The observant Jewish Left is a rather new phenomenon in Israel – whether Reform, Conservative or modern Orthodox. The creation of Meimad in 1988 was the first time that modern Orthodox Israelis showed an interest in promoting peace and human rights on a political level.
Over the years, what was at first considered a “curiosity” became part of the Israeli political landscape: in the case of Meimad, led by Rabbi Michael Melchior, by becoming a part of the Labor Party. Other groups sharing the same ideas and positions, and some even more radical, appeared, mostly in Jerusalem, such as Rabbis for Human Rights and Yakar.
While RHR, a small but outspoken Jewish observant and leftist group founded in 1988 by rabbis from all the three major streams of Judaism, aims at defending human rights, Yakar is a modern Orthodox synagogue involved in spreading learning and social activities. Despite their growing number of members, thanks also to aliya from Anglo countries, none of these organizations has become known to the general Israeli public, especially outside Jerusalem. Despite the important issues that RHR promotes, some of its members feel they have not attained the place they deserve in Israeli society and public opinion.
“I see it as a significant failure of the rabbis,” says an Orthodox observer who asked not to be identified. “We have become “decorative,” a part in a great show. Let’s be honest: In terms of our influence on the Israeli Left, we don’t really have an impact.” The observer suggested that the specific character of the Israeli Left might be the reason. “Most of the Israeli Left is based on the European model, which defines itself as anti-religious, as opposed to the US, for example, where you have both Left and Right sectors that are defined through their religious beliefs, be they Jewish or Christian. Here, this attitude – and what we religious people who care about human rights represent – hasn’t broken through. Also, many of the left-wing Israelis are Haredi [in a figurative sense]. They have all the typical attitudes of Haredim. They just happen to be secular and leftists, meaning that they are such extremists that you can’t really move them from their positions.”
“We are a minority [religious] within a minority [Left], says Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, a Reform member of RHR. “We serve in the IDF and we demonstrate when we feel the State of Israel is doing wrong, but it doesn’t question our Zionism. I would say that it is more an emotional issue than a political one.”
“I wish there were more Orthodox rabbis and activists there [inside RHR],” says Rabbi Yehoshua Engelman, an Orthodox member of RHR and head of the Yakar center in Tel Aviv. “I think there should be more efforts in order to achieve that. Also I’m concerned because whatever efforts we make to declare our commitment to Zionism, it hasn’t changed the fact that we are – let’s face it – somehow marginal.”
Engelman points out the more complex problems faced by Jewish human rights activists. “Most organizations, Right or Left, think, erroneously, that their strength lies in one-sidedness, believing firmly that they are right and there is only one way to see things. This is true of very few things. That is not strength but weakness. So one needs to keep in mind that there are various perspectives of justice, and to assert that the High Court’s decision [on Sheikh Jarrah] is ‘unjust’ is rather simplistic, besides cutting what may often be the only saving feature of Israeli society. I am questioning if the ‘right’ place for such demonstrations should be outside the High Court rather than Sheikh Jarrah.”
“At the famous large demonstration that took place a few weeks ago on Saturday night, there was a huge red flag but not even a piece of a blue-and-white flag, and that was very hard for me,” says Weiman-Kelman. “I say to my friends there, ‘As long as you do not grasp the huge importance of Jerusalem for the average Israeli, we shall not win in this struggle. As long as we do not speak a language that Jews can identify with, we will not prevail.’ In June 1967, we were still in the States, my mother was listening to Jay Bushinsky’s report from the Old City just liberated by the IDF soldiers. He burst into tears when they reached the Western Wall, my mother burst into tears, and so did I. To this day, I still feel the way I did that day. And as long as the Israeli Left continues not to use a Jewish leftist voice, we will not succeed in convincing Israelis that there is something we can do for peace here.”
The statement by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel on this topic might be a clear example of the dilemma faced by RHR and any other left-wing and religious groups when the concern about human rights comes out of a universal sense of justice and not out of the moral values within Judaism. “ACRI works regularly with Rabbis for Human Rights on a range of issues and respects and values their work and positions,” says its spokeswoman, Melanie Takefman. “There are many connections between ACRI’s social justice work and Jewish sources. However, ACRI as an organization does not work through Jewish conviction per se, given that we are not a Jewish organization. We are an Israeli organization working through the prism of human rights. Our staff and board members represent different backgrounds and religions, including Judaism, and each individual brings to ACRI his or her values and worldviews.”
Hillel Cohen, a Hebrew University scholar who specializes in Palestinian society, goes to Sheikh Jarrah every week. Cohen was raised religious, but today he is not observant.
“You can’t expect people to change their mind. Trotskyites remain Trotskyites... but the Jewish message is definitely present. Take, for example, the day chosen: Friday instead of Saturday as it used to be once for demonstrations.”
Cohen defines himself as a Zionist and adds that over time, at least as far as things happening in Jerusalem are concerned, the number of participants wearing kippot is rising. “I would say [they are] at least 10%, not to mention those who are believers and perhaps even observant but do not wear a kippa.”
Cohen also says that the message that Rabbi Arik Ascherman is conveying reaches both the demonstrators who attend and the Palestinians. “It’s not that we don’t think we have our rights in Jerusalem or even Sheikh Jarrah, it’s just that there is another way to behave and treat people – that’s Jewish identity. We do what we do out of our Jewish identity, not out of universal values or out of self-negation like those from the radical Left we all love to hate. We do not share that position, obviously. Some of us were once observant, some still are, but we share the same ideal[s].”
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), reiterates the Reform movement’s commitment to the ideals of justice.
“According to our surveys, Israelis identify Reform Judaism with the ideals of equality, social justice, openness, defense of human rights and mitzvot bein adam lehavero [ethical mitzvot] between, which lie at the center of Jewish life,” he says.
“The fact that we, mostly through the Israel Religious Action Center, have worked to support single mothers, homosexuals, immigrant rights and foreign workers’ children and more, is apparent to politicians, the media and the general public. I have no doubt that we are identified as [a movement for] social Judaism; and by many as too socially involved.”
This article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post on May 28, 2010