MKs fire up J Street crowd with progressive causes

Talk of religious pluralism, gay rights and universal healthcare garners thunderous applause from liberal US Jews

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Knesset Ethics Committee chairman MK Yitzhak Vaknin of Shas (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Knesset Ethics Committee chairman MK Yitzhak Vaknin of Shas (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

WASHINGTON — Despite a traditional focus on geopolitical issues and a doctrinal emphasis on advocating the two-state solution, social issues also fired up crowds at the first full day of the J Street annual conference. Israeli MKs competed, it seemed, to emphasize their liberalism, including an adamant embrace of the multiple streams of Judaism by MK Yitzhak Vaknin of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

Opposition leader MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor Party) faced mixed applause for a speech that laid out both her foreign and domestic policy agendas, and found that support for her progressive platform was selective in its enthusiasm: Issues that were also hot topics in the US political sphere got resounding responses, whereas others fell flat.

She received deafening applause for her support for “freedom to worship” and access to all streams of Judaism and non-Jews, and enthusiastic responses to her announcement that “we support civil marriage and we support gay rights including same-sex marriage.”

But the applause was more muted when she said that “we believe in a free and democratic Israel with a strong army and secure borders to defend not only our people but our values.” And when she paused after adding “this is the true Zionist dream,” there was no applause at all.

As, blocks away from the conference, Congress prepared for a federal shut-down due to Republican attempts to de-fund the Affordable Care Act, J Street attendees applauded every time a speaker made reference to Israel’s government-regulated healthcare services.

Yachimovich, who heartily declared, “I am a social democrat,” garnered ringing applause when she noted that “we have a good public universal healthcare system.” In a panel later in the day, MK Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) won enthusiastic support when she implied that the United States could learn from Israel’s healthcare system.

“In Israel, there is no such thing as what I have read about here — babies without healthcare or milk,” she said.

Members of the crowd, which was composed largely of self-defined progressives, weren’t very moved when a number of attending MKs discussed rising income gaps in Israel. Pluralism, however, was a popular subject. Calderon, for instance, was greeted by rounds of applause when she mentioned the need for increased religious diversity in Israel.

Shas’s Vaknin also was at pains to show his support for an open-minded approach in Israeli civil society.

“I told rabbis not to protest the gay pride parade,” he told reporters Sunday. “I told the Gerer rebbe that opposing it was a mistake.”

“Everyone can live how they want,” Vaknin said, explaining that Judaism should seek to be welcoming and inclusive in order to defeat assimilation. “We are destroying ourselves through assimilation worse than Hitler did,” he added, calling on his colleagues to accept non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

“Every Jew from across the whole world should be connected to each other and be loved,” he said.

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