More than 20 Washington-area rabbis and cantors are among the 330 American rabbis pledging to block members of the Religious Zionist bloc in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government from speaking at their synagogues and will lobby to keep them from speaking in their communities.
An open letter urges those “who care deeply about the security and well-being of the democratic State of Israel” to keep out members of the Religious Zionist Party bloc from their synagogues and organizations.
“We will encourage the board of our congregations and organizations to join us in this protest as a demonstration of our commitment to our Jewish and democratic values,” the letter states.
Its signatories come from the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements. There are no Orthodox signatories.
Israeli government ministers sometimes speak at American synagogues to drum up support for their initiatives and ideas. It’s not clear if figures who are harshly critical of non-Orthodox Jews, as Religious Zionist leaders have been, would accept invitations from their synagogues even if offered.
Nevertheless, the letter’s uncompromising tone and the breadth of the signatories is a signal of a burgeoning crisis in relations between Israel and the U.S. Jewish community triggered by the elevation of the extremists, who won 14 seats in the Nov. 1 election.
Rabbi Rain Zohav of Rockville said she signed the letter because she believes that some of the members Netanyahu’s new government “are racist toward Palestinians in particular” and also members of the LGBTQ community.
“The new government includes members from the farthest right most hateful party,” Zohav said, noting that when she lived in Israel, the racist Kach political party of Rabbi Meir Kahane was made illegal. Religious Zionist leader Itamar Ben-Gvir espouses Kahane’s positions. He has been convicted of incitement over his past support of Israeli terrorist groups and inflammatory comments about Israel’s Arab population.
Bezalel Smotrich has been accused by Israeli security forces in the past of plotting violent attacks against Palestinians. And Avi Maoz, who has described himself as a “proud homophobe” has called all liberal forms of Judaism a “darkness.”
“I do feel like it’s important not to be silent,” Zohav said. “We need to make it very clear” that [Religious Zionism’s] views do not represent all Jewish people. “Judaism says that any human being is made in the image of God.”
Asked if she is holding Israel up to a higher standard than other countries, Zohav said she is also critical when the Chinese government doesn’t reflect her values.
Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church also signed the letter.
“To say that I am disheartened by the new extremist government is an understatement,” she said. “I am profoundly worried about the future of the moral grounding” of Israel.
She said she is concerned about “these extremists who will undermine everything from the demise of the state of Israel to the potential rights of the Palestinians,” members of the LGBTQ community “and me,” as a non-Orthodox Jew.
Neither Zohav nor Schwartzman believe that keeping members of the Religious Zionist Party out of their communities amounts to censoring other views or canceling controversial speakers.
“We don’t have to give a platform to hate,” Zohav said.
Schwartzman agreed. “I think to give a platform to individuals with such extreme views validates that they belong in the spectrum of the conversation.”
She said she also wouldn’t invite as a speaker someone who wants to delegitimize the LGBTQ community.
She said she’s “not interested” in inviting anyone who does not does not consider her community legitimate Jews or her a legitimate rabbi. Temple Rodef Shalom is a Reform congregation. “I don’t need that. I won’t do that,” she said.
Senior Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek did not sign the letter and questioned why the letter was circulated before the new Israeli government was even seated.
“I’m a little bit concerned about such a public criticism of the government of Israel even before the government was sworn in,” he said.
He called the letter’s criticism “a continuation of the trajectory of those who are inclined to take positions” against Israel. “My sense is whether I agree with it or not, it’s a democratically elected government by the people of Israel.”
As for the Israeli government, “I may or may not always agree.” However, he stressed, “That should not impact on my relationship” with Israel.
The letter outlines five Religious Zionist proposals that it says “will cause irreparable harm to the Israel-Jewish Diaspora relationship.” They include changing the Law of Return to keep out non-Orthodox converts and their descendants; eroding LGBTQ rights; allowing the Knesset to override Supreme Court rulings; annexing the West Bank; and expelling Arab citizens who oppose Israel’s government.
How much of that agenda will make its way into governance remains to be seen.