We’re liberals, we’re Zionists, and we have some concerns about Israel. By now, this is a familiar script whose next passage can be predicted.
But this is not that story.
Our Zionism is one borne from the hard truths of our family’s respective histories. For Ari, it’s one where Israel served as a refuge for his father, who fled anti-Semitic persecution in Romania. For Alex, a Soviet-born Jew himself, the Jewish state served as a new home for his immediate family and nearly a million other Jews and their families who understood that their children had no future in the Soviet Union.
Last year, I (Ari) stood before my congregation on Yom Kippur, proud to hold an Israel Bonds card in my hand and speak about the ways in which Israel has transformed the lives of American Jewry for the better: “We can make an unequivocal bet on America, be as Jewish and American as we want to be at the same time, because if the bet is wrong, if like Jews in Spain and Germany and Poland and Iraq and Egypt and Algeria we discover that our neighbors are not the people we thought they were, thanks to the State of Israel we will not pay for it with our lives or the lives of our children.”
I continue to believe that with every fiber of my being. The State of Israel remains indispensable to the future life and security of the Jewish people. But this year, as I stand before my congregation on Yom Kippur to deliver the Israel Bonds appeal once again, I intend to deliver another message too. And I won’t be alone.
American Jews, a disproportionately liberal bunch, are increasingly facing polarization from each side of the political spectrum. On the right, we are told to put aside our growing concern with the rightward turn of Israel’s government on matters of religion and minority rights. On the left, we are asked to boycott the home of half of world Jewry, to effectively sever our ties with the Jewish people’s only current manifestation of political sovereignty.
Every High Holiday season, many American synagogues invite congregants to invest in Israel Bonds. This gesture signifies the strong bond between Israel and American Jews, one that American Jews should be proud of.
Ahead of Yom Kippur, as we take account of our actions and how we could do better, it’s apparent to many of us who support Israel that the current trajectory of politics in the Jewish state calls for action to support those Israelis who share our Jewish values.
Recent events in Israel have seen an erosion of protections for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, minority rights, religious pluralism, and a free press. For those of us who fight for civil rights precisely because of our Jewish values, this is very concerning. It’s made all the more concerning as this illiberal drift empowers those within the Jewish community who feel alienated from Israel. That’s why we are launching a new project, one that will be piloted this year with three congregations and which we hope to expand in each successive year.
We call it the Campaign for Jewish Values in the State of Israel.
The premise of this campaign is simple: we refuse to sever our relationship with our brethren in the Jewish state, but we will also not be silent about the deep concerns we have with the current direction of Israeli policy. To address those concerns, we are asking congregants to support those who are most equipped to address these problems: Israeli social activists who are already working on the ground to promote the civil rights of all Israelis.
In addition to asking congregants to invest in Israel Bonds this year, we are also inviting American Jews to pledge donations to five organizations who are working towards social change in Israel: the Israel Religious Action Center, Bizchut (the Israeli Human Rights Center for People with Disabilities), Israel Gay Youth, Women of the Wall, and the Movement for Public Journalism. These organizations advocate for minority rights, religious pluralism, women’s rights, LGBT rights, disability rights and press freedom in the State of Israel. They are led by Israeli activists and include membership from across Israel’s diverse society.
Just like the Israel Bonds campaign, we have produced pledge cards that allow congregants to fold back tabs to indicate the organization they wish to contribute to and the amount they wish to pledge. These cards will be included alongside Israel Bonds cards in the packets each congregant will receive upon entering their synagogue, and referred to by lay and rabbinic leadership, in accordance with the custom of the shuls participating in our pilot.
It’s clear to us that the time has come for American Jews to act in accordance to our values — not by abandoning the Jewish State, but by engaging more meaningfully with its citizens.
Fortunately, there are many Israelis who share our values. They are on the ground right now working towards equality, and we are building a vehicle to support them.
As Americans, we believe that we can love our country even while performing the very necessary task of criticizing unjust governmental policies. The same principal applies to Israel. We believe that a better, more equitable Israel is possible. That’s the Jewish state that Israeli social activists are working towards, and that’s the Israel that we want to support on the High Holidays this year.
Alex Zeldin and Ari Ne’eman are the co-founders of the Campaign for Jewish Values, an experiment with building new ways for Americans to support social change in the State of Israel. Ari serves as Ritual Vice President at Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington, DC.