On May 1, 2003 President George W. Bush stood on an American aircraft carrier and pronounced "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq. He was so wrong. And at a JFNA Executive Committee meeting the week of July 25, self-congratulatory verbal pats on the back were exchanged between Jerry Silverman, the Board Chair and some members of the Executive over the postponement of a vote on the infamous Conversion Bill in the Knesset for 6 months -- as if delay were victory. In fact, the Forward headlined on its front page: As Conversion Bill Stalls in Knesset, Jewish Diaspora Leaders Can Claim Victory. They were so wrong.
First, let me make it clear. Jerry Silverman's efforts in Jerusalem in the 10 days prior to the settlement arrived at between the Reform and Conservative Movements and the Government that led to the 6 month postponement were truly Herculean. He deserves our congratulations for delivering our message to Knesset members with whom he met and in explaining the impact on Jewish unity and American Jewish support that the proposed legislation would have to the Israeli media. At the end of the day, it was Silverman alone -- the JFNA Board Chair was allegedly ready to fly to Israel, but with the settlement in the offing, Jerry kept this "bullet" (as he described her) in the chamber.
But, let's also be clear on another point -- postponement is not a "victory;" postponement cannot be relied upon. Any reader of the Jewish media understands that Natan Sharansky, whose leadership on this issue and whose passion in pursuing justice here is heroic, is not crowing about "victories." He understands as others do not. And much is happening. As we pat ourselves on the back, the Orthodox Rabbinate in Israel is busy establishing facts on the ground that threaten American Jewry and our relation to Israel as much if not more than the legislation itself.
But, as well, the Rabbinical Council of America, followers of the teachings of Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik, z'l, announced its support of the Conversion legislation. These "Modern Orthodox" Rabbis, many of whom lead educational institutions supported with our communal funds, and objecting to a lack of consultation by JFNA with them, may be suggesting by their opposition to the will of the super-majority of American Jews, that there is not a solid front here in North America. To date I have neither seen nor read of any attempt by JFNA or federation leaders to intervene with these Rabbis and to persuade them, if possible, that their support for this legislation threatens our communal relationships with Israel.
David Harris, the long-time CEO of the American Jewish Committee, gave testimony in a Jerusalem Post op-ed to the interrogation he received about "being Jewish" when he was to be married in Israel years ago. Women, whose access to the Western Wall was already threatened by "religious authorities," see one of their sisters jailed for holding a Torah. And, in an article on July 30, a 29 year old American oleh, Hillary Rubin, was forced to prove, as with so many before her dating back to the founding of the State, to the subjective satisfaction of rabbinic body, her Jewish maternal lineage going back four generations in order to obtain her wedding license. And, the apparent escalating pressure of the Israeli Orthodox Rabbinate smacks of a religious fundamentalism that has the affect of creating barriers between the Diaspora and Israel at a time that we need each other more than ever. And let's be perfectly clear, when Hillary Rubin's or David Harris's Jewish "legitimacy" is challenged, so is mine, so is my wife's, so is my daughter's and my sons', so is the Jewish "legitimacy" of my grandchildren...and so it is with yours.
No, this isn't the time to claim some virtual "victory" at JFNA meetings and to the press. It's time to escalate our work, our advocacy, our presence to build bridges by bringing Diaspora Jewish leaders to Israel in meetings with Knesset members and to underscore our support for the Prime Minister on this matter; to express, as the Forward did in its editorial on the subject: "Israel has a strategic imperative to behave as a modern, pluralistic state if it is to maintain the high ground in the ongoing global struggle against religious fanaticism." The inestimable value of Jerry Silverman's work is found in the coalitions he began to build with religious movements here and in Israel, and with his new-found access to Israeli politicians. Now, he has to build on that which he has started. I don't believe that Jerry misunderstands -- there is so much work ahead; he cannot do it alone.
We all have critical work to do, my friends.