Israel News

The Mistaken Equivalency of Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism

Earlier this year I had occasion to speak at a synagogue in Johannesburg, South Africa. The subject was my motivation and experience as an American Jew who made aliya to Israel more than thirty years ago. The presentation included a description of my Jewish and Zionist education and concluded with an explanation that my primary motivation was a personal desire to be a participant in the making of modern Jewish history. What better place could I do so, I concluded, than by living with my family in the State of Israel.

Immediately following my presentation the hands went up. One after another of the participants in the audience challenged me with biting comments and striking allegations all of which I thought were both surprising and of course incongruous. How could I possibly call myself a Zionist when to do so is to embrace an ideology advocating apartheid? How can I identify with a regime which is oppressive and dismissive of the human rights of the Palestinians? Is not Judaism and Zionism incompatible? Are not Zionists acting just like the white nationalists did in apartheid South Africa?

The people asking the questions seemed sincere. It appeared to me that they were genuinely struggling with themselves both intellectually and spiritually. On the one hand they were trying to find an acceptable way to identify as Jews. On the other hand they could not reconcile their identification with a Jewish State that in their minds, no less than in official political circles, was perceived as the very incarnation of evil. No doubt, there are growing numbers of Jews in other diaspora countries who share the same dilemma which may not be the case with many non-Jewish critics of Israeli policy.

It is true that many non-Jews throughout the world are bitter critics of Israeli policy. As such, many exaggerate and generalize about Jews and what they believe to be normative Zionist ideology. Their conviction is that Zionism is a racist ideology and the plight of the Palestinian people is proof positive of this fact. Thus, it is a short distance between identifying Jews as a group with the Jewish state and ergo their presumed support for the oppressive policies of the state. In their minds this legitimizes their struggle in support of the long suffering Palestinians.

As Jews we may prefer drawing a distinction between our religious or ethnic identity and the specific political policy of any given government of Israel. Nonetheless, such efforts are judged to be ingenuous by our critics. This is hardly surprising considering the fact that Israeli policy today is defined by right wing revisionists who have perpetuated the occupation of the Palestinian people for the most part of nearly 50 years. For the greater part of this half century, they have successfully advanced their ultra-nationalist and irredentist vision of Zionism. Sadly too, the contours of this policy have increasingly resulted in a growing number of separatist realities.

In spite of the aforementioned, I do not accept the idea that being critical of, or opposed to, Israeli policy, automatically makes one an anti-Semite. I would suggest that taking such a position is incorrect as it feeds the illusory idea that what is being alleged about Jews and Zionism has credence. After all, there are Jews who are Zionists and Israeli, like myself, who are strongly opposed to the principles and policies of the current Israeli government. We are in fact, passionate critics. I explained these positions to my South African Jewish interlocutors. I spoke about how I became a Zionist in the tradition of the Labor Zionist Movement. Our ideological vision is rooted in the principles of social and economic justice, liberal democracy and the pursuit of a just peace. I am opposed to the occupation and consider the settlement program to be destructive of our vital interests and threatening to our security. And of course I acknowledge the fact that settling Jews in occupied territories is in contradiction of international law as defined by the Geneva Conventions. For me and a not inconsequential percentage of Israelis and Jews worldwide, progressive Zionism is as legitimate and normative as Revisionism is for others.

Perhaps if Israel’s Jewish and non-Jewish critics were better educated about the differing streams of Zionism, they would be less inclined to generalize based on the policies of Israel’s current government.

Perhaps too, they would begin to understand the differences by learning about the accusations made by our right wing critics here in Israel. Among other allegations they assert that we are self-hating anti-Zionists and anti-Semites! It is likely that they make these charges because we expose their activities and reject their views as submissive to the ideological fantasies of intolerant political and theological extremists.

There is a profound distinction to be made between anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and criticism of the policies of a particular Israeli government.

Rabbi Stanley Ringler is an Israeli Reform Rabbi and Social and Political Activist.

Israel News

A National Tragedy of our Own Making?

Recently Ha’aretz columnist Ari Shavit published an essay in which he called upon the rational Israeli majority to join forces. He is convinced that our political and national future as a Jewish democratic and peace loving state is not lost. All that we need do is to reach out to one another and join hands politically, affirming the moderate center, in a new national movement of reconciliation and constructive policy advocacy. Unfortunately I think Ari Shavit, expresses wishful thinking about what he would like the basic mind set and aspirations of the Israeli people to be. I think his assumptions are incorrect and his proposals are, at this time, painfully unrealistic.

Yes of course I would like to believe that he is correct that most Israeli Jews do aspire after the idea of a Jewish democratic and just state. Yes of course I would like to believe that ours is an enlightened nation-state that does not harbor ill will towards our neighboring states; nor toward our own minority population groups. But unfortunately this is not the case. Our political and military policy of occupation and articulated viral hatred and distrust of our presumed Arab antagonists, domestic and foreign, has defined our vision as myopic and our role as self defeating.

For all intents and purposes, it appears that the Israeli majority has fallen victim to the forces of psychological terrorism, racism and nationalistic extremism. Our political leaders justify our policies by asserting the need to protect us from certain destruction at the hands of radical extremists near and far. Lest we are unable to see clearly, they tell us, we are surrounded and threatened not only by Islamic fundamentalists from without but equally so by their coreligionists within. Promoting fear is an effective way to divert the popular mind from rational discourse and analysis. The consequence is that we are less what people like Ari Shavit would like us to be than what we have become. And this is a savagely divisive society defined by narrow sectarian, political and ideological interests.

Characteristically, following the terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, our right wing coalition government effectively punished several hundred thousand Palestinians for the outrageous acts of two independent killers. Ten of thousands of entry permits to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque now, during the holy month of Ramadan, were cancelled; permits to work in Israel were permanently cancelled for all residents of the village where the terrorists lived and other repressive measures as well. The lead editorial in Ha’aretz on the following day declared “The Only Solution to Palestinian terrorism is the end of the Occupation.” These “acts of collective punishment” the editorial asserted, “will just increase the frustration and hatred among those forced to live under Israeli occupation…The only way to deal with terrorism is by freeing the Palestinian people from the occupation.”

All this is against a background of an obvious increase in frustration with and disbelief in Israeli policies on the part of the international community. Nonetheless our people appear to be nonplussed.They accept as credible the claims of our leaders, that our problems are a consequence of a plot hatched by unrepentant European and American anti-Semites and Islamic fanatics. All we need to do is destroy the BDS movement and we will relieve ourselves of the need to reconsider the wisdom of our policies. How sad it is that we have allowed ourselves to be led by a class of political leaders who in recent weeks in particular have demonstrated just how arrogant, egotistical and self-assured they have become. The very idea that Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman think that they will win the support and confidence of the European community, the United States and the U.N., simply by saying that they support the two state solution and consider the Arab League peace proposal to be constructive is astounding. Indeed now, just a week or so later the news here headlines the fact that the Prime Minister announced at a meeting of his Likud Party Knesset faction that “Israel will never agree to the Arab Peace Initiative.”

Of course, our right wing government coalition, has good reason to want to promote the myth that Israeli policy is rational and responsible. Would that this were more than a proven tactic of diversion and political obfuscation. There is small reason to believe that our ruling revisionist leaders are ready to amend their irredentist policies and thinking to allow for an end to our settlement program and a readiness for genuine territorial compromise. They have confirmed this in their own words and actions. Nonetheless, if does seem that they are successful in convincing the Israeli silent majority of their good intentions. Our people are simply too unnerved and verbally abused by our leaders to think otherwise.

No, I do not believe that there is a silent majority of rational people who have the capacity to transform reality. Our silent majority gives quiet support to our right wing ruling coalition.

In the end, I am now convinced, that the consequence of advancing policies based on irredentist and racist programs will result in our undoing. Our “leaders” continue to act blindly without concern for the implications of their actions. They appear to be convinced of their ability to achieve their objectives, regardless of world opinion and reactive policies. In the end, hopefully sooner than later, they will be proven wrong. Let us hope and pray that in the process, we will not be the victims of another historical tragedy. This time it may be one of our own making.


Rabbi Stanley Ringler is an Israeli Reform Rabbi and Social and Political Activist

Israel News

If I am a Clown and Mentally Ill, So Be It

The articulated reaction of the Haredi Orthodox rabbinical establishment to the recent symbolic achievements of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel are angry and pejorative in the extreme. Lest we forget the vituperative character of the comments made about us, mark the following for reference:

  1. The Council of the Chief Rabbinate issued a statement saying it was “against bodies that are called ‘liberals’ or ‘progressive’ that have engraved on their shield the uprooting of the Jewish people from its essence and uniqueness.”
  2.  M.K. Moshe Gafni stated that “Reform Jews are a group of clowns who stab the Holy Torah.”
  3. Rabbi David Yosef alleged that the Reform movement “is not Jewish” and its members are “literally idolaters.”
  4.  M.K. Yisrael Eichler compared the Reform Movement ”to someone who is mentally ill”.

Now, while the stream of insulting allegations have seemingly subsided, these same haredi religious and political leaders have mounted a coordinated legislative and political effort to cancel the modest concessions won by the non-Orthodox movements. Thus, in response to haredi political pressure against the agreement to create a pluralist prayer section at the southern end of the kotel in the Robinson’s Arch area, Prime Minister Netanyahu has invited the United Torah Judaism and the Shas Party leaders to prepare an alternate proposal for consideration. This followed the refusal of the Religious Services Minister, David Azouly to sign off on the government’s agreement with the Reform and Conservative movements. This was hardly surprising given the fact that Azouly is known to believe that Reform and Conservative Jews are not Jewish. And now, Haredi Ministers Yaakov Litzman and David Azouly along with M.K. Moshe Gafni, and with the support of Likud Minister Yariv Levin, have collaborated in proposing a law to enable the Chief Rabbinate to assume administrative control of state funded mikvehs. If passed, this law will enable them to circumvent the Supreme Court decision to allow non-Orthodox religious groups use of local mikvoth for conversion purposes.

In light of the political machinations and religious zealotry of our adversaries, one wonders how members of our movement throughout the diaspora, view these developments.? Do they perceive the conflict as threatening and perhaps even correctly dismissive of their identity as progressive Jews?  Have they accepted the thinking of the Orthodox as representative of the Jewish state and concluded that they have no stake in Israel’s future?

How does one explain to our own people the sociological and theological differences which define our legitimate belief system and theirs? Can we describe ourselves in ways which are no less authentic than the way in which the haredim define as their historically correct understanding of Judaism?  Is not our Jewish mindset and lifestyle at least as accurate an expression of Jewish principles of belief and practice?

Let’s remind our people that Haredi Judaism is in large part a result of the reaction to the threatening influence of the European Emancipation on Jewish life. The fundamentalism of haredi Jews expresses itself in what they believe to be the unchanging character of Jewish thought and life. Rather than change in ways which might have challenged their faith and traditions, they took refuge behind the psychological walls of resistance to new ideas and modern thought. First and foremost is their claim to the unchanging and universal truths of the biblical text. Needless to say their fundamentalism expresses itself in their conviction that Jewish law, halacha, as codified in the 16th century Shulchan Aruch, must be fully observed and recognized as the expression of  the true character of Jewish thought and life.

The religious principles of Haredi Orthodoxy are defined therein as binding rules of Jewish observance and practice. The fact that the Shulchan Aruch is stifling and anachronistic for most modern Jews is of little concern to the Orthodox Haredi believer. But to imagine, as they do, that all Jews must live an insular existence in the 21st century is to propose that proper Jewish life can only be expressed in medieval terms. It is as if nothing has changed in the last several hundred years, not to mention in the last millennium since our ancestors received the Torah on Mount Sinai.

How else can one describe this reality than as one of the great tragedies of modern Jewish life? Moreover, the fact that in Israel it is this minority community of faith which controls contemporary Jewish life is restrictive of the forces of normal social evolution. The consequence is that the non-Orthodox majority Israeli Jewish population is subjected to the invective and authoritarian control of the Haredi rabbinate. And when it comes to matters of identity, conversion, marriage, divorce, death and burial rights, etc., Israelis are compelled to function in the shadow of a form of spiritual terrorism. Conformance to the rules and demands of this Rabbinate is obligatory. There are consequences, enforced by law, to rejection of the Orthodox Rabbinate’s authority.

The fact that for many Israeli Jews, particularly those who are secular, Judaism is what the haredim define it to be, is to accept as normative an intellectual distortion of fact.

Contrary to their uncompromising assertions, as we well know, Jewish thought and religious principles have not been frozen in the canons of Orthodox rabbinic literature. To the contrary, the fact that the vast majority of Jews in the world define themselves as non-Orthodox speaks volumes about the evolution of Jewish life.  Reform and Conservative religious Jews in particular define our faith and practice not only in modern terms of reference but substantively with a more comprehensive appreciation of classical Jewish thought and principles.

The fundamental difference between Orthodox Judaism and the modern streams of Judaism can be explained in the difference between living an insular life of religious observance, what moderns refer to as priestly practice as compared to an integrated life of the priestly and prophetic.

In modern Jewish thought the prophetic narrative is accentuated by affirming the moral and ethical principles articulated by Hosea, Amos, Isaiah and other major and minor biblical prophets. For modern progressive Jews, to be Jewish is to strive to live a moral life. To work towards a more just and ethical society. To condemn economic and social inequalities. To fight against racism and intolerance. To affirm the inherent right of all people to life and to help create the conditions which are necessary to ensure social justice. And above all else it is to work to create a world of peace.

We do not reject the tradition, we incorporate it, all of it into our understanding of Judaism and Jewish life. We are religiously observant but we recognize that our symbols and practices carry a profound message of human responsibility and commitment beyond our own community. Although it is rarely acknowledged, the rabbinic tradition does speak to a reality beyond that of our own.

“I call heaven and earth to witness that whether one be Gentile or Jew, man or woman, slave or free, the divine spirit rests on each in accordance with his deeds.” Yalkut Shimeoni in Judges, Section 42.


“Upon three things the world rests, upon justice, upon truth and upon peace. And the three are one, for when justice is done, truth prevails and peace is established.”  Jerusalem Talmud, Ta’anit 4:2

As an Israeli Reform Rabbi I recognize my responsibility to act out the principles of my faith in religious observance and social engagement. This is what distinguishes me from Orthodox rabbis. My horizon of responsibility goes beyond the narrow confines of the Jewish community. It encompasses all who live in Israel, Jew and non-Jew alike. And it reaches beyond our own country into the troubled world in which we all live.

In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Heschel also explained that, “to us, a single act of injustice is a slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.”

If believing and living as I do makes me a “clown” or “mentally ill” so be it. Would that there were many others like me and my colleagues.

Stanley Ringler is an Israeli reform rabbi and social activist.




Bright Spots in a Dark Time: Report from IMPJ on Jewish-Arab Relations in Israel

Report from the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) on the Promotion of Jewish-Arab Relations in Israel and Programing Initiatives in the Field

Presented to the Israel Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR)

Since its establishment, the State of Israel has struggled to balance between its commitment to being the homeland of the Jewish people and its commitment to universal democratic values. One of the greatest challenges in this realm has been the social, political and economic attitudes towards Israel’s largest minority group – Arab Israelis. Historical circumstances have created a reality of unusual tension between Israel’s Jewish majority and its Arab minority. This tension has consequently caused an unfortunate reality of deep inequality towards the Arab minority, and perhaps even worse, a great sense of animosity, often leading to acts of violence.

The IMPJ, guided by pluralistic Jewish values of social justice and Tikkun Olam, is committed to ensuring dignity and equality for all Israelis, as well as working towards the creation of a more tolerant, peaceful Israeli society. In light of the recent escalation in the already-tense relationship between Jews and Arabs in Israel, this year (2015), the IMPJ decided to place the promotion of a shared society and the battle against racism as one of its top five missions.

To do so, the IMPJ has begun operating on a number of levels, from community, educational and policy levels.

The “Meeting Neighbors” program: The “Meeting Neighbors” Jewish-Arab families program is a six month-long program bringing together Reform Kehillot and Arab communities. Jewish and Arab Israeli families from each community are linked in partnership for joint, regular encounters. Throughout six one-monthly sessions, the participants of the group discuss current topics of mutual interest through professionally facilitated discussions, visit cultural sites and the homes of their partner families. The meeting site of each session alternates between the Arab and Reform Jewish communities. The long-term character of the program facilitates the development of genuine relationships on both a collective and family-to-family basis. By doing so, the participants break cultural barriers and overcome long-held stereotypes about each other, which enables them to develop a level of familiarity and closeness. The Jewish and Arab localities are located in close proximity to one another. At the end of the six sessions, a final celebratory session takes place, organized by the participants. This program is based on a pilot program which took place three years ago and proved very successful. The first pair of communities, Kehillat Yozma in Modi’in and the city of Jaljulya involved six families from each side. The greatest measurement of success has been the continued strong relationships by the paired families, long after the official program had ended. This year, three addition Reform Kehillot and three paired Arab communities are participating in the program. These are: Kehillat Beit HaShita with the village of Mukebleh; Kehillat Megiddo with the town Ein Iron; and Kehillat Hararit with the city of Sachnin.

Adabrah-na Shalom – And I Shall Speak the Word of Peace” curriculum program: As part of the effort to promote a more tolerant society in Israel, the IMPJ education department has developed a unique curriculum program on the promotion of a shared society and combating racism. Viewing youth as the most vulnerable and at the same time most inclined towards racist attitudes, this curriculum program is tailored to Jewish Israeli students between the 9th and 12th grades. Through Jewish and Israeli ancient and modern texts and liturgy, this curriculum surveys the history of the treatment of the “other” in Judaism. Texts are used as a tool to examine social phenomena and engage the students in questions surrounding this topic. The Adabrah-na Shalom curriculum is distributed to over 100 Israeli public schools with whom the IMPJ education department has regular relations, therefore reaching thousands of students all across the country. The inclusion of pluralistic Jewish texts provides a new lens through which the students learn about and examine this sensitive topic. The curriculum was written by a leading Israeli Reform rabbi with the help of educators from a variety of fields.

In early July, the IMPJ education department held its first-ever conference on the promotion of a shared society and battling racism at Neveh Shalom, a village known for its work in peace activism. The conference was considered very successful and was attended by over 70 Israeli educators teaching in a variety of frameworks.

Fighting racist incitement: The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the legal and public advocacy arm of the IMPJ, works tirelessly to combat racial prejudice and incitement on the Israeli street, in government offices and wherever else it takes place. By bringing attention to instances of inequality, prejudice and racism through reports, public advocacy in the Knesset and protest on the street, IRAC makes it hard for Israeli leaders and lawmakers to turn a blind eye against injustices that are in our midst. Its most recent report, IRAC surveys incidents of racial incitement in social media, bringing truth to bear on this growing phenomenon.

The IMPJ is committed to continuing to promote an equal, democratic Israel based on pluralistic Jewish values and in light of vision of the Prophets of Israel. We know that our fellow rabbis in North America shared this vision. We invite you to be our partners in leading the way.