Living Outside the Camp in Israel

I have an embarrassing secret.  I love BuzzFeed.  For those that don’t know, BuzzFeed is the website that brings us amazing articles like, “17 Nail Art Designs Perfect For Earth Day,” “Are You More Like Woody Or Buzz Lightyear?” and “15 Texts You Send To Your Mom Vs. Your Best Friend.”  While mindlessly surfing the site, I came across another reason to love BuzzFeed, an article titled, “51 Facts About Israel That Will Surprise You.” The list includes:

  1. Israel has the third highest rate of entrepreneurship in the world.
  2. Out Magazine names Israel the gay capital of the Middle East.
  3. Only two countries began the 21st century with a net gain in their number of trees; Israel was one of them.
  4. Israel is the only country to revive an unspoken language and establish it as its national tongue.
  5. Israel is one of only nine countries in the world that can launch its own satellites into space.
  6. More than 44% of all lawyers registered in Israel are women.

These are just some of the many reasons that I call myself a zionist and am a proud supporter of Israel.  This past Wednesday night and Thursday, we celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day.  On this day, we all celebrate Theodore Herzl’s famous legacy, “Im tirtzu, ain zo aggadah – If you will it, it is not a dream;” an independent, democratic, Jewish state in the Land of Israel after almost 2000 years of exile.  For 67 years, Israel has grown and prospered and become the spiritual heart of Jewish life across the globe.  This is reason to celebrate.

However, there are many in Israel who still have yet to fully realize Hetzl dream.  There are many Israelis who face discrimination, persecution and hatred on a daily basis.  As a Reform rabbi, I can not legally perform weddings in Israel.  As women, Rabbi Maderer and Cantor Frankel can not read publically from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall – the holiest site in the world, for all Jews.

There are Arab Israelis, who despite being full citizens of the state, have their loyalty questioned regularly and do not receive the same funding for education and health care as their Jewish compatriots.   In Israel today, there are many who feel like outsiders, who are made to dwell, “outside the camp.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Tazria, we learn all about the gorey details of how the ancient Israelites dealt with infectious skin diseases.  Tzara’at, often translated a leprosy, but probably a different type of skin disease, required inspection from the High Priest.  If the priest found that the person did indeed have tzara’at, the contaminated person was then removed from the camp and left in isolation until the the disease subsided.  I can only imagine what it must have felt like to be a literal outcast among the Israelite camp.  To be shunned for something beyond your control.  To be excluded from ordinary life.

I wonder, how many of us have ever felt like an outsider?  Maybe your first day at a new job or a new school.  Maybe it was at services for the the first time when you didn’t know anyone and the melodies were new to you.  Maybe it was when you were hanging out at a party and everyone was talking about the latest episode of some show that you don’t watch.  Inevitably, we all feel like outsiders at some point in our lives.

Yet, Israel is supposed to be different.  Israel is a country that is meant to live up to our highest ideals as Jews.  Israel is a country founded on our moral and ethical teachings of inclusion and justice.  I hold Israel to a higher standard and believe that no one should be made to feel left out in Israeli society.  No one should be outside the camp.

Yet, this past week, the Women of the Wall, a group of Jewish women from around the world who strive to achieve the right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, had to smuggle a Torah from the men’s section of the wall unto their side in order to read publically.  Smuggling a Torah?!  This is something one would expect in Nazi Germany; not in our Jewish state.  Due to Ultra-Orthodox control of the religion in Israel, half of the population is made to feel like outsiders.

Similarly, I was appalled, like many of you, by the racist language that Prime Minister Netanyahu used last month during the elections in Israel while speaking about Arab Israeli citizens.  Netanyahu urged Jewish voters to get to the polls, warning that, “the Arabs are voting in droves” and claiming that left-wing organisations were busing in Arabs to vote.  Although, after winning the election, Netanyahu later apologized for the comments, his statements were extremely hurtful to a significant portion of Israeli citizens and clearly place the Arab minority of Israel “outside the camp.”  Arab citizens were not being bused in – they were walking and driving to their local polling stations just like everyone else.

Lastly, progressive Jews in Israel are also often made to feel like outsiders.  One example is marriage.  There are 13 official religions in Israel that have to power to conduct marriage ceremonies recognized by the state – Islam, Druze, various Christian denominations and Orthodox Judaism.  While the Orthodox represent only 20% of the population, their control of religious matters is dispropriate and places progressive Jews outside the camp.

There are many amazing organizations within Israel that are working to ensure that all citizens of Israel are welcomed into the camp.  At our recent national rabbinic conference, I was privileged to hear from two such individuals who are making a difference.  Anat Hoffman, the head of IRAC, the Israeli Religious Action Center, is constantly suing Israel on behalf of those who are outside the camp.  Hoffman told our group about a recent lawsuit where IRAC petitioned the Supreme Court on behalf of Israeli-Arab mothers who were denied Social Security payments for their hospital stay while giving birth.  IRAC discovered that Social Security had started conducting discriminatory investigations of these couples solely on the basis that they are Arab and therefore suspect.  The Social Security staff seems to initially assume that these couples may not actually live in Israel, but rather come to Israel just to benefit from Israeli health care.

The other speaker, Uri Regev, runs an organization called Hiddush, which works to promote religious freedom in Israel.   Hiddush is committed to the advancement of “freedom of religion and conscience” and “full social and political equality without distinction on the basis of religion”, as promised in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Hiddush believes that fully realizing the promise of religious freedom will strengthen Israel both as a democracy and as a Jewish state, and will bolster Jewish Peoplehood and Israel/Diaspora relationships.

I believe that Anat Hoffman and Uri Regev are true patriots and show their love of Israel through their justice work.  So what can we as American Jews do to ensure that all no citizen of Israel be left outside the camp?

The most important and time sensitive way to make a difference is through the World Zionist Congress Elections.  The World Zionist Congress (WZC) meets every five years to discuss issues of vital importance to the global Jewish community, i.e. Jewish identity, peace and security, anti-semitism, civil society in Israel, and the future of the State of Israel. Voting in the upcoming 37th WZC offers a unique opportunity for you to cast your vote to send delegates to the WZC to represent your voice.  We are encouraging our congregants to vote for the Reform movements slate, called ARZA.  ARZA has three main platforms:

WOMEN’S RIGHTS & GENDER EQUALITY We strive for an Israel in which gender equality is the rule – where men and women can pray, work and live together as equals, deserving of the same respect and honor.

RELIGIOUS EQUALITY We envision and work for a society in which all denominations are treated fairly and with respect; an Israel in which all of us are accepted as Jews, regardless of our level of observance.

TWO STATES, ONE PATH TO PEACE Lasting peace, security and stability for Israel, the Palestinians and the surrounding Middle East region is possible through a commitment to a two-state solution. Although the road may seem long, we must pursue the path to that peace every day

You can find out more information here.

Lastly, I encourage all of you to support Israel!  Sometimes in our excitement to try to fix Israel, we forget to show our love for our amazing country.  Come on – they invented cell phones, AOL Instant Messenger and a cooking oil capable of breaking up cholesterol and other blood fats. (numbers 19, 40 and 43 on the BuzzFeed list!) One concrete way to show your love and support of Israel is to join the Greater Philadelphia Jewish Community on May 12th at 4:30pm right before Jewish Heritage night at the Phillies.  We are having a Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration/tailgate in the Citizens Bank Park parking lot.

We learn in this week’s portion that a person with tzara’at, although put outside the camp, was never there permanently.  The priest would visit on regular intervals to check the skin disease, hoping to purify the afflicted person and welcome them back into the camp.  We pray, that through the newly elected World Zionist Congress and through the work of amazing advocacy groups like Women of the Wall, IRAC and Hiddush, all Israelis who have been sent outside the camp will be welcomed home.