JFNA General Assembly

Ambassador Oren Vs. Rabbi Jacobs

Speaking at the closing plenary of the Jewish Federations’ General Assembly in Baltimore yesterday, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren gushed about “the Israel of gorgeous beaches, fabulous food, progressive gay rights, and non-stop innovation.” He followed up this rosy picture with a number of dubious statements. To name a few: “Israel is one of the healthiest and happiest societies in the world.” “Israel is the only country in the Middle East with a growing and thriving Christian population.” “Israel is one of very few countries in the world never to have known a second of non-democratic rule.”

Hearing these statements, I couldn’t help but wonder what Oren would make, for example, of the fact that one in five Israelis currently lives below the poverty line. Israel’s poverty is more widespread than that of any other OECD country—even Mexico is better off—and its income inequality is among the highest in the world. None of which sounds all that healthy and happy to me.

I wondered, too, whether Oren is unaware of the Christian monasteries and churches recently defaced by Jewish extremists in Israel. These ‘price tag’ attacks led Vatican official Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa to condemn Israelis’ contemptuous attitude toward Christians. “When you say ‘Christianity’ to Israelis they immediately think of the Holocaust and the [Spanish] Inquisition,” he told Haaretz. “People don’t know that we are here and have roots here.” He also noted that yeshiva students have a nasty habit of spitting on priests, and that MK Michael Ben-Ari tore up a New Testament in the Knesset. It seems that if Christians are “thriving” in Israel, they’re doing so despite—not because of—their Jewish neighbors.

As for the claim that Israel has never known a second of non-democratic rule—well, that’s where things get really sticky. Inside the green line, Israel’s democratic policies do tend to protect minorities—including sexual minorities, as Oren pointed out—and that is certainly something to celebrate. But in the West Bank, things look very different. There, Palestinians are systematically denied due process. They are tried by military courts that convict 99 percent of defendants and that don’t even give them access to court materials in their own language. What’s more, having charged ahead with a settlement project that is now self-sustaining, Israel is able to encroach on Palestinian-owned lands without so much as lifting a finger. Rather than actually address these non-democratic features of the occupation, Oren chose to gloss over them.

And he wasn’t alone: Though I heard the word “continuity” uttered dozens of times over the course of the GA, I heard the word “occupation” uttered exactly once. Of course, the occupation may have been discussed as such in one of the many sessions that a jam-packed schedule didn’t permit me to attend. But for a conference that claims to be the premier annual North American Jewish event, the GA sure did a good job of skirting the one issue that should have received top billing. (Maybe that’s why, when I compared notes with the young Jews who happened to sit beside me on a train leaving Baltimore, they complained that the GA was really “playing it safe.”)

Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who addressed the audience immediately after Oren, did a better job of highlighting the deficiencies in Israel’s democracy, particularly as they pertain to religious pluralism and women’s rights. “So long as Israel remains the only democracy that legally discriminates against the majority of Jews who are in the non-Orthodox streams, the Zionist dream of the in-gathering of the exiles in a Jewish state for all Jews cannot be fully realized,” he stated.

By way of example, he pointed to Anat Hoffman—she gave a wave from the front row—who was recently arrested for donning a tallit and praying at the Kotel. “Why is this holy Jewish site run like an Orthodox synagogue?” Jacobs asked. “Why can’t there be a space and time for both egalitarian prayer and more traditional forms of prayer at this holy place?” The rabbi added that Israel’s lack of religious pluralism contributes to its lack of women’s rights. “When women are subjected to discrimination at the Kotel, it feeds other forms of discrimination by the ultra-Orthodox against women on buses and in public spaces.” Like the hundreds of other candor-hungry delegates who greeted these words with a loud round of applause, I was glad that someone, at least, seemed to be paying attention.