Yesterday, Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to us, as I wrote. In my post, I said there were a few points where we outright disagreed – truly, I thought that if I brought his Holocaust comments into the post, some would think that I was trying to smear the PM and that others would think that I either misheard, miswrote or both. Surely, by now, you have heard that one of the PM’s 10 “truths” was that Hitler didn’t want to murder Jews, just expel them. That is, until he met the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. Without getting into the whole parashah (yes, that’s modern Hebrew for a scandal), let’s just say that was not historically accurate.
While I thought this week was filled to brim already with the Artzeinu pre-conference, the WZO conference and terrorism afoot, now we have a full-blown (inter)national scandal while I am in town. It seems Israel has pulled all the stops out for me. I say it is a big scandal because it isn’t every day that the German government has to come to the aid of the despicable Mufti’s reputation (he instigated pogroms here in Palestine) by making it very clear that only Hitler and the Germans were to blame for the Holocaust. Everywhere I went today, people were talking about it: soldiers in the elevator, the doorman of the hotel, friends at dinner and pretty much everyone else I saw today. I even got texts from Israeli friends saying how “lucky” I was there to see it in person!
The comment was also a topic of discussion for MK Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, the leader of the Knesset opposition, who addressed the WZO this morning as the first official business of the day. While he had prepared comments about Zionism, returning to Israel’s founders’ ideals and living up to Jewish values, he couldn’t begin without addressing the issue. Bougie, as everyone here calls him (a nickname his mom gave as a mash-up of “doll” from French and Hebrew), said that the PM’s comments were the worst kind of incitement – by putting the Mufti on the same level as Hitler, it put Palestinians on the same level as Germans during the Holocaust, knowing full well that every Israeli is raised with the ethos that Israelis will do anything to prevent such a thing from happening again. His criticism of the PM had serious zing in it, for sure. While not directly attacking the PM on the political grounds, he did highlight a vision for future that would, as he put it, reground Israel in its values. One Orthodox man jumped up and yelled at the Labor MK, akin to Rep. Joe Wilson yelling at President Obama at the State of the Union. It was the only public disrespect, to that point, in two days of meetings of people with sharp disagreements, both between the PM and Bougie and the delegates themselves.
Next, we went into our first session where committees of the convention went through the first round of vetting, passing, amending and rejecting various resolutions. Every one of the more than 500 delegates was assigned to one of eight committees; I was assigned to the committee on constitutional amendments. This is where the nitty gritty work of WZO policy gets done. It isn’t exciting, sort of like watching Congress on C-SPAN, but it is where the real stuff happens. In my committee, most of the amendments had to do with making the WZO fairer in how delegates are elected or appointed and governance policies. It wasn’t exhilarating work, but it was important as these amendments would affect the fairness of the WZO, whether or not the smaller parties and Jewish communities get a voice and whether the oversight of the WZO would keep the organization on the straight and narrow.
While one would think that all parties would be interested in such things, this is not the case. Most of the defeated amendments were blatant attempts by small groups to get more leverage in the WZO than they deserved, gave financial decision making powers to cronies and took the rights of small communities away by larger groups that try to suppress their voices. Almost every one of those amendments (except one about an appeals process, that is so filled with minutiae, that I will not even explain) was defeated by our coalition, working with others from varying delegations that also opposed them. There were two galling proposals that were defeated that are worth mentioning. Both were proposed by the Orthodox parties and supported by the Likud party. The first tried to eliminate language from the WZO constitution which stated that no delegate or organization can be discriminated against “based on origin, nationality, race or gender.” After we defeated it (I was the leader of our faction dealing with this amendment), we succeeded in getting that section of the constitution amended to also include sexuality and religious streams to the list of things for which one cannot be discriminated against in the WZO. The other, tried to make it “kosher” to call any group of Jews a Jewish community worthy of sending delegates to the WZO. For example, this would allow Chabad, who sends emissaries all over the globe, to be able to claim that one Chabadnik living in a hut in the jungle is a Jewish community and therefore his Zionist party could claim more communal delegates. It was kind of humorous; kind of not so funny!
We finished our three hour session on this with three minutes to spare and without the kind of yelling and screaming (and we’ve been told about past furniture throwing) that these sessions are reputed to have been like in the past (we certainly heard much more yelling form other meeting rooms). Then all the delegated were sent on mini afternoon-long missions in Israel to scout the land, so to speak. Our delegation’s first stop was to a school that the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, picked for us – in East Jerusalem. It was an Arab, all girls, high school. The school was in good condition and the girls all wear uniforms, most had their heads covered a few had makeup on and they seemed like typical teenage girls, giggling with friends in the halls and being shy towards strangers like us. We were asked to teach them about MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Even though they get instruction in English, they didn’t speak enough English to really grasp the text without the teacher translating it for them. What was shocking was that their Hebrew, having lived in Jerusalem all of their lives, wasn’t up to the task either. We later learned that the girls learn from a curriculum from the Israeli Ministry of Education specifically for Palestinians, which differs from the curriculum at both Jewish public schools and Israeli Arab public schools. By contrast, no Israeli teen (these girls are not Israeli citizens even though they have lived their whole lives in Israel’s capitol city) speaks English as poorly as these girls. The mifgash, or interaction, was still upbeat and once outside of the classroom in the front yard of the school they seemed a little freer to be themselves and even asked me to be in a selfie! It was odd to see the girls, at their age being dismissed in groups instead of just heading home. When we inquired as to why, we were told that a student was shot last week, a girl, whom a Jewish man on the street accused of threatening him. He shot her in the arm 12 times. He fled and is unidentified and she has been at Hadassah Hospital where she has already undergone two surgeries. It was a good meeting, but reminded us all of the tense situation right now.
Next, we went to the ancient Dormition Abbey church, where the Virgin Mary died according to Christian tradition. We met the priest, who is a German national. He began by saying how pleased he was that we were there and said that he was sorry for what his people had done to ours throughout history and the Holocaust in particular. He then told us about the church and about how in each of the last three years, the church has been vandalized by Jewish extremists, who graffitied in Hebrew words from the Aleinu (traditionally understood as saying that Jews are better than all other peoples) and tried to burn down the church each time. Another time the graffiti likened Christians to monkeys. All told, millions of dollars of damage was done to one of the oldest historical sites in Jerusalem in what are known as “Price Tag” attacks – exerting a price for a perceived wrong, or to trying to get people to leave. The priest chanted a Psalm of peace, we sang a peace song. He said he took great solace from our group because Orthodox rabbis will never come to meet with him, and because our fellow Reform congregations in Israel send letters of support and comfort every time the church is attacked. It gives him hope to continue with his ministry in Israel.
Our last stop was at the Kotel, the Western Wall, in two stages. First, we went to the Azarat Yisrael, the egalitarian section at the Wall. There, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Reform Movement, addressed us and informed us of the progress to have a real egalitarian section at the Wall. You see, the existing section is hidden away where no one can find it, below ground level and, where the plaza meets the wall, it is so small that you cannot have more than 10 people there at a time. Our Temple Israel Mission went there this summer and took advantage of the moving ability to be together as families, but our group couldn’t get to the wall at the same time. Part of the group had to wait at the upper platform for the others to finish before getting a turn. Rabbi Jacobs assured us that the work continues and that the government is trying to find a solution to this issue. From there, we went to the Kotel Plaza, and where we are forced to separate men and women, we held a service – men and women together. It was a moving service, led by Rabbi Jacobs and musician Peri Smilow. It was emotional for our group to pray at the holiest spot in Judaism, trying to connect with the divine, where Jews have prayed for thousands of years, but being worried that we might be arrested by the police of the Jewish people or be spat upon by the ultra-Orthodox, or maybe even worse.
In the beginning, we were praying with our eyes moving side to side, making sure we were safe. But, as we sang out our prayers, we became more and more comfortable – even with the eyes of Haredi children on us like animals in the zoo, even with some Haredi men yelling at us, even with the lackey of the rabbi in charge of the Kotel trying to get the police to arrest us. In the end, Anat Hoffman, Director of the Israel Religious Action Center and a leader of Women of the Wall (who has been spat upon, beaten, arrested and harassed for praying at the Wall for more than 25 years), convinced the police officer in charge that it wouldn’t be a great idea to arrest the global Reform delegation, here in town for the World Zionist Congress, including our “chief rabbi.” No policeman wants to wind up on the front page of a newspaper. So, knowing that our prayers would soon end, he looked the other way.
We finished with the singing of Hatikva. That Hatikva rang as true as ever and reflected exactly why we are here in Jerusalem: the hope of what Zionism can be has not yet been realized. The “hope” of Hatikva was to be “a free people in our own land.” We certainly have achieved our own land, but if Jews are afraid of arrest or bodily harm for praying in Israel the way we would in any other civilized country, we are not yet free. Our work at the Congress has been focused on this very issue. In the last day of the Congress, this is where the work of all of our supporters, all those votes, will come to fruition – we will use our rights to move Israel and the National Institutions towards a freer, more egalitarian future. It might seem cliché to quote Theodore Herzl at the WZO, but “if we will it, it is no dream!” If we will a better Israel and are willing to do the hard work to achieve it, we will. And we will it with all our hearts!
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither and may my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth; If I do not remember you, If I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy! Psalm 137:5-6