On Sunday, December 11 Alan Dershowitz appeared on Israeli television and called upon those critical of Israeli government policy and violations of human rights to “cool it.” Dershowitz was probably worried that even legitimate criticism of Israel feeds the global delegitimization campaign against her. I have written about that campaign in a substantial article in The CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly (Fall, 2011) and posted a link to the article both on this blog and on my synagogue’s web-site www.tioh.org.

Is Dershowitz right? I don’t believe he is. Since Jew-haters don’t need a reason for their anti-Semitism, our behavior should not be based on what they or anyone else thinks.  Ben-Gurion emphasized this point when he remarked that “It’s not what the Gentiles say that matters but what the Jews do that counts.”

As a progressive Reform Zionist it is my belief that in order for Israel to be a secure and great Jewish society reflecting authentic Jewish values there can be no dichotomy between Judaism’s prophetic and rabbinic strains of universalism and particularism. Jewish nationalism must emphasize the importance of each strain and envision our people’s national independence as a means of serving humanity as a whole; that is, to be “a light to the nations.” (Isaiah 42:6) Progressive Reform Zionism requires that social justice, egalitarianism, and equality be applied to all the major issues confronting Israeli society including Palestinian rights, minority rights, immigrant worker rights, women’s rights, poverty, education, and justice. The fundamental Jewish affirmation that every human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, means that each person, regardless of background, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and national identity is of infinite worth and value.

Like every great western democratic society, Israel is imperfect. Based on the above principles we Jews we can never settle for what is. Rather, it is our obligation to insist that our great Jewish society in Israel and Diaspora must live up to the highest standards of ethics and justice as articulated by the Biblical prophets and our rabbinic sages.

One of the leading advocacy organizations fighting on behalf of women, Bedouin, Palestinians, Muslims, foreign workers, and religious pluralism is the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC). It was created based on the above principles twenty years ago and has been a champion of human rights and civil rights ever since. The IRAC is joined by other critically important NGOs including The New Israel Fund, Rabbis for Human Rights, B’tzelem, and Hiddush.

Anat Hoffman is the IRAC’s Executive Director and one of my personal heroines. She spoke this past week at the Biennial Convention of the Reform Movement’s Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) in Washington, D.C. attended by more than 6000 Reform Jews from around North America, England, Europe, Latin America, South Africa, Australia, the former Soviet Union, and Israel. I am proud of the work Anat, the IRAC and Israel’s Reform movement are doing. Here is but a small sampling of their activity:

  1. In response to gender-segregation generally, but specifically imposed on certain Israeli bus routes by ultra-Orthodox Hareidi rabbis (in violation of Israel’s 1992 “Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty”), the IRAC has taken groups of Israelis and American Jews to those bus routes, loaded the busses, women entering the front door of the bus and sitting where ever they pleased thus defying the Hareidi ban much as Rosa Parks did in the American south when she sparked the civil rights movement. While actively integrating those bus routes IRAC won a case in 2011 in which the Supreme Court ruled gender segregation on public buses illegal, a huge victory in IRAC’s goal to identify and end all forms of gender segregation in the public sphere in Israel, at the Western Wall and Western Wall tunnels, in funeral halls and cemeteries, in banquet hall elevators, grocery stores, and even pizza parlors;
  2. In response to the presence of large numbers of Sudanese refugees who escaped Sudan and entered Israel across the Sinai desert and therefore have no rights in Israel, while the Israeli government wrestles with the issue of immigration generally, the IRAC and the Reform movement’s Rabbinic seminary, the Hebrew Union College, set up a child-care center for the children of these immigrants in the HUC building next to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem;
  3. Jerusalem’s Reform Congregation Kol Haneshamah created an anti-tag corps to spray paint over the vicious anti-Arab graffiti painted by extremist Jewish groups throughout the holy city. Such graffiti includes “Death to all Arabs!”
  4. Reform Israeli Jews, organized by IRAC, held solidarity candle light vigils at fire-bombed mosques (now 9) and contributed new copies of the Koran to replace those burned by right-wing vigilante Jews;
  5. The IRAC is now pressing the government to charge 49 Hareidi Rabbis for extreme hate speech and racism. Of the 49 so identified by human rights groups, only 18 have been officially investigated by Israeli authorities. Of those 18 only 5 were charged with racist incitement. 4 of the 5 “apologized” and were released. One refused to apologize and was sentenced to 140 hours of community service in his own yeshivah;
  6. IRAC initiated a case to file charges against Shmuel Eliyahu, Chief Rabbi of Sfat, for racist incitement, effectively ending his bid for Chief Rabbi of Israel and bringing awareness to and legal action against religious-motivated racism from rabbis receiving state salaries;
  7. During Pesach every year, Reform Jews go searching for homeless Israelis in parks and invite them to community Seders and assist them to survive poverty.

These seven examples are the tip of the iceberg of what is happening daily in the State of Israel and in the West Bank. Alan Dershowitz’s advice to “cool it” to those who would criticize bad behavior cannot guide us in our fear of anti-Israel delegitimization and anti-Semitism. Rather, we need to heed Ben Gurion’s reminder that “it’s not what the Gentiles say that matters but what the Jews do that counts.” Israel’s human rights groups sustain not only Judaism’s values but also Israel’s good name.