Part IV: JSpace – Defending Israel and J’Accuse

In the morning of the first full day of the JSpace biennial conference this past weekend, we heard an opening address by Galit Baram, the Israeli Consul-General in Toronto, Bob Rae, former Premier of Ontario and interim head of the Liberal Party; both offered qualitative talks. Bob Brym, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto and Rabbi Uri Regev, an advocate of religious liberty in Israel and CEO of an educational-advocacy group, Hiddush, gave very different quantitative talks on stats in Canada and in Israel respectively. Qualitative talks from an Israeli and a Canadian and quantitative talks from another Israeli and another Canadian – this is called balanced programming. Especially when it was complemented by a video address from Dr. Hussein Ibish who had to cancel at the last moment because of a health problem in his family. Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington as well as a weekly columnist for Bloomberg and The National.

Galit Baram, as a highly regarded and experienced Israeli diplomat with a Master’s Degree in American Studies, is well known to Canadians and also well known for her ardent opposition to the BDS movement and would never attend a JSpace meeting if it directly or indirectly supported BDS. Her talk, however, addressed the regional and international context in which Israel currently finds itself. Iran came up first for obvious reasons. The current Iranian regime is committed to Israel’s destruction and purgation from the Middle East. But Iran is also a threat to Arab regimes in the Middle East and a prime sponsor of terrorism, creating a congruence of interests between those regimes and Israel As she zoomed from a quick summary of the status of the peace agreements between Israel and both Egypt and Jordan into the more proximate situation of the Palestinian-Israeli situation and, more specifically, the negotiations based on land for peace, she did not pronounce those negotiations as brain dead as I did.

However, she might as well have. For there continues to be a sustained program of demonizing Israel and assault on Israel’s human rights record when, compared to any country in the region. Israel stands head over heels higher than any other country in the region on human rights issues, LGPTQ most specifically. There is, in reality, no country in the Middle East that comes close to Israel’s record for defending and upholding human rights. Though mouthed by an Israeli diplomat, no reasonably objective observer could argue with her on this topic. At the same time, Israel faces missiles from Gaza, stabbing and ramming attacks to create a context in which Israelis are not only reluctant to offer further concessions even as they see light at the end of the tunnel, not through the political process, but through civil society cooperation in such areas as sports, education and culture.

Baram also addressed the issue of equality for Palestinian-Israeli citizens or Arab Israelis and was optimistic given the increasing numbers of Palestinian doctors and lawyers and the recent requests for cooperation with the Israeli police to stamp out violence in Arab villages and towns. Given the record tourism to Israel, the stellar performance of the hi-tech sector and the open arena for debate and discussion in Israel, she painted an optimistic picture of Israel in spite of her initial remarks about the dangers from Iran. What I found interesting was her omission of any discussion of Israeli-American relations, of the embassy issue or of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.

Bob Rae directly addressed the issue of progressivism related to liberalism, both concerned with the disempowered and alienated in society. More specifically, he zeroed in on a liberal definition of democracy in terms of minority rights rather than majoritarian rule, in terms of upholding the rule of law as distinct from arousing populist passions. In that context, he complemented Baram’s position on the international efforts to demonize Israel unjustly. Rae specifically cited two widespread myths about Israel, first that its problems were insoluble and everlasting and, second, that Israel could survive and thrive without some adult supervision of the region, increasingly absent with the retreat of Trump’s America from that role in the Middle East. As was the case for Baram, Rae saw a sphere of agreement open between the Israelis and the Palestinians and believed that the conflict could be managed though not resolved. But that required consequentialist calculations rather than the impulsive “thinking” and reactions of populists like Donald Trump.

Ibish made the point that Israel was no different than any other state in the region for those states were all multi-cultural and multi-ethnic with different internal mixtures and internal conflicts. Politics required the creation of a context in which all these various peoples could live together in peace. The position that there was no answer to the Palestinian-Israel conflict would mean that there are no answers to similar conflicts in the rest of the Middle East and around the world. At the same time, a growing belief among Israelis that they could now ignore the Palestinian issue now that the situation had become relatively quiescent had to be debunked. For as long as Palestinians lacked citizenship in a state, Israel would never be able to settle into a regular status in the Middle East.

On the other hand, Ibish declared the traditional, not any, two-state solution as dead. It was no longer available. Yet there was no other solution but a two-state one that recognized self-determination for both peoples. As he envisaged it, not only for Israel but for Iraq and Syria, the vision of a uniform powerful state based on the exclusive predominance of one ethnic group was also dead and Middle Eastern countries would have to envision more decentralized forms of government. That decentralization would have to be radical. Though he could not specify its character in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or define a process for reaching it, he envisaged a peace process in which Palestinians and Jewish Israelis would each have their own state, but there would be joint governance at a higher political level than that of each of the two states for reconciling the needs and interests of both parties.

Bob Brym shifted the focus to Canada and attacked some very different myths based on his 2018 survey of Canadian Jews (2018 Survey of Jews in Canada  

https://www.environicsinstitute.org/docs/default-source/project-documents/2018-survey-of-jews-in-canada/2018-survey-of-jews-in-canada—final-report.pdf?sfvrsn=2994ef6_2 Robert Brym, Keith Neuman and Rhonda Lenton) The survey was a joint enterprise of Environics Institute for Survey Research, the University of Toronto and York University.

Brym said that the survey addressed issues of identity, values, opinions and experiences of Jews in Canada. He unequivocally claimed that, contrary to a great deal of popular belief, Canadian Jews were not more conservative than their American counterparts in their approach to Israel. Though he noted in his report that these questions received the least attention in Canada by scholars compared the extensive studies in the USA and UK, this survey was an effort to remedy that situation. One result: the destruction of a number of myths about Canadian Jews. For example, contrary to widespread belief, Canadian Jews are not more conservative than those in the U.S. As an illustration, a similar majority of Canadian Jews were critical of Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank. The comparisons were made easier because the Canadian survey closely followed one by the 2013 Pew Survey of American Jews.

As one radical shift – while once Canadian Jewish practice of religion almost exclusively defined a Jewish identity, this was no longer the case as only one in three Canadian Jews consider religion as central to their identity. Only 6 in 10 believe even in God or a universal spirit. Jewish identity is now about culture and ethnicity as well as religion. Surprisingly, these ratios are more or less consistent across generations.

However, Canadian Jews do differ from American Jews in a number of respects. The community is more cohesive. Intermarriage is far more common in the U.S. The ability to read and/or speak Hebrew is more widespread in Canada as is visiting Israel. However, the Vancouver Jewish community more closely resembles the characteristics of the Jewish community in the USA. These are important differences given that the Jewish community in Canada is approaching or is already the second largest diaspora community in the world.

An interest in Israel occupies only a central rung in the ladder of concerns for Canadian Jews. The top rungs include leading a moral and ethical life, remembering the Holocaust and celebrating Jewish holidays. Only 4 in 10 believe that caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish. However, “almost half (48%) of Jews in Canada say they are very emotionally attached to Israel.” Three in ten are somewhat attached, the same figure for Americans, But only 3 in 10 Americans are very attached.

More importantly, on this issue, there is a distinct difference according to age – younger Canadian Jews are less likely to consider that caring about Israel is an essential feature of their Jewish identity. However, on an even lower rung is Jewish observance and attending synagogue, but in America, Jews are half as likely to belong to a synagogue compared to Canadians. Only half of American Jews, compared to 80% in Canada, make financial contributions to a Jewish organization.

Brym in his talk concentrated on the link between Canadian Jewish identity and attitudes towards Israel. As he wrote in his report, “Canadian Jews have a strong connection to Israel.” A large majority express an emotional attachment and have spent time in the country. Eight in ten have visited Israel at least once and four in ten have been there at least three times. Of these, one in five (20%) report having lived in Israel for six months or more, so 16% of all adult Jews have lived in Israel for at least a half year. Travel to Israel is most prevalent among Jews who are Orthodox/Modern Orthodox, but the attachment is common across the population, especially among Jews under 45 years of age and those with a post-graduate degree.

However, deep political divisions exist among Canadian Jews over Israel. Only a plurality, not a majority, endorse the Canadian government support for Israel. But it is not clear whether this failure of support was because the government was not critical enough about Israeli government actions or too critical. The young and more liberal-minded (Reform, Reconstructionist) are more critical of the settlements, but only a minority regard settlements as illegal. Liberal Jews place greater blame on the Israeli government for failing to negotiate with the Palestinians. That is also an indicator of a breach with the differences among Israeli Jews. For they are less likely to see the settlements as the barrier to a peace agreement.

The bottom line for Brym is that progressives could envision a great deal of room for growth among younger and more liberally-minded religious Jews. Further, Jewish youth were not more alienated, but wanted a greater connection with their identity, though 3 in 10 do not give voice to their criticisms. One area of criticism is Israel’s absence of freedom of religion.

The declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel
passed on 14 May 1948 declared that the state “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion (my italics), conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Israel fails to meet this standard and, in effect, earns a grade of 0 in the realm of freedom of religion, particularly in the discrimination against Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and other liberal Jewish streams. It especially discriminates against secular Jews.

To be recognized by the state currently, all marriage ceremonies must be conducted by religious authorities of state-recognized religious communities to which both members of the couple belong. Jewish Israelis can only legally marry through the Chief Rabbinate, while the religious authorities for the Christian, Druze and Muslim populations regulate the rites of marriage and divorce in their respective communities. Israel does not have a legal framework for civil marriage or divorce, same-sex unions, marriage between two individuals who belong to different religions or for marriage when either of the two partners is registered as “having no religion.” Israel lacks marriage freedom because of the extortion of the Jewish Orthodox.

Rabbi Uri Regev, as an advocate of religious liberty and religious pluralism, as a lawyer who, among his Supreme Court victories, got the Supreme Court to recognize Conservative and Reform conversions performed abroad, roots his campaigns for religious liberty on the above Declaration as well as on the following statistics, most taken from the 2019 Israel Religion & State Index and post-election survey and an earlier 2016 survey:

·       84% Adult Israeli Jews support religious freedom and equality of civic burden;
·       74% oppose government’s activities in religion-state;
·       63% want a civil coalition, which does not depend on the ultra-Orthodox parties and advances religious freedom and equality;
·       64% support equal status for the non-Orthodox Jewish streams and Diaspora Jewish engagement in advancing religious freedom and equality in Israel;
·       78% of Jewish Israelis want businesses open on Shabbat;
·       72% of Jewish Israelis (95% secular Jews and 67% traditional Jews) and 76% of Arab Israelis support the statement that “every resident [of Israel] has the right to get married in Israel with whomever he chooses, in whatever way he chooses, and according to his beliefs;”
·       only 43% of the Arab-Israeli public support allowing civil marriage and divorce in Israel;
·       if the State of Israel were to institute civil marriage along with religious marriage, 31% of Jewish respondents would prefer to be married in civil marriage ceremonies and 60% would prefer to be married in religious marriage ceremonies;
·       50 % of the Jewish sector and 57% of the Arab sector oppose marriages between Jews and Arabs;
·       84% Adult Israeli Jews support religious freedom and equality of civic burden;
·       74% oppose government’s activities in religion-state;
·       63% want a civil coalition, which does not depend on the ultra-Orthodox parties and advances religious freedom and equality;
·       64% support equal status for the non-Orthodox Jewish streams and Diaspora Jewish engagement in advancing religious freedom and equality in Israel;
·       78% of Jewish Israelis want businesses open on Shabbat;
·       72% of Jewish Israelis (95% secular Jews and 67% traditional Jews) and 76% of Arab Israelis support the statement that “every resident [of Israel] has the right to get married in Israel with whomever he chooses, in whatever way he chooses, and according to his beliefs;”
·       only 43% of the Arab-Israeli public support allowing civil marriage and divorce in Israel;
·       if the State of Israel were to institute civil marriage along with religious marriage, 31% of Jewish respondents would prefer to be married in civil marriage ceremonies and 60% would prefer to be married in religious marriage ceremonies;
·       50 % of the Jewish sector and 57% of the Arab sector oppose marriages between Jews and Arabs;
  • only 14% of Jews and 16% of Arabs would support such marriages if one of the partners converted;
  • 72% of ultra-Orthodox and 62% of Orthodox view Arab citizens as a danger to the state;
  • while 58% of secular and liberal Jews oppose the expulsions of Arab citizens, a majority of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox support expulsion.

Not only is there no freedom of religion in Israel, but the intolerance of others extends to the political arena and the equal status of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens.

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