Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Can We Be Only for Ourselves?

A very happy New Year to you! May it be a year of health, happiness, and peace!

Much controversy has erupted over the recent resolution passed at the recent biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) regarding support for programs intended to raise the standard of living of Israeli Arabs.

In reality, the Reform movement’s action is not new nor is it unprecedented.

Over the past six to eight years, the URJ, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the United Jewish Communities, and, in fact, over 80 other American Jewish organizations, have addressed ways to fill the social and educational gaps between Jewish and non-Jewish communities in Israel. (see below my commentary on the controversy)

These organizations and others have begun to address the ideals stated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. That document asserts that there would be “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel” and that there should be “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…”

Today the social gaps in Israel are glaring, and most poignantly among the Israeli Arab citizens who make up 20% of Israel’s population. A 2008 report by the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel, 50% of Israeli Arabs (and 65.7% of Arab children) live below the poverty line, compared to 15.7% among Jews (and to 31.4% for Jewish children). Other social indicators reveal similar gaps in health care, education, welfare funding, life expectancy, and employment.

Raising all Israelis’ social and educational standards would help to strengthen Israel’s society. Offering and providing assistance in appropriate ways would fortify relationships and increase the level of coexistence that the Zionist founders of Israel sought in their time.

Much of this advocacy work is being conducted by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli-Arab Issues. I invite you to learn more about this organization that aspires to “make civic equality in Israel a priority for the Jewish people” (from its mission statement).

This is truly an embodiment of the value of Hillel, to concern ourselves about the lives of others as well as our own.


I can only imagine that some donors to these and the other organizations that make up the Inter-Agency Task Force are unhappy with the decision, made eight years ago, to act on this issue. Following the passing of the URJ resolution, the presidents of the Zionist Organization of America and the national Young Israel movement condemned the resolution.

The comments of the Young Israel leader were particularly hurtful, stating that 'Jewish priorities' would dictate serving and supporting Jews and NOT non-Jews.

I think this is a misreading of tradition, which teaches us to help others in addition to ourselves, and at least 37 times in the Torah to help the stranger because 'you were strangers in the land of Egypt.'

I am, as always, interested in hearing your views. Please sign in and share your thoughts.

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