Coalition or Opposition: Lessons From My Week in Israel with Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Rabbinical Students

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There is a large, flat monitor mounted in the lobby of Israel’s Knesset that displays headshots of all the current members of Knesset.  Interestingly, in an effort towards transparency, the screen indicates which members are present in the building at any given time.  As I looked over the pictures, it occurred to me what a diverse group assembles and works together.  Among the members are Chareidim and secular, Jews and Arabs, men and women, left wing and right wing.  Many of these individuals are unlikely to interact socially or belong to the same community.  And yet, here they appear as part of one united entity.  Why? What brings them together?  Whether in the coalition or in the opposition, these MK’s who in many ways couldn’t disagree more, all participate in the same body because they have a simple choice to make.  They can sit on the sidelines as critics and antagonists, passive spectators to their own destiny, or they can work to have a seat at the table and collaborate alongside people with extremely different interests and lifestyles, so that they can contribute to shaping the future of their community and all of Israel.

I have been to Israel countless times, but on the extraordinary trip I just returned from, I saw, heard and experienced things I had never before.  My dear friends, R’ Kirshner, R’ Eger and I went on a journey with thirty students from reform, conservative and orthodox rabbinical schools as part of The Leffell Israel Fellows program.  This AIPAC two-year fellowship, made possible by the Lisa and Michael Leffell Foundation, trains rabbinical students on Israel education and advocacy.


For some, participating in an AIPAC mission was politically uncomfortable because of the perception that it leans politically to the right.  For others, joining a group with rabbinical students from other denominations was complicated.  Almost all the participants, though, shared the experience of leaving their comfort zone to be exposed to, and connect with, people with extraordinarily different religious and political views than their own.


Together, through the people we met with and places we visited, we were reminded that as much as we all love and are devoted to Israel and focus on her beauty, there are complicated and difficult issues she faces going forward.  Mohammad Darawshe challenged us on the rights of Israeli Arabs. A visit to south Tel Aviv forced us to confront the issue of migrants and refugees from other countries seeking asylum in Israel.  A review of the IDF’s code of ethics with one of its authors made us consider the ethical dilemmas our soldiers face daily.  Brig. Gen. Assaf Orion briefed us on the state of Israel’s security and Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin shared with us the nuances of Israeli politics.


When we visited Kibbutz Nahal Oz and heard from Oshrit what life is like under the threat of rocket fire, we never imagined a mortar would land and explode the next day in the very spot that we stood.  Aryeh Lightstone, senior advisor to Ambassador David Friedman, offered an inside look at the US-Israel relationship and Col. Gilad Eisin shared his perspectives on the future of Gaza.  A panel discussion on the challenges of religion and state included diverse perspectives; a session with activists from the Ethiopian, Chareidi, LGBT and women’s rights communities opened our eyes to their efforts and the obstacles they face.  An early morning visit to a Palestinian crossing followed by a meeting with a high-level PLO official and a Palestinian survey researcher brought perspectives we rarely, if ever, are exposed to. A session with Ambassador Daniel Taub, a member of Israel’s negotiating team, provided a behind-the-scenes look at negotiations.

A panel comprised of Oded Revivi, the Mayor of Efrat and a leader of Yesha, and Yariv Oppenheimer, former CEO of Peace Now, modeled how two people with diametrically opposed views could debate rigorously and vociferously, while maintaining genuine warmth and friendship.  We were briefed by an expert on Iran and better understood not only the JCPOA, but the real time protests happening in the streets.  We toured the northern border with Lt. Col. Sarit Zehavi, who helped us understand the threat of Hezbollah and we learned about Israel’s multi-layer missile defense from one of Iron Dome’s engineers, Ari Sacher.  We visited Syrians being treated in Ziv Hospital in Tzefat, and heard from Dr. Einat Wilf about different definitions of Zionism.  In one week, we covered enormous ground and had the privilege of meeting with David Horovitz, Rabbi Dr. Danny Gordis, Yossi Klein Ha’Levi, and Dr. Gil Troy as well.


As one of the rabbis in residence of the trip, I spent time getting to know almost every student. I was specifically interested in their reactions to what we were seeing and experience.  It was easy to shmooze with those who share similar positions to my own, but it was particularly eye-opening and startling to hear positions and perspectives I had never been exposed to and in some cases, didn’t even know existed.  Whether it was the students who described being embarrassed by Israel’s egregious moral sin of the continued “occupation,” or the student who explained to me that intermarriage is not losing Jews, it is expanding the boundaries of Judaism, I found myself listening to positions and perspectives I never understood or considered before, and would usually simply dismiss.


To be clear, none of my religious or political positions shifted or changed.  My commitment to Torah, halacha, and mesorah are unshakeable.  My conviction in our ancient ties to our homeland and my understanding of modern Israeli history and its implications on Israel’s security needs are firmly held.  These are my truths.  They come from my teachers, my tradition, my family, and my own exploration and experience.  Nevertheless, this trip forced me to confront, in ways I never have, the question of how to relate to other people’s truths, even when to me they ring false.  It was very clear to me that both in religion and politics, the students with whom I disagreed believe in their truths with similar conviction and confidence.


We cannot simply will or wish other people’s positions away.  When we fail to respectfully persuade them, we cannot resort to trying to stifle or silence them.  So what can we do?


Rabbi Soloveitchik describes another Knesset, not the parliament of the modern State of Israel, but Knesset Yisrael, the Jewish people (“Community,” Tradition XVII, Spring, 1978):


The community in Judaism is not a functional-utilitarian, but an ontological one. The community is not just an assembly of people who work together for their mutual benefit, but a metaphysical entity, an individuality: I might say, a living whole. In particular, Judaism has stressed the wholeness and the unity of Knesset Israel, the Jewish community. The latter is not a conglomerate. It is an autonomous entity, endowed with a life of its own. We, for instance, lay claim to Eretz Israel. God granted the land to us as a gift. To whom did He pledge the land? Neither to an individual, nor to a partnership consisting of millions of people. He gave it to the Knesset Israel, to the community as an independent unity, as a distinct juridic metaphysical person. He did not promise the land to me, to you, to them; nor did He promise the land to all of us together. Abraham did not receive the land as an individual, but as the father of a future nation. The owner of the Promised Land is the Knesset Israel, which is a community persona.


Imagine if Knesset Yisrael, the Jewish people, followed the model of the Knesset and found a way to work together, despite our diversity and strongly held opposing views.  Being a Member of Knesset doesn’t demand uniformity or embracing someone else’s truth as your own.  There are separate parties, and while some maintain their differences from within a coalition, others express their disagreement by being in the opposition.  With the rhetoric and passionate debate Knesset is famous for, ultimately its members are bound by one shared destiny that is far stronger than the differences that separate them.


The day we visited Israel’s parliament, the members of Knesset we were meant to meet with had to cancel as they were attending the funeral of the wife of their colleague, Rabbi Yehuda Glick.  It wasn’t just members of Glick’s Likud party that weren’t available, but it was also members of Meretz, Israel’s far left, and others who went to be with their friend in his time of grief.


Several years ago, research showed that 65% of Israeli high school students expressed racist views against Arabs and 57% of Arab high school students held similar views of Israelis.  In 1999, an effort was made to bring Israeli teachers into Arab schools and vice versa.  While complicated, it is now being done in 840 schools with more than 100,000 students being exposed to a teacher from the “other side.”  A more recent survey showed that racism dropped from 65% to 10% for Israeli kids and from 57% to 8% for their Arab counterparts.


A similar phenomenon has occurred within the chareidi and secular segments of Israel.  The more segregated, the greater the judgment and hostility.  The more integration and exposure, the greater the affinity and affection.  Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l explains that someone is an achzar, cruel, when they see the other as ach zar, just a stranger, the other.


The lesson is clear – the less we engage with one another, the easier it is to draw hostile conclusions and take adversarial positions.  By simply interacting professionally and socially, barriers are broken down and relationships are formed.  Relationships don’t deny the other person’s truths, they enable us to transcend them, even while we debate them.


I will forever cherish the week with my new friends and family from across the denominations. These students, including the ones I fervently disagree with, are smart, thoughtful and passionate. Amazingly, we never felt the need to be apologetic in our debates, but always felt responsible to be respectful. I think the most important factor in our incredible time together was that our conversations centered on policies and positions, never on people or personalities. On many topics I could not disagree with them more, but at the same time, on the whole, I could not be more excited about the relationships we formed and how they have enriched my thinking, perspective and ahavas yisroel.

Like the screen in the lobby of Knesset, the tapestry of the Jewish people is a mosaic of very diverse faces from different backgrounds and embracing incredibly different practices, lifestyles and views.  When it comes to the crucial need to work together for the good of the Jewish people, only some will show as present, while far too many will be absent.  Which will you be?