You are invited to join in a Casual Conversation sponsored by the Jewish Culture Group, and arranged by Group chair and classmate Bruce Alpert, with Rabbi Micah Greenstein, senior rabbi of Temple Israel in Memphis TN, to be held on Zoom on Monday, January 23, 2023, at 5 pm Eastern Time (US).
Our guest is Bruce’s Rabbi. The topic chosen is: “The Israel of today is NOT the Israel we knew."
The following column was written by Rabbi Greenstein and published in The Daily Memphian on Friday, December 23, 2022:
I write this letter from my hotel room in Jerusalem, where I am grateful to be spending Hanukkah – the Festival of Lights – in the midst of an ironically dark and troubling time for the State of Israel.
On the flight from Memphis to Tel Aviv, I read a poignant point from writer Thomas L. Friedman: We can “pretend that [a two-state solution] still has a faint heartbeat. But we all know that the two-state option is not in a hospital. It’s in hospice. Only a miracle cure could save it now.”
Much of the Memphis Jewish and greater community is largely unaware of the dire situation, which I will detail in this letter as a critical lover of Israel – not an unloving critic. It may be the first time you have heard any of these details, and it’s not your fault. Unfortunately, it is a situation that impacts not just the whole diaspora, but Memphis as well.
Israel is the only remaining democracy in the Middle East with an independent Supreme Court, gender equality, and LGBTQ rights. Israel is home to nearly 2 million non-Jewish Arabs and 7 million Jews from over 100 countries, ethnicities, races, and cultures. Our last hope for its democracy is at risk.
Generally speaking, we Americans often focus on important external issues like Israel’s non-negotiable safety and military security while ignoring the internal decay of Israel’s democracy. Sadder is when supporters of Israel unwittingly enable the status quo by glossing over the non-acceptance of the vast majority of American Jews by extremist nationalist and religious parties in Israel.
Temple Israel is the largest synagogue both in Memphis – larger than all the other Memphis synagogues combined numerically – and in the entire state of Tennessee. If the Jewish State ceases to affirm the Jewish authenticity of the majority of Jews in America and Memphis, it’s a supreme tragedy. Religious and nationalist zealots of all faiths can wreck any country, as we all know – and Israel is on the brink of disenfranchising the majority of the Jewish people in the Diaspora.
I find it prudent as an American rabbi, passionate Zionist, and human rights advocate to ensure that the realities of the current crisis in Israel are translated from Hebrew newspapers into English to those in our community – to you – not because I question the existential external threat to America’s only democratic ally in the entire Middle East, but because of the direct impact Israel’s most right wing government will have on Jews and lovers of democracy worldwide.
As Israel approaches its 75th birthday next year, the indicted Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu has meticulously cobbled together the most extreme government in the entire history of the Modern State of Israel. We have objectively never witnessed a greater governmental “cauldron of instability” that paralyzes Israel’s identity and plagues its future.
Imagine if the leader of the nation you love invites a religious racist calling for the expulsion of minorities to be your nation’s economic and finance minister. Meet fascistic Jewish ultra-nationalist named Bezalel Smotrich, a disciple of the late Meir Kahane, who was banned from Israeli politics in 1994 and convicted in 2006 of inciting terror and racism. The deal Netanyahu made to secure his support has Smotrich overseeing the coffers at the Finance Ministry.
Imagine if the leader of the nation you love appoints a misogynistic, anti-LGBTQ, far-right politician to be a deputy prime minister in charge of determining the national identity of your citizens. Meet ultra-Orthodox Jewish nationalist Avi Maoz.
Imagine if the leader of the nation you love appoints a convicted inciter of hatred and violence to be your minister of national security. Meet Itamar Ben-Gvir, a convicted criminal, who was promised by Netanyahu to lead Israel’s first-ever “National Security Ministry,” in which he will enjoy unprecedented control over Israel’s police force.
Imagine if the leader of the nation you love appoints a rabbi convicted in three separate criminal cases for public corruption, personal corruption, and tax fraud, to be the highest deputy controlling billions in the interior ministry, including transportation and infrastructure. Meet Rabbi Arye Dery.
No fewer than five far-right parties gave Netanyahu’s Likud party the seats he needed to retake power, and the expected payback is ominous at best.
The incoming coalition is insisting on enshrining in law the principle that everything done at the Western Wall/Kotel must be sanctioned by the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, effectively criminalizing Reform and Conservative Jewish prayer. Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the first non-Orthodox rabbi elected to the Knesset, replied, “The 1967 paratroopers did not liberate the Western Wall in order for it to turn from a site of the entire nation of Israel into a branch of ultra-Orthodox Judaism.”
Among Israel’s most ardent American Jewish defenders are Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz and the former director of the Anti Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, who said, “I never thought I would reach the point [at age 82] that my support of Israel is conditional. If Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it.” What Foxman means is that if Israel fulfills the stated goals of Netanyahu’s partners, and becomes a Jewish fundamentalist nationalist state, it will cut Israel off from over 70% of world Jewry, who will not meet the new cabinet ministers’ qualifications of “who is a Jew.”
Dershowitz warns that the additional attempt by this far-right coalition to override Israeli Supreme Court decisions would be a fatal mistake. Israel’s Supreme Court is the “jewel of judiciaries around the world,” but Netanyahu’s new governing coalition has done the unthinkable, vowing to enact a law that will allow 61 of the 120 Knesset rotating legislators to override any decision by the High Court of Justice. This threat would leave almost no checks and balances or separation of powers since Israel has no constitution, thus turning Israel into an empty democracy.
It will take time for the extremists in power to push through their agenda, but a more immediate threat – confirmed in meetings with Memphis’ sister congregations in the Israel Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism – is that secular Jews and the indigenous Israeli Reform Movement, representing 52 synagogues across Israel and aligned with Temple Israel’s inclusive Jewish values, are in immediate jeopardy of losing government support.
Ultra-Orthodox yeshivas and West Bank settlers already receive billions of shekels from the government. Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners have been promised billions more for housing alone. Meanwhile, even the pittance that the entire Reform and Progressive Movements receive can be cut off in an instant by ultra-Orthodox politicians who brand Reform Jews literally as the enemy.
What can we do and what must we do for Israel to remain a spiritual home for every Jew and a democratic nation with liberty and justice for all?
The response to hate must never be indifference, which is why I am so proud of Temple Israel for co-building the only non-Orthodox synagogue in Shoham, a city where 22 Orthodox synagogues exist for the 24% of the city who call themselves “Religious Orthodox,” but where no alternative was permitted or available until our Temple Israel-Kehilat Shoham initiative. Generous members of our congregation matched Israeli non-Orthodox donors, who until now had been denied a place where men, women, and families could pray together, where girls could chant from the torah, and where people of different faiths, ethnicities, and races could find acceptance rather than be demonized.
The Israelis in Shoham and the 51 other Israeli Reform synagogues are experiencing Israel’s actual reality, a wholly different experience than American Jews who rightly and passionately defend Israel as a refuge from afar and a destination to self-actualize one’s Jewish identity. What is happening right now in Israel on the ground is a call for vengeance from the Jewish far-right to destroy any shred of Jewish pluralism or inclusive Jewish places funded by the Israeli government.
We must show up and stand up for the homegrown Israeli non-Orthodox movement receiving little American support, both in person and in funding. The Memphis Jewish Federation, a ray of light, has been a notable exception with grants to progressive causes inside Israel.
You can also donate and earmark your overseas contributions to two high impact responses to the erosion of a democratic Israel grounded in Jewish values: The Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, whose work supports not only Shoham, but a national network of congregations dedicated to religious pluralism, tolerance, equality and tikkun olam; and The Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform Movement’s flagship justice center, committed to securing civil rights for all based on Israeli law and Jewish tradition.
In summary, there will be little to no diaspora relations left between Israel and the vast majority of Jews on the planet – particularly the 88% of non-Orthodox American Jewry – if Israel becomes an ultra-nationalist, ultra-Orthodox society, as currently reflected by its new leadership.
Extremism can only triumph if good people stand aside and do nothing.
You can find a description of Rabbi Greenstein’s education and career in the rabbinate and involvement with Memphis in this website from Temple Israel: https://timemphis.org/meet-the-team/ .
Finally, although our guest received his undergraduate education at Cornell and further education at Harvard (before attending rabbinical school), he has nothing but found memories of Dartmouth when he led “the Cornell University Glee Club Hangovers to Hanover for a jamboree with The Dartmouth Aires.” He does not, on the other hand harbor good feelings about Harvard even though he was a Kennedy School Fellow, which is all to his credit.
Usual rules apply: please let me know at email@example.com, on the Friday before, January 20, if you want to participate. A Zoom link will be sent to everyone who has signed up sometime during the weekend before the Casual Conversation.