Stav Shaffir Calls on U.S. Jews to Join in Fight Against Right-wing Israelis

'When Israel becomes a settler Israel,' Ari Shavit tells panel at a plenary meeting of the Union for Reform Judaism. 'it betrays its fundamental mission.

Olivier Fitoussi

Two prominent left-wing Israelis declared that it was time for the progressive camp in Israel to join forces with like-minded American Jews and unite against right-wing and Orthodox extremist forces in Israel that they say threaten both Zionism and the Jewish future.

Speaking on a panel at a plenary meeting of the Union for Reform Judaism, Israeli lawmaker Stav Shaffir echoed the message she delivered in a recent fiery Knesset speech in which she charged that right-wing cynicism of the current Israeli government “is destroying the basis of the Zionist idea.”

The Zionist Union legislator said that the progressive left had to “reclaim Zionism” and counteract the right’s attempt to delegitimize it and turn it to as deadly as any external threat. “We always had a discussion over the direction of Zionism and there were many sides to it. But what the right is doing now is just to destroy the other side completely in order to remove the other side of the discussion.”

They were doing this as a result of the “collapse” of the ideology of the right pointing to the current wave of violence as “proof” of its failure to keep Israel safe.  

“It’s been 20 years since Yitzhak Rabin’s murder. Interestingly, the right is still blaming Yitzhak Rabin for our lack of security: it’s still blaming the progressive camp. All the time, the right kept saying Oslo was a huge mistake, disengagement from Gaza was an enormous mistake, we should have kept Gush Katif in Gaza and that the settlements are Israel’s security. Now the right has been in government for all of those years in between. If they wanted to annex settlements that could have done that, if they wanted to rebuild Gush Katif, if they could have done that, if they wanted to break all the security cooperative we have with Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, they could do that - they have a majority. But the fact is that they don't do it because they know this is nonsense, they know that this would be a horrible mistake, that we will lose the game. So what we see is a collapse of all of the security arguments the right has been selling Israelis all the years.”

Shaffir said it was important to her to speak out in the United States and show Americans that government spokespeople do not reflect the views of all Israelis, and there is a misperception that Israelis are overwhelmingly right wing and a majority of them believe in a two-state solution and many want increased separation of church and state “We have to explain this complexity, and I believe it will be an ideological weapon for Israel’s defenders here.”

Also speaking on the panel, Haaretz journalist and author Ari Shavit lavished praise on Reform Jewry, saying that its institutions represented the vibrant and strong diaspora he believed was as important to Jewish survival as the Israeli military.

“The Jewish future will not only be decided on the borders of Gaza and Lebanon, but with you people doing the sacred work you are doing to guarantee a Jewish future,” he told his audience. “Sadly, the Israeli right, my government does not understand that. I am a passionate Zionist, I think Israel is a miracle but the other Jewish miracle of the last century is you - the perfect Diaspora you created here. We both need each other. We don't have a future without you and you don’t have a future without us.”

Shavit said that “When Israel becomes a settler Israel, when Israel is perceived as an ultra-Orthodox israel that rejects progressive values, that is not about social justice, and alienates young U.S. Jews as well as non-Jews, it betrays its fundamental mission.”

He warned that if the millenial generation of Americans which is committed to social justice and equal rights is “lost” because they perceive Israel “as an ultra Orthodox and right wing entity we endanger our soul and we endanger our future.“

“Israel is all about not only being a light unto the nations, but being a light unto the Diaspora. The only way to have modern relevant non-Orthodox Judaism in the 21st century and beyond is to have a deep link, a deep alliance between you and us, and Israel under the right wing governments has been betraying that mission.”

Appearing with Shaffir and Shavit was past URJ president Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who agreed with the two Israelis that “We need a coalition of moderate Zionists and moderate Diaspora Jews who are going to work together.”

But in order for that to happen, he said, both sides needed to be upfront and honest about their views. Yoffie told of a senior Labor party official visiting the States who asked him to speak out against the Netanyahu government. Yoffie asked the official why he didn’t do so himself. The official replied: “I can’t come here and criticize my government and criticize my Prime Minister.”

“How are we going to do anything together that way?” Yoffie asked, pointing out that “If Prime Minister Netanyahu can call on American Jews to criticize their president then certainly it should work the other way around.

Yoffie challenged Shavit and Shaffir as representatives of Israel’s left to be more vocal and active on an issue that deeply affects the American Jews they hope to partner with.

“You don’t appreciate how deeply important to us the issues of religious freedom and religious rights are. They are not secondary - it doesn’t come later. It speaks to our very identity and who we are - we want access to the Wall and we want it now. We want our rabbis recognized and we want it now. We want our religious institutions supported no more and no less than the Orthodox.”  

Turning to Shaffir and Shavit, he said, “Let’s create a grand coalition on that as well.”