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At World Zionist Congress, Reform stakes its claim in Israel’s future

American Jews need to redefine the meaning of ‘liberal Zionism,’ says head of the movement’s Zionist action wing Rabbi Joshua Weinberg

Rabbi Joshua Weinberg addresses the ARZA delegation to the World Zionist Congress on October 18, 2015 in Jerusalem (Dale Lazar)
Rabbi Joshua Weinberg addresses the ARZA delegation to the World Zionist Congress on October 18, 2015 in Jerusalem (Dale Lazar)

WASHINGTON – How can Diaspora Reform Jews effect change in Israel? Through democratic elections.

Ahead of this year’s World Zionist Congress elections, the Reform movement made a strategic decision to shift Israel’s religious status quo and bind Reform Jews to liberal Zionism through an unprecedented campaign to garner WZC delegates.

The Theodor Herzl-initiated congress, founded in 1897, meets every five years in Jerusalem where it brings together some 2,000 international Zionist activists to debate Israeli policy — and influence it.

The Reform movement’s hard work paid off, and in June it was announced that members of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) won some 40 percent of the 145 American delegates.

Hours before boarding a plane to Israel for the 2015 World Zionist Congress, president of ARZA Rabbi Joshua Weinberg spoke with The Times of Israel about the challenges of ensuring Reform Jews in the United States maintain a connection to Israel, and how this connection is an essential part of their Jewish identity.

President of ARZA Rabbi Joshua Weinberg at the World Zionist Congress on October 18, 2015 (Dale Lazar)
President of ARZA Rabbi Joshua Weinberg at the World Zionist Congress on October 18, 2015 (Dale Lazar)

Weinberg believes there is currently a twofold objective for the Reform Jewish community: “To do a better job articulating the meaning of liberal Zionism” and “to help improve Israel itself,” he said.

“Some of it depends on what happens in Israel and some of it depends on how we act here,” he said. “We as a liberal movement have to understand how to balance loving Israel and being critical of her, of being able to express criticism in a way that comes out of love.”

As the Reform movement’s political advocacy wing toward Israel, ARZA ran a major campaign to send as many delegates as possible to the World Zionist Congress, an event that takes place once every five years to elect leaders of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization, as well as set the policy agenda for the organizations, most importantly, determining the allocation of funds. (The previous vote took place in 2005 since the 2010 elections were canceled in light of the international economic recession.)

Chart depicting the results of the elections of the American delegates to the 2015 World Jewish Congress. (courtesy)
Chart depicting the results of the elections of the American delegates to the 2015 World Jewish Congress. (courtesy)

Making up the largest delegation at the 37th Congress – from October 20 to October 22 in Jerusalem – ARZA sent 64 individuals to represent Reform Jewry. The affiliated international ARZENU organization garnered an additional 22 delegates.

They ran on a platform to support a two-state solution, greater transparency on settlement funding and the dismantling of Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, among a host of other issues aimed at “promoting pluralism and progressive Jewish values in Israel,” Weinberg said.

With Reform Judaism being the largest Jewish denominational identity in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center, and the movement having the largest representation at this year’s international gathering, Weinberg insisted on a need for Israeli leadership not to “alienate the largest group of Diaspora Jews.”

Religious Services Minister David Azoulay during a press conference in the Knesset on March 08, 2011. (Abir Sultan/Flash 90)
Religious Services Minister David Azoulay during a press conference in the Knesset on March 08, 2011. (Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

This summer, there was a media storm and vocal outcry when Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay told Army Radio that Reform Jews are not really Jewish.

Appointing a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to be minister of religion was itself alienating to liberal Jews, Weinberg said. But he also insisted the very existence of that position runs counter to Israel’s democratic nature.

“No one should have the keys to religion,” he said. “And there especially shouldn’t be a government entity providing oversight of religious affairs within a state.”

But the main priorities of ARZA do not consist of set of policy preferences, Weinberg added. “More than anything we need to reclaim the meaning of liberal Zionism,” he said. “We need to take that back.”

Over the last year, many liberal American Jews have felt increasingly distant from the Jewish state through Israel’s ongoing military presence in the West Bank and a growing spread of religious extremism, according to Weinberg.

This trend is perhaps most typified by events this summer, such as a stabbing at Jerusalem’s gay pride parade, which resulted in the death of 16-year-old Shira Banki, and an arson attack, suspected to have been carried out by Jewish terrorists, on a Palestinian home in the West Bank village of Duma, which killed three people and left a five-year-old boy orphaned and in critical condition.

‘We need to reclaim the meaning of liberal Zionism’

“It is obviously very concerning and deeply disturbing, but there is a healthy way to respond to problems within one’s own state or culture,” Weinberg said. “There is a big difference between someone who advocates for boycott, divestment and sanctions, or anything like that, and someone who says, ‘Look, I really do love Israel … But when I see the continued occupation or settlements expanding or Jewish extremists or certain statements coming from government officials, what am I supposed to think?’”

Weinberg said ARZA takes a progressive approach.

“We think we can encourage certain changes and advocate ways to bring about progress in Israel, and that isn’t in any way unpatriotic. There is no country that’s perfect and it’s only healthy for a nation-state’s citizens and Diaspora communities to want to make their country better,” he said.

While the situation on the ground in Israel is essential to its relationship with the American Jewish community, Weinberg also emphasized the importance of rhetoric in forging a new understanding of liberal Zionism that can resonate more widely.

A Jewish Agency-supported Reform service in Israel. (courtesy JAFI)
A Jewish Agency-supported Reform service in Israel. (courtesy JAFI)

“First, we need to make sure that Israel knows that we, as a Reform movement, care about Israel, that we love Israel, and that we are worried and concerned about its future,” he said. “And that that’s why we use international institutions to help express our voice.”

He also said he wants Reform Jews to recognize why their voice matters and why their voice is essential to both the conception of Israel and of liberal Zionism.

‘We as Jews are a people who also have a religion named “Judaism”‘

“It really goes to establishing an understanding of Judaism as a peoplehood, that we as Jews are a people who also have a religion named ‘Judaism,’” he said. “We are called ‘Jews’ because we originate from an area called ‘Judea’ and we want to have some connection to it. And American Jews see themselves as part of a people.”

“Liberal Zionism,” he added, “is a continuation of the original Zionist idea of a state for the Jewish people where we can live free and nourish a culture of global Jewry. That includes a devotion to justice and creating a better world, but it also means rejecting a dichotomy between the religious and secular. There is so much more to Jewish identity than religious observance. We are all a part of a people, of a nation, and we all have a stake in Israel’s future.”

That being said, Weinberg believes it is in Israel’s best long-term interests to do everything it can to promote and support the formation of a viable Palestinian state and for Israel to preserve its status as a democracy.

“It’s as important for Israel to be a democratic state as it is a Jewish state,” he said. “That reality informs a lot of the advocacy we do.”

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