Uncivil Society — In My Hometown

Can we all stop to listen and try to understand?

My husband and I were honored by the local Chabad at a fancy catering hall and I will share a story about my remarks. As Jews we are one people with wide views on Israel. Friends encouraged me to turn this experience into sharing my “different” voice.

I talked about progressive liberal Zionism 101 to an audience including Russian and Orthodox Jews. What I didn’t expect was for someone to walk out! Ok, and they booed me. Liberal Zionists are relevant and Jews that lean towards the right are getting very bold. It is okay if you don’t agree with me, but we are Americans and all views can be expected and expressed. My speech follows:

Life’s measured by the love and care of friends shown on a special day like today, I want to thank all our friends for making this day extra special, I love you all. Bob loves Union County Torah Center and I’m here and happy to be supporting him because Rabbi Block is nice man. thank you Rabbi Block for this honor.

Jewishness plays a Central part in My life. I love being Jewish. My parents taught me that its good to be Jewish, that speaking out for the rights of Jewish refuseniks to leave Russia is good and they would be so happy to see we are doing good. It doesn’t mean I pray, or practice Jewish rituals, or believe in one g-d, or follow what the Rabbis say. I enjoy Rabbi Block’s stories but I don’t usually understand them. I’m kosher style, I have a kosher kitchen, but I don’t follow all of the Halacha.

I’m a liberal, lefty, Jewish woman. I’m a Reform Jew, who belongs to a Conservative shul. A progressive Zionist Jew who believes in a Jewish homeland, a two state solution, and closing the economic and education gaps for Arab citizens. I’m committed to social justice, social change, equality and shared society. My principal activism and philanthropy advances shared society in Israel meaning a reality in which the lives of Jewish and Arab citizens and — shared public spaces — are grounded in mutual respect, trust and meaningful encounters between the two communities.

I have a problem with the Government of Israel when it leans lookokkto the right. I see occupation as a part of the problem, it’s part of the conflict and I want peace. I want to see my Israel being more progressive and sharing my liberal values. I am pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian.

I agree with Rabbi Rick Jacobs when he criticizes some of Israel’s controversial actions.. its treatment of Palestinians, expansion of settlements, criticism of the judiciary and the press and efforts to deport African migrants.

I work to make this Jewish Community a better place. I chair arts and culture in my JCC, we do a fantastic film festival, and l’m on the board of JCC, because I love the Jewish Community and I am a board member of JFS and we do a great kosher food pantry which feeds anyone hungry in the community. Bob and I will be bus captains for our shul CBI on the community mission to Israel in Oct. I am a long-time donor to Jewish Federation because they do good for Jews in Israel and around the world. I will end with this week’s Bible story that I love—the story of Moses and leadership… “when you step up.” You all step up. 

Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and they are losing faith in G-d and Moses. They complain bitterly about the hardships of their travels and the food they miss. And Moses despairs. He cannot understand why they are not thinking about their freedom from bondage. Moses reaches a very low point.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes that Moses believed he was a failure and reminds us to remember this when we think we have failed. He cites Moses’ journey from despair to what he calls self-effacing strength to be one of the great psychological narratives of the Torah.

Those of us in Jewish Federation know how little we would accomplish in Israel and for world Jewry without the help of strong people around us, who support us in working to build a strong and vibrant Jewish community. Uctc is building this Jewish Community locally right in my town. And part of that goal is to provide for those in our communities who need our help. Uctc does this by education, outreach and bringing us in to help them achieve this goal.

Again thank you for your support tonight. I love you all. I want to end as I began by thanking all of my friends for making Bob so happy tonight.

Is this offensive? Did I go to far? Do you believe that someone got up and walked out? It’s a story on how polarized right-wing leaning people can’t sit and hear someone (being honored) saying something on Israel that they don’t like. A few engaged me after… and here’s what they said:

Great speech. Proud to know you and the work you are doing. Not many people are willing to expend the energy on these wonderful projects.

This is an amazing and inspiring speech. I was so moved by what you wrote. I love the fact that you can live with all of the various identities and seeming contradictions. the problem is not you. The problem is that we live here in Israel in such a divided society and this carries over into the AMerican Jewish community. I think you were incredibly brave to say what you did. I especially love your ending with a story from Moses and leadership. We can all learn from this example. I especially believe that we can all learn from your example as a person who is unafraid, in what ever the setting is, to say what she believes in, and identify herself in an open and unequivocal manner.

I am so proud of you. I am of course also glad that you were given this opportunity because of Bob’s contribution to the Torah Center. In my mind, both of you are “Torah true” Jews.

I don’t agree with anything you said. So my response…this is America and we can all say what we think.

When I was telling someone afterwards they wondered – what made them boo — was it the fact you’re not Orthodox? Or your stand about the Palestinians? Or both? It is sad and worrisome that we lost the abilities and openness to hear the other…

In one hand I am impressed that they invite me to talk about Progressive Zionism but on the other I am shocked about the behavior of some… there were plenty of people who were supportive of my words.

To me being booed was an amazing moment, but some asked me if it was a really difficult one. We have to find a way to speak to these people. We can’t give up on them. Deep down I believe that we all share the same values. Maybe we prioritize our values differently. I will do another piece (a part 2) just to explore more.

It is easy to say nothing, but if you don’t fight intolerance it will win out… ever hear this? We shouldn’t tolerate intolerance. We should nip it in the bud, set clear boundaries. If we tolerate intolerance it spreads. Racism, sexism, prejudices of all sorts, judgmentalism, negativity, bigotry, factions squaring off and fighting: right vs. left, this fundamentalism vs. that. An eye for an eye just leaves the whole world blind.

To bring about greater harmony we must all be tolerant. No exceptions. Loving, listening, caring for each other, respecting each other’s opinions whatever they may be.

About the Author
Phyllis Bernstein, lives in Westfield NJ, co-chairs economic development for Social Venture Fund for Jewish Arab Equality and Shared Society. She is an artist and active in Israeli Arab issues.
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