration to Israel is on the rise thanks to these 'non-Jews'

Two countries have been responsible for a growing share of immigration to Israel in recent years: Russia and Ukraine. There’s just one small detail most of those engaged in the business of aliyah tend to gloss over when raving about this trend: The majority of these immigrants are not Jewish, technically – at least not insofar as the religious authorities in Israel are concerned. Read Judy Maltz's full story here...

8:35 A.M. Left vs. right? The battle for U.S. Jews’ hearts on the Israel question is far more complex

Everyone loves a simple story. In the Trump era, it has been easy to focus on the clearest, most obvious political divide in the American Jewish community. On one side stands the minority: Staunch pro-Israel Republicans, many of them Orthodox Jews, and a few megadonors like Sheldon and Miriam Adelson. On the other side is the vast majority of American Jews who define themselves as Democratic liberals. But this narrative distracts from a second and more complicated divide. Read Allison Kaplan Sommer's full analysis here...