WRJ Speaks Up for Democracy in Israel

May 15, 2023


“History caught in a loop, don’t you wanna change it? You know that we can, you and me.”

Around midnight on Saturday night in Tel Aviv, I found myself watching Israeli pop star Noa Kirel represent Israel in the Eurovision finals from Liverpool (Israel earned 3rd place!). Noa’s anthem, “Unicorn,” with empowering lyrics about individuality, inner fortitude, and perseverance, seemingly was written for this moment of change and challenge in Israel. It speaks to WRJ in particular as Noa performs vocal magic to connect “feminine” and “phenomenal” into one word.

Watching Eurovision is not the way we intended to spend our Saturday night. Part of our tour was scheduled to join the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism at the public protests in Tel Aviv. But the protests were canceled out of respect for and caution because of the current security situation in Israel. Operation Shield and Arrow began on May 9 and continues despite reports of a ceasefire after nearly 1,100 rockets have been fired toward Israel since Wednesday.

When I signed up to join the Women Off the Beaten Path: WRJ Goes to Israel journey, I knew it would be a meaningful experience. This year marks the 50th anniversary of my first trip to Israel, but I had never traveled to Israel with WRJ. I looked forward to the joy of being in Israel and celebrating her 75th birthday with that special mix of sisterhood, spirituality, and social justice that is Women of Reform Judaism. Then everything changed and changed again. Being in Israel with WRJ at this particular moment in time has taken on a far deeper meaning.

On December 29, 2022, the new government led by Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu took office. January 4, 2023, saw the new Justice Minister, Yariv Levin, put forth his plans to modify Israel’s judiciary in a way that is nothing short of a legal revolution that will undermine Israel’s democracy, open the door to implementation of even the most extreme proposals that the new government has put on the table, and threaten the rights of women, Reform Jews, LGBTQ+ folks, Arabs, and other minorities. Rabbi Josh Weinberg, URJ Vice President for Israel and Reform Zionism, and the Executive Director of ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America) wrote a blog post that summarizes the four camps of Israel’s judicial overhaul, and this week his blog addressed the challenges of “protesting under fire.”

By January 7, Israelis took to the streets to fight against the proposed changes to the legal system and all of the proposals that are drafted and ready to come afterward. Every Saturday night, hundreds of thousands of Israelis and supporters march in protest in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and across the country. Last Saturday, some of us who were in Israel early joined our siblings in the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) for Havdalah and protesting in Jerusalem. We prayed together with Reform Jews from around the world and then took up our signs and our voices to join the protests. It has been powerful and inspiring to become part of Israel’s history through our presence and our protest.

Even after the rockets started and the security situation changed in Israel, almost every conversation we have with Israelis touches on the government upheaval, democracy, and protests. We have been thanked for being in Israel and standing with her at this key inflection point by everyone from speakers to taxi drivers and from our Israeli friends to the d’var Torah delivered by Rabbi Rina Tzfania when we celebrated Shabbat at Kehillat Shoham. Even this afternoon, as I enjoyed a walk on the Tel Aviv boardwalk by the sea with a 20-something Israeli friend, she casually said that, of course, she was at the protests nearly every week. When I asked her why it was so important to her, she spoke of the eyes of history – she wanted to be sure that if anyone asked what she had done at this time, she could say that she stood up for democracy and equality. Israelis tell us repeatedly that they need us to raise our voices both here and at home to show that Jews worldwide care, and to help them fight for Israel to be the Israel they were promised. Even though we could not join our voices with theirs tonight in Tel Aviv, we can amplify and support their voices from the United States and Canada. The IMPJ and IRAC are grateful that WRJ in April approved a significant grant from the YES Fund to support the IMPJ & IRAC Emergency Campaign.

Israel’s internal and external threats can feel overwhelming. How can we find the optimism we need to keep fighting for the Israel we believe in? Actor and activist Michael J. Fox teach us that “gratitude makes optimism sustainable.” And so, in the face of everything going on, I choose gratitude for the women leading the efforts of the Reform Movement to “secur[e] together an Israel we are proud of” even as they continue the essential work of building progressive and pluralistic Judaism in Israel and, through IRAC, fight for civil rights throughout Israel.

I am grateful for:

Anna Kislanski – CEO of the IMPJ and its 54 Israeli Reform congregations. She reminded us that if we had been here before the new government was elected, we would not be talking about threats against the IMPJ and IRAC but about the opportunities ahead of them and how obstacles to pluralism and equality in Israel have been overcome. Where does she find her optimism as the current government threatens to try to undo the progress that we have made? Anna told us that her optimism comes from seeing the Israeli public on the streets every week, fighting for the same values that we represent.

Follow Anna and the IMPJ’s weekly newsletter HERE

Orly Erez-Likhovski – Director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) who leads our fight every day against racism and the exclusion of women from the public sphere. She told WRJ that we need to keep raising our voices to help ensure that the only Jewish state remains democratic – and she encouraged us to share our views with every Jewish organization with which we are involved.

Sign up for The Pluralist, IRAC’s weekly newsletter, HERE

Register for an update on the State of Democracy in Israel featuring Orly HERE

Daryl Messinger – Chair of ARZA and past chair of the URJ, speaks truth to power in Israel and the United States. She reminds everyone that “contrary to the falsehoods that the far right spreads, we love Israel, we are Zionists, and we want Israel to be Jewish, democratic, and secure for all its inhabitants…This is my homeland, too.”

Read her blog about raising our voices in the World Zionist Congress now and when we have a chance to vote again in 2025 HERE

                Sign up for ARZA’s weekly newsletter HERE and read past issues HERE

Rabbi Lea Mühlstein – International Chair of Arzenu, the political voice of Reform, progressive, and liberal Religious Zionists, she is a respected and powerful advocate and leader and serves as a senior rabbi of The Ark Synagogue in London, shared her story of becoming a Bat Mitzvah in Germany in a WRJ blog in 2021.

And I am grateful to WRJ for the opportunity to be here in Israel together at this time and for our constant support of the IMPJ and IRAC in Israel. WRJ provides us with the opportunity to raise our individual and collective voice through our advocacy and our YES Fund philanthropy, and in collaboration with our partners at ARZA, ARZENU, IMPJ, and IRAC, to be champions for both social justice and Israel at this crucial moment in Israel’s history, and always.

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