Letter from Jerusalem: Trump, Netanyahu, and the Fight for Tolerance
Greetings from Jerusalem.
Like many of you, we here in Israel are waiting to see what signals will be sent from today’s meeting between our two leaders – President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu – later this week. Regardless of the outcome, we are not going to let growing incitement and discrimination remain the new normal in Israel.
While we wait, we at the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the legal and advocacy arm of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, will continue fighting for the rights of non-Orthodox communities in Israel, Jews-by-choice from abroad who want to make aliyah, and ultra-Orthodox women who do not want to be silenced in public. We also – as we always do – will fight discrimination against Israel’s Arab citizens and other non-Jewish minorities.
We are the living actuality of Reform Judaism’s values in Israel, combining the legal prowess of the ACLU, the public education of the ADL, and the URJ’s commitment to Reform Judaism, all wrapped together with a unique brand of Israeli chutzpah. When there are threats to Israel’s democracy, we intervene. We are a voice for all Reform Jews in Israel, and your voice – no matter where you live.
In recent years, one of the main opponents to democracy in Israel has been a group called Lehava. The name is an acronym for LeMeniat Hitbolelut B'eretz HaKodesh, meaning “Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land,” which may evoke a sense of shared mission, since we all are trying to promote a strong Jewish identity among those where we hold sway. However, do not let the name fool you. Lehava is a hate group in every sense, and its members employ tactics that are pulled from the pages of other extremists’ handbooks.
They claim to protect Jewish women from being led astray by Arab men. If that were true, it would be offensive enough, but their activities and tactics include arson, vandalism, harassment, and even assault. Every Thursday, their leader, Bentzi Gopstien, sends his small army of black-shirted youth into the streets of downtown Jerusalem to find Arabs. Their goal is to make the downtown shopping area of the city “clean” of Arabs and therefore “safe” for Jews. When they find Arab workers, they fall on them like a swarm, and the police almost always sit on their hands. Watch video testimonials from victims attacked by Lehava.
We are fighting this group in the courts, but we also are taking our struggle against this hate group to the streets. Their animus is not reserved only for Arabs, but also for Jews – including Reform Jews – whom they view as a threat. Last Wednesday night, a small group of 20 Lehava supporters, waving their yellow flags, approached our rally, which was more than 300 strong, and began shouting at us, calling us traitors, and finally began hitting people in the crowd with their large flagpoles.
Yehudit, one of our staff members, was beaten by one of them. I ran to a police officer “guarding” the rally and told him what happened, but he did nothing. In his eyes, a man beating a 24-year-old woman with a flagpole did not merit any action on his part. As we marched for tolerance with other like-minded Israeli organizations, we were met with violence, which the police answered with indifference. Through our work, we are going to hold the police accountable for not doing their jobs, and we are going to force Israelis to view the ugly face of intolerance that is growing among us. Bravely, Yehudit ended the evening on her feet; she did not let their hate deter her for even a second.
Liberal Jews in Israel and North America face many of the same challenges, and we need your partnership to prevail. In Israel, our movement might seem small, but we stand on the shoulders of 1.8 million Reform Jews around the world. We need your voice to be part of our work promoting pluralism and safeguarding our democracy. Please join us in our online advocacy endeavors.
As lovers of Zion, we are determined to ensure that Israel remains an open and democratic state, offering welcoming arms to its citizens and to Jews the world over.
Rabbi Noa Sattath
Director, Israel Religious Action Center