Diaspora Jews Want to Be Israel’s Partners - Not Only Its Donors

North American Jews are no longer willing to just send money to Israel with no say in what goes on there: We have a stake in Israel, as true partners who want to ensure Israel lives up to the best of our Jewish human rights values.

Jill Jacobs
Jill Jacobs
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Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and J Street activists outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem after submitting letters.
Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and J Street activists outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem after submitting letters.Credit: Yael Patir
Jill Jacobs
Jill Jacobs

In January, a group of rabbinical students spending the year in Israel showed up at the Prime Minister’s residence with a stack of 725 letters from North American rabbis, cantors, rabbinical and cantorial students from all denominations of Judaism, and from throughout the United States and Canada, asking Prime Minister Netanyahu to cease plans for a new settlement that has roundly been criticized as an obstacle to long-term peace.

The next day, a group of rabbis - all members of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights - delivered the same letter to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC. The letter itself was a joint project of T’ruah, J Street, and Americans for Peace Now.

These deliveries were not a surprise. We called ahead of time to set up meetings in both places. At the Israeli embassy in D.C., Noam Katz, the Minister for Public Diplomacy at the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C., had agreed via e-mail to meet with our rabbis. He sat with the group for some time, and responded to their concerns by arguing that the settlements are not an obstacle to peace, and that the responsibility lies with the Palestinians.

The Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem declined to send even a low-level staff person to speak with the future leadership of the North American Jewish community, or to accept letters from many hundreds of its current leaders. Instead, the students - all participants in T’ruah’s year-long leadership program - handed the stack of letters to a bewildered security guard.

To date, we have received no response from the Prime Minister.

Even if Prime Minister Netanyahu did not see the letters, he couldn’t have missed the news coverage, which appeared in Haaretz and The New York Times, among other publications. Instead, it seems that he did not consider 725 American and Canadian rabbis worthy of a response.

This disregard for North American religious and communal leaders is a mistake that reflects a broader trend of dismissing the concerns of North American Jews. We have certainly seen this dynamic in the tone-deaf response by Israeli officials to complaints by Diaspora Jews about refusals to accept our conversions (often even those done by Orthodox rabbis), to allow women to pray in tallit and tefillin at the Kotel, or otherwise to recognize our Judaism as legitimate.

The rabbis and cantors who signed our letter are passionate advocates for Israel. We travel to Israel frequently, and bring our congregations and students there. We stock our kitchens with Israeli products. We speak up when Israel is attacked. We collectively speak regularly to hundreds of thousands of congregants, students, campers, and community members. And we and our communities donate millions of dollars a year to Israeli organizations.

American and Canadian rabbis and Jews remain Israel’s staunchest allies. But we are increasingly disturbed by the settlement project, which has continued unbridled under the Netanyahu administration. We have seen the human rights crisis created by these settlements. Settlers steal Palestinian land in order to expand their holdings.

Restricting certain roads to Jews only prevents children from attending school, parents from traveling to work, and families from visiting one another. We are outraged when we see pictures of violent settlers, wearing kippot, vandalizing mosques, destroying olive trees, and assaulting Palestinian civilians. Images of segregated buses in the West Bank prompt ugly flashbacks of the pre-Civil Rights era in the United States.

We believe that Israel must continue to exist as a safe and secure Jewish state. But we’re not willing to stand by as the current Israeli government destroys the chances for peace, isolates itself from the world, and angers the United States -its closest ally.

There are some who say that Diaspora Jews have no say in what goes on in Israel, since we don’t put our lives on the line to live there. I don’t buy this argument for a second. We have a stake in Israel because it is the Jewish homeland. We have a stake in Israel because we invest millions of dollars there, and lobby for the U.S. government to invest billions more of our tax dollars. We worry about family and friends in the Israeli army, who risk and sometimes lose their lives defending the misguided settlement project. And we are the ones who must explain to members of other communities, members of our own communities, and even our children why a state built on Jewish values perpetuates a military occupation of another people.

Since long before the creation of the state, the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jews has been an unequal one. For too long, we have accepted the assumption that Diaspora Jews will send money and keep our mouths shut. We have perpetuated a myth that real Judaism lives in Israel, while our own Diaspora lives offer only a pale shadow of Jewish life. So we send our children to Israel for their Jewish inspiration and engagement, we fund hospitals and schools in Israel, and we devote our own political capital to defending Israel from criticism.

Increasingly, few of us are willing to accept this paradigm. We have created rich and meaningful Jewish lives in North America, and we bristle at Israeli religious authorities delegitimizing our Judaism by arresting women rabbis at the Kotel, or refusing to recognize egalitarian Judaism. We are engaged global citizens who protest when the United States, Canada, Sudan, China, Syria, or any other country violates international human rights laws. We are increasingly unwilling to give the Israeli government a pass on the standards to which we hold the rest of the world. And we believe that the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jews should be a two-way street, in which we each acknowledge that we have much to learn from the other.

As Israel prepares to welcome President Obama this month, it’s also time to welcome North American Jewish leaders as true partners in ensuring that Israel lives up to the best of our Jewish human rights values.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. T’ruah mobilizes 1800 rabbis and cantors from all streams of Judaism, together with tens of thousands of Jewish community members, to protect human rights in the United States, Canada, Israel, and the occupied territories.

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