Play in the arena — don’t just shout from the sidelines

Play in the arena — don’t just shout from the sidelines

Max L. Kleinman

Max Kleinman of Fairfield is the CEO emeritus of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest and president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation.

I have written in my previous columns of the unbridled attacks on the newly formed Netanyahu government, even before it had a chance to govern. Calls for suspending arms sales, withholding support if it doesn’t comport with one’s viewpoint and so forth, have filled the pages of the Israeli and Anglo press.

Against this vitriolic background, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken got it right when he said that the U.S. will judge the Netanyahu government by its actions, not personalities.

I guess a rabbi, a Zionist, didn’t take Blinken’s advice. In an article in the Forward, he proclaimed that as a protest of the Israeli election results, he will not include the customary prayer for the State of Israel in his service.

In the Siddur Shalom prayer book used in many Conservative synagogues the aforementioned prayer is titled “A Prayer for the State of Israel,” not any particular government. It asks God to bless the State of Israel, “spread over it the shelter of your peace. Guide its leaders and advisors with your light and truth. Help them with your good counsel…. Bless the land with peace and its inhabitants with lasting joy.”

This is a nonpartisan prayer, wishing the largest Jewish community in the world peace and prosperity. If the rabbi dislikes its leaders, it asks for them to be guided by God’s light and truth.

What kind of message does the withdrawal of this prayer unifying the Diaspora with the only Jewish state in the world send to enemies of Israel? If such an innocuous prayer becomes toxic, then everything else is up for grabs. He is now making reciting this text controversial at a time when we need as little extra controversy as possible.

Moreover, if the rabbi, as I suspect, didn’t like President Trump’s policies, did he ever exclude the prayer for our country during his presidency? When the Obama administration did not block UN resolution 2334, which classified East Jerusalem with the Kotel as occupied territory, did he withdraw that same prayer?

There is no doubt that many of the proposals included in the coalition agreement are distasteful for many of us. Like platforms for the Democratic and Republican parties, many never see the light of day. Remember that moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem — a plank in party platforms — took more than two decades to be implemented. Those who are concerned need to get into the trenches to foster the change they seek.

While the recent letter signed by more than 300 rabbis listed many legitimate issues to address, their resolution not to invite the newly elected right-wing members of Knesset is like an elephant giving birth to a mouse. How many of them have invited such speakers in the past? I doubt many. It becomes a meaningless gesture, doing more harm than good.

One of the legitimate issues they raised was the attempt to abridge the rights of gays. It’s ironic, therefore, that the Israeli speaker of the Knesset, a gay man, was elected without a whimper, while his American counterpart needed 15 votes spread over four days.

What’s called for is earnest debate, not disengagement with these politicians who represent a significant share of the Israeli electorate. Let them learn about how the non-Orthodox represent the great majority of Diaspora Jewry, with its vibrant embrace of Judaism and love for Israel and the Jewish people.

Decades ago, on the second day of my tenure as CEO of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, I met with the Minnesota Board of Rabbis. I became a lightning rod for the State of Israel as they bitterly resented the attempt back then to alter the Law of Return to invalidate potential olim converted by non-Orthodox rabbis. After explaining that the federation was not the state but raised funds for aliyah, social services, and education in Israel, we needed to get beyond complaining and do something about this attempt to divide the Jewish people. Subsequently, in 1988, we were part of a national federation delegation to Israel, led by then San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein, a convert to Judaism. We lobbied on how divisive this amendment would be to the detriment of the State of Israel and enlisted the aid of then Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir to prevent it from happening.

Ten years later, during Israel’s jubilee year, another effort to amend this fundamental law was made.

Together with the major religious streams and federations, we collared members of the Knesset in their cafeteria, urging them to prevent this potential catastrophe. Then Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed his attorney general, Yaacov Neeman, to form a commission to address the issue. The commission arrived at the formation of a joint conversion institute, which would include Reform and Conservative rabbis and have the power to confer conversions with the backing of the State.

Moreover, any effort to amend the Law of Return was shelved.

In addition, recognizing the need to educate members of the Knesset, particularly from Likud, many of whose members were unfamiliar with Diaspora Jewish communities, federations and community relation agencies sponsored Knesset delegations to witness how U.S. Jewish communities operated and the different options offered for synagogue services. We also brought over Israeli opinion molders to help influence the Israeli political landscape.

And now, in Israel’s 75th year, we have the most right-wing government in its history. The Israeli electorate spoke, and we must respect its decision.

But rather than spewing jeremiads, excluding dialogue even with those with whom we bitterly disagree, or providing fodder for enemies of Israel, we must redouble our efforts to engage on these issues.

As Teddy Roosevelt wrote in 1910, “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood … who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of great achievement … and if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Let’s enter the arena of engagement with Israelis on the challenging issues facing Israel and the Diaspora. But please judge Israel by its actions, not personalities.

Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014. He is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation and consultant for the Jewish Community Legacy Project.

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