Dont abandon Israel, S.F. consul urges Reform rabbis

MONTEREY – Yossi Amrani was traveling on the bus from Jerusalem to Haifa earlier this month when he was struck by what he saw a few seats away: a female officer in the Air Force, reading a novel in Russian, while snacking on watermelon seeds.

It used to be, the Consul General of Israel in San Francisco said, that the only Israelis capable of cracking open watermelon seeds were Sephardi Jews. That the Russian immigrant was doing it "says to me that they have really made it to the mainstream."

Much attention was focused on Russian immigrants after the bombing outside the predominantly Russian disco in Tel Aviv a few weeks ago, he said, but he told this story to illustrate how fully integrated into Israeli society they have become.

At the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Amrani recalled several anecdotes like this from his recent trip to Israel. The session has drawn some 550 Reform rabbis, mostly American along with some Israelis, to Monterey.

The talk by the consul general came just a few weeks after the Reform movement received heavy criticism for canceling its summer teen trips to the Jewish state because of the current violence.

That life was going on there as normal — Amrani recalled people sitting in Haifa cafes drinking coffee and eating cake — was the main theme of his talk. "It's not that they don't know what's going on; they do," he said.

He spoke of Israelis patiently waiting — delayed on the roads while police inspected a suspicious object — in a country where patience isn't a national trait. "But they are going on with their lives because there is no other alternative."

During his visit to Israel, Amrani sat in on a conversation with a group of five 23-year-old friends of a relative, and listened as they talked about their futures: women, careers, friends, etc. "None spoke about the situation," he said. "This is normalcy. Maybe it's one we'd like to change, but it is still normalcy."

The consul general relayed these impressions to underscore the resilience of the Israeli people and to say that the media focus on the conflict at the expense of normal life. He also used the opportunity to suggest that the decision of whether to send children to Israel should have been left up to parents.

Speaking the day after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon addressed an American Jewish audience in New York, Amrani relied upon the same theme: unity. "We should feel and understand that we are one," he said.

Amrani was in Israel when the Reform movement announced its decision to cancel the trips and, "The voice I heard in the public debates was, 'We're on our own.'"

Asking the rabbis to take the message back to their congregations, he said, "You need to convey a message to your communities here and in Israel that Jews stand with Israel. Our future will not be determined by force or by might but by the strength of our spirit. We need your assistance."

Calling for heightened dialogue between Israeli and diaspora Jewry, Amrani said, "It shouldn't be a one-way road."

The consul general also used the podium to speak about how he thinks Sharon has been demonized by the press and the rest of the world.

The prime minister's background "is not irrelevant, but he is the democratically elected prime minister of Israel," he said, "and the legitimate leader."

Additionally, Sharon's Arab counterparts had no better records. "The Palestinian agenda is delegitimizing Israel and winning public opinion."

While Amrani took Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to task for many things, he said, "Arafat is our partner because he's the choice of the Palestinian people." He called on Arafat to cooperate by confiscating weapons and stopping the violence.

"Some say there should be an immediate end to the building of the settlements, as if they're the reason for the conflict. Can they be used as an excuse to kill innocent people?" he asked.

After Amrani ended with his call for unity, Rabbi Charles Kroloff of Westfield, N.J., the outgoing president of the CCAR, responded that the decision to cancel this summer's trips was not a reflection of the movement's commitment to Israel.

Noting that the Reform movement had sent more teens to Israel than any other group, he said the commitment remained strong as demonstrated by the students studying at the Hebrew Union College campus in Jerusalem. "There is a partnership," he said.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."