And Furthermore…

by Rabbi Lee Friedlander

Dear Friends,

There were a few issues that time did not allow me to address in my open letter to Israel’s Prime Minister that I delivered Rosh Hashanah morning. One issue is whether or not it is ‘legitimate’ for American Jews to publicly protest the decisions of the government of Israel on the streets of the United States. For the last forty-plus years, I have spoken critically about Israel in discussions, in writing, in seminars, and in addresses at the High Holidays at our synagogue.  In the 90’s before Oslo we had Palestinians and Israelis engage in dialogue with one another on our bimah. We have had many congregation-sponsored trips to Israel to meet with people on all sides of Israel’s religious, social, and political issues. (There’s still room on this spring’s RSNS trip to Israel, by the way.) Personally, I give money to organizations that support both my social and political agenda for the State.  And I have signed rabbinic-sponsored petitions to encourage Israel to change directions, especially for peace. But I have never gone public outside the congregation. Some of my reticence can be attributed to my concern for authority. (Ah, you can take the boy out of the yeshiva, but you can’t take the yeshiva out of the boy.) Simply stated, while respecting and often applauding the actions of others, I have asked myself if a Jew who cannot vote in Israel, who pays not a shekel in taxes to the State, and who has never served or sent a child to the army take to the streets of America to protest a given policy of that state.

Of course, people to the right in Israel have reacted strongly to Diaspora Jews and to Israelis living abroad who are demonstrating against the judicial reforms of the present government. But it was the current Prime Minister himself who gave his permission for the Jews of the world to publicly weigh in. It happened in Paris on January 12, 2015. The Prime Minister flew to France following a terrorist attack on a kosher supermarket, which left four hostages dead. There were anti-terrorism marches throughout the country in response to the attack, which included an estimated 3.7 million participants. At the march in Paris, Mr. Netanyahu declared himself to be not only the Prime Minister of the State of Israel, but the Prime Minister of the Jews of the World. Well, if he thinks he’s my Prime Minister, do I not have the right – indeed, the obligation – to protest when he is undermining the very foundation of the modern state?

I was told that the voices of the thousands of protestors across the UN a couple of days after Rosh HaShanah could be heard inside the hall of the General Assembly when Netanyahu spoke. For years American Jews have been called to rally in support of the State. I think that American Jews joining Israelis living abroad at this time of political upheaval is also in support of the State. I think it necessary that we lift our voices in protest at this critical time. Sixty-one percent of American Jews surveyed by the Jewish Electorate Institute think the judicial reforms of the current Israeli government will weaken its democracy, entrench the role of rabbinical courts in civic life, and will deepen Israel’s presence in the West Bank. As Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue said, “American Jews have not only an interest but a vital stake in the well-being of the State of Israel.”  The current government “risks disrupting the relationship between world Jewry and Israel,” he added. We Jews living outside of Israel must let Israeli officials know where we stand.

Determined to keep going on, I am still with hope,


Rabbi Lee