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Jewish Journal

Fields: Support for Israel is ‘Conditional’

by Tom Tugend

October 9, 1997 | 8:00 pm

In language rarely, if ever, heard in a mainstream American synagogue since the rebirth of Israeli statehood, a leading Reform rabbi told his congregation in a High Holy Days sermon that the year past "has been filled with heartbreak, frustration and anger. Everything we have done for Israel's survival seems besmirched."

Relations between the Diaspora and Israel "were torn apart by a lethal combination of rising Orthodox fanaticism and a Netanyahu government that's pandering to increasingly crude Orthodox political coercion," said Wilshire Boulevard Temple's Rabbi Harvey J. Fields, among the American Reform movement's most prominent leaders.

In a warning to Israeli leaders, he said: "Our support for them is conditional, that neither they nor their parties will receive a cent, or a podium in our synagogues and communities, unless they demonstrate by their actions and their votes that they oppose the conversion bill, and are working for the achievement of full religious freedom and equality before the law for all streams of Jewish life. Nothing less will be acceptable to us.

"They must feel our heat on this issue. They must feel it hot, and righteous and unrelenting."

Likening the struggle against the "Orthodox monopoly of power" to the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, Fields said, "Just as some of us went to Montgomery and Selma to fight for civil rights, we will have to go to Israel and stand with our brothers and sisters in our sacred test for liberty."

However, Fields exhorted his congregants not to turn their backs on Israel but to step up their involvement in the future of the Jewish state.

"For our sake and Israel's, let it be recorded that we rose with bold Jewish integrity to defeat...Jewish extremism threatening all we hold precious."

Fields' sentiments, though perhaps more heated than most, were heard widely at Conservative and Reform synagogues across the country during High Holy Days sermons. Other rabbis chose to ignore Israel entirely, according to Rabbi Abner Weiss of Beth Jacob Congregation, the leading mainstream Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles.

Reporting on local and national meetings of rabbis preceding Rosh Hashanah, Weiss was struck by the prevailing negative attitude toward Israel.

In an annual Los Angeles rabbinical gathering to share sermon ideas for the High Holy Days, "presenter after presenter introduced his or her remarks with the question: 'What good can be said about Israel this year?'" Weiss wrote in The Jewish Journal.

A similar mood prevailed at a national meeting of the Rabbinic Cabinet of State of Israel Bonds, usually the strongest advocate of unified support for the Jewish state, Weiss reported.

The Orthodox leader warned that "rabbinical disaffection with Israel" was weakening White House backing for the Jewish state and endangering Israel in its struggle against terrorism.

"Support for Israel must be reasserted," he wrote. "The unimaginable good that the Jewish state represents to the Jewish people must be affirmed even if some things are bad. For the sake of Israel and the G-d of Israel, rabbis should not throw out the baby with the bath water."


Standing Up to Orthodox Hegemony

The following are excerpts from Rabbi Harvey Fields' Rosh Hashanah sermon.

Judaism has been, and remains at its best, a tradition of diverse strands and points of view all rallying around the unity of God, the people of Israel and their devotion to Torah.

A chief rabbinate of Israel, funded by the State, and seizing exclusive authority over conversion, marriage, divorce and burials, not only threatens the unity of the Jewish people, but, worse, it is an invitation to extortion, corruption -- the disgraceful reduction of our heritage into an irrelevant cult....

When the pictures of Orthodox rabbis selling conversions, or of zealots dancing on the graves of fallen soldiers or burning Israeli flags, are printed in the Los Angeles Times, we all feel the disgrace. When stories appear about the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yisrael Lau comparing Reform Jews to the suicidal Arab terrorists of Hamas, or about Orthodox teachers contorting our Torah into a justification for gunning down Yitzhak Rabin, it is not just Israeli society that is impacted. All Jews, everywhere, are spattered in the face with shame....

We need to let growing numbers of Israelis who are outraged by Orthodox fanatics and who are organizing to defeat the Orthodox monopoly of power know that they are not alone, that we stand with them. Indeed, just as some of us went to Montgomery and Selma to fight for civil rights, we will have to go to Israel and stand with our brothers and sisters in our sacred Jewish test for civil rights and liberty.

And we must make it clear to Israeli leaders that our support for them is conditional, that neither they nor their parties will receive a cent, or a podium in our synagogues and communities, unless they demonstrate by their actions and their votes that they oppose the conversion bill, and are working for the achievement of full religious freedom and equality before the law for all streams of Jewish life. Nothing less will be acceptable to us.

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