Israeli, Diaspora leaders mind widening gap at glitzy Jerusalem event
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Israeli, Diaspora leaders mind widening gap at glitzy Jerusalem event

First Israeli Congress on Judaism and Democracy kicks off with gala, with the fragmentation of Israel's communities on the menu

Senator Joe Lieberman (left) with Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau (right) and Haim Taib, founder and chairperson of the 'First Israeli Congress on Judaism and Democracy.' (Erez Uzir)
Senator Joe Lieberman (left) with Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau (right) and Haim Taib, founder and chairperson of the 'First Israeli Congress on Judaism and Democracy.' (Erez Uzir)

Former United States senator Joseph Lieberman warned of a widening stratification between secular and religious Israelis during an onstage interview Sunday night in Jerusalem, kicking off the First Israeli Congress on Judaism and Democracy.

“There is a danger that religious and secular [Israelis] will become strangers to each other,” he said. 

Lieberman, noting the need to bridge the gap between Diaspora Jewry and Israel, shared his thoughts on Israel’s current issues as well as stories from his career as a religiously observant Jew in the US Senate and as a vice presidential candidate in the 2000 presidential election with Al Gore. 

“To say that Israel is a Jewish state has to mean more than just the majority are Jewish,” he said. 

Senator Joe Lieberman (left) with Haim Taib, founder and chairman of the event, signing his name to Israel’s Declaration of Independence printed on the wall. (Erez Uzir)

The First Israeli Congress is the brainchild of businessman Haim Taib, the president of the Mitral Group, along with his business partner Yosef Zarzavsky. Dr. Shahar Lifshitz of Bar-Ilan University and several other academics and business leaders were also involved.

According to the organizers, the event paid homage to the original First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, 120 years ago. A daylong conference on Israel’s future follows on Monday in Tel Aviv. 

The gala drew a number of big-name speakers including Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky; former Israeli chief rabbi Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau; Elyakim Rubenstein, a former Supreme Court justice and attorney general; Dalia Dorner, head of the Israel Press Council and former Supreme Court justice; and Sheikh Moafaq Tarif, representing Israel’s Druze community. (Arab Israelis were not represented in the speaker list and Palestinians were not mentioned.)

President Reuven Rivlin also sent his regards to the almost 1,000-strong crowd in a pre-taped video message.

However, to many in attendance, the purpose of the gathering — and who was behind it — was unclear from the onset. Former Knesset member Einat Wilf remarked, “A lot of the right people are here, but everyone is here with a question mark.”

“It’s like a wedding where we don’t know who the bride is, but the guests are good,” said attendee Dr. Shany Mor as the crowd, sipped wine and munched on hors d’oeuvres ahead of dinner.

But as the speakers began to deliver their remarks, it became clearer that the goal of the event’s organizers was a focus on discussing, if not finding, solutions to growing fragmentation within Israel’s communities — particularly between the increasingly dissonant religious and secular factions.

Must mind the gap

One solution was proposed by Jewish Agency head Sharansky, who said it is imperative to push for greater partnerships between the religious and secular communities, as well as Diaspora Jewry and Israelis.

Sharansky delivered a poignant address, noting that the evening marked 32 years to his arrival in Israel after nine years in a Soviet Union prison. He spoke about the Israeli government’s failure to implement the Western Wall agreement, which was intended to establish a pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Davidson Archaeological Park abutting the holy site.

Sharansky played a key role in brokering the January 31, 2016, government decision, a compromise struck between government representatives, heads of pluralistic religious denominations, the Women of the Wall, and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. After pressure from ultra-Orthodox politicians, the “Kotel Plan” was controversially frozen by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on June 25, 2017.

On the reason for the breakdown of the agreement, Sharansky said that ultimately, “there is only one enemy, and that is arrogance,” in an apparent jab at the government’s attitude toward Diaspora Jewry.

Members of the Women of the Wall movement hold a monthly prayer service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, February 27, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

On Monday morning, a smaller group of decision-makers will gather in closed sessions with mediators to start tackling the many issues raised at the gala and formulating plans of action.

“We’re just at the start,” Yarden Ben Yosef, founder of Act.IL, an online initiative hoping to positively shape public opinion on Israel, said at the end of the evening.

“This is exciting, but there is a long journey ahead of us,” he said.

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