[Opinion] Why we must continue to speak out on Israel

Rabbi Charley Baginsky
17 May 2018

It is Thursday afternoon and 24 hours since I, along with our youth movement worker Simon Lovick, wrote an open letter criticising the Board of Deputies statement on the current situation on the border between Israel and Gaza.

This is the first chance I have had a chance to write anything else since then, as I have been dealing solely with phone calls, emails and social media messages in reaction to what is happening and what we have said.

In both our letter to the Board of Deputies and our own statement, which was written by me and went out in my name, Liberal Judaism made clear our view that the decision by the USA to move its Israeli Embassy to Jerusalem has done nothing to further peace and the violent response was sadly and wholly predictable. You can read the statements here and here.

While we have had much support, there has also been criticism – some of it sadly straying into abuse and threats.

For some we have not said enough in support of those suffering in Gaza and for others we have not said enough to condemn Hamas and support Israel as it seeks to defend its borders.

Some want to us pull out of organisations like the Board of Deputies and Zionist Federation altogether, others want us to keep our heads down and let them speak for us instead.

When we issue statements we try to collaborate as much as possible, seeking advice of Liberal rabbis, communities and professionals – but we can never ask all 10,000 of our members and potentially if we did we would never say anything.

The events of this week have shocked and shaken us all and writing statements on the current situation is definitely one of the hardest things I have had to do in my rabbinical career.

Additionally, Liberal Judaism is a movement that encourages its rabbis to follow their own beliefs and ideas. Our rabbis and congregations are autonomous. Some of them will do things I don’t agree with, but I support them nonetheless.

So for the last 24 hours I have faced criticism from all sides, for things I have said and also for things for my colleagues have said.

Liberal Judaism members I’ve spoken to have been largely supportive and where there has been criticism it has been constructive and well-meaning.

However I have faced abuse from other quarters, being called everything from a Quisling to a Kapo – horrific terms of abuse used to describe people who collaborated with the Nazis.

I know that when I speak on behalf of Liberal Judaism there are people for whom I do not speak, but I remain proud to be part of a movement that celebrates its diversity of voices.

I am also proud of our rabbis for their integrity and commitment to speaking from their conscience, wherever they place themselves on the political spectrum, and I am certain they speak from a place of love and commitment to Israel.

As a global Jewish community we seem to be mirroring an entire world that is on a path of polarisation. If someone is right then someone else is wrong, if someone is ‘good’ someone else is ‘bad’. You are either for Netanyahu or you are for Hamas.

We have lost, somewhere along the line, the ethic based in the heart of Judaism that revelation comes through our words and our discussions, that the minority view can have a place for there may come a time when it is needed.

A question I am often asked is, given the fact that whatever we say we will be criticised and someone will disagree, why do we comment at all?

But I believe that when we stop engaging we are walking away from our responsibility to be in relationship with Israel.

We can embrace the diversity of views, we can disagree with each other, we can walk into the grey areas and along the blurred lines together, but our disputes must be for the sake of heaven, for the right reasons.

Once we stop talking, discussing, learning and struggling with each other we have little left. Judaism has never espoused a unilateral acceptance of truth without question.

Our relationship with Israel is like that which we have with our family; its foundations are solid and based on positive experiences in the past, present and future. Yet, just as we may not always be uncritical of our family’s behaviours and we recognise their complex personalities, so with Israel.

Personally, I am an Israeli citizen who has chosen to live in the UK. Much of my decision to live here was based on a deep commitment to the Liberal movement and a belief that we had a very important part to play in creating a vibrant and creative Jewish life.

Deeply embedded in this is a belief that we do not stand alone, but are rather part of Klal Yisrael, the worldwide Jewish community and Israel with its 6.5 million Jews has to play a major part in this relationship and that part of my rabbinate had to be a commitment to developing that bond.

We have had a record number of young people going on Israel Tour during the last two summers, have six 18-year-olds currently on a gap year there and almost every one of our LJY-Netzer events will have education and engagement around Israel.

Over the last year we have established, joint with Reform Judaism, an Israel Desk. The theory behind this desk – which has been part-funded by Israeli Progressive institutions – is to increase our engagement with Israel and furthermore to build a new model of Zionist relationship founded in mutuality.

The conversations and the passion are because we remain convinced that Israel matters and that we feel we have something important to say that can support our Progressive family in Israel.

That is why we must to continue to speak out.

Rabbi Charley Baginsky is Liberal Judaism’s director of strategy and partnerships

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