Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Israel Trip, Day Three

Shalom from Jerusalem.

The day started on a bit of an odd note as we compared notes on the Red Alert earlier that morning. It might help to know that at least in our hotel, all of the stairwells are considered shelters so our group was not all together for the duration of the alert. My stairwell had a bunch of American kids visiting Israeli relatives, a Haredi physician from Lakewood, NJ, and Deb Finklestein, the executive director of Kol Shalom Congregation in Rockville.

I want to make clear that this note and the two from earlier this week are in no way meant to be a full report -- they are just quick highlights and impressions. It takes me a while to “process” things and if you want to know more details, come to shul this coming Shabbat.

Prof. Yehuda Bauer spoke to us over breakfast on the rise of antisemism in the world. Prof. Bauer is one of the world’s leading experts on the Shoah and antisemitism, a winner of the Israel Prize -- and 89 years old but as spry and lively as ever (I have met him a few times over the years.) His talk was sobering but also gave a note of perspective -- he said that antisemitism is not all of one piece and there is a big difference between Islamist antisemitism in Europe which is essentially anti-Western and liberal antisemitism or conversely, right-wing antisemitism. Indeed some neo-fascists in Europe are actually pro-Israel and pro-Jewish.

We went to the Supreme Court and met with Justice Hanan Meltzer -- we were supposed to meet Justice Elyakim Rubenstein but he had a family emergency and got Justice Meltzer to meet us instead. Justice Meltzer captivated us with his warmth and humor and his openness -- he shared his own feelings at the recent serious injury to his son while serving in Gaza with the IDF. He gave us a fascinating overview of the history and role of the Israeli Supreme Court and how it functions -- it’s quite different than the US Supreme Court with which we are familiar. There are fifteen justices and cases are heard by panels of anywhere from three to 11 depending on the importance of the case. Justice Meltzer is on a panel which is about to hear a case on the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions. Because of this, he could not address the subject directly but did point out that as a lawyer in private practice, he himself had represented the Conservative and Reform movements in a similar case thirty years ago.

After this we travelled to the Conservative movement center on Agron St. to hear from Natan Sharansky and Asa Kasher. Sharansky is one of the great heroes of our time, As Anatoly Scharansky, he spent almost a decade in the Gulag as punishment for seeking to leave the USSR and move to Israel. He was released in 1989, the only political prisoner ever freed early by Gorbachev, and immediately immigrated to Israel. He has served as a Member of Knesset and Cabinet Minister and today is the head of the Jewish Agency. I had never met him before and I was really impressed by his warmth, his unassuming manner and his intellect. It was truly a feeling of being in the presence of greatness.

After Sharansky we heard from Prof. Asa Kasher, one of Israel’s leading ethicists and the author of the Israel Defense Forces Code of Ethics. He explained that the Code is guided by two principles, the right and duty of self-defense and the preservation of human dignity and human life. Unfortunately our group was running somewhat behind and Prof. Kasher never really got to explain, as he said he would, how this code is applied in the case of targeted killings (like yesterday’s attempt to kill Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif, which killed his wife and toddler but may not have killed Deif himself.)

We then had lunch “on your own” on the Ben Yehuda Street pedestrian mall which had less than half as many people as one would expect this time of year. I enjoyed the best shwarma since Pita Hut in Rockville closed and did a little souvenir shopping. Then back on the bus to travel to Kehilat Ya’ar Ramot in the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem.

We were greeted by the members of the congregation who again greeted us with warmth, gratitude, and the typical Israeli spread of three times as much food and drink as the group could reasonably consume. We heard from Dr. Thabet Abu Rass, an Israeli Arab who is a professor at both Ben Gurion University in Beersheba and Sapir College which is right on the border of Gaza. He is a co-director of the Abraham Fund, an NGO founded by an American Conservative rabbi which works to enhance cooperation between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. Dr. Abu Rass presented his vision of a State of Israel which is both Jewish and democratic, with equal rights and participation by it’s Arab citizens, living in peace with a Palestinian state that accepts the legitimacy and Jewish identity of Israel.

We then heard from the Leader of the Opposition, Yaacov Herzog, who is head of the Labor Party. MK Herzog spent some of his youth in New York when his father, the late Chaim Herzog (who later became President of Israel), was the Israeli ambassador to the UN. He’s very familiar and comfortable with Conservative Judaism and as Minister of Housing in Ehud Olmert’s government found money in his budget to construct two Conservative synagogues -- the only Cabinet Minister ever to have done so. Herzog was supportive of Israel’s necessity to defend itself against Hamas and its tunnels and rockets but very critical of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s failure to do more to promote Abu Mazen as an alternative.

We were supposed to meet this afternoon with Avichai Mandelblit, the Cabinet Secretary (roughly equivalent to White House Chief of Staff) but there was an emergency Cabinet meeting this afternoon. Instead, briefings were quickly arranged for us at the Foreign Ministry. We were specifically requested not to write about these meeting and I am respecting that request but I may speak about them in general terms this coming Shabbat. I will see that I was impressed by the professionalism and skill of the high level diplomats we met as well as another generous spread of food and drink -- a rare incidence of Israeli government funding for Conservative Judaism.

Tomorrow morning we will rise early to go to the Kotel Masorti, the newly-established area for egalitarian services at the Western Wall, where we will present a Torah scroll for the use of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and other services. Later we will travel to Tel Aviv for meetings and then to the airport and back to the States. We’ve become used to last-minute radical changes to our itinerary so I won’t even bother telling you what is supposed to happen tomorrow, since what we actually do will probably be different.

It should be noted that everything we did today took place while Hamas was shooting approximately 130 rockets into Israel -- mostly in the areas nearest Gaza, a few into the Tel Aviv area and none near Jerusalem where we are. Hamas has, however, warned foreign airlines not to fly into Ben Gurion Airport after 6 o’clock Thursday morning (11 pm. Wednesday east coast time) and my decision to fly El Al is looking more and more wise. I’m scheduled to leave Israel at 1:30 a.m. Israel time on Friday which is 6:30 pm Thursday on the East Coast, and land at Newark Airport at around 6:00 a.m. Friday morning. So this is my last missive from Jerusalem and I look forward to seeing you on Shabbat.

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