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Politics, conversion, Gaza: Rabbis’ Israel trip is inside scoop

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon of Temple Emanu-El in front of the Knesset, where 30 American rabbis were briefed during a ‘Rabbis Engaging with Israel’ mission last month

It’s not unusual for rabbis to frequently visit Israel, but last month Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon of Temple Emanu-El enjoyed the rare opportunity of traveling to the Holy Land as part of a select group from around the United States and Canada that included 10 Reform, 10 Conservative and 10 Orthodox rabbis.

The “Rabbis Engaging with Israel” trip was sponsored by the World Zionist Organization and the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Cohon gained insight into Israeli policy, attending high-level meetings with Israeli officials during the whirlwind visit from May 15 to 19. Interacting with rabbis from different backgrounds was another intriguing part of the experience. “The rabbis had political differences that were predictable,” says Cohon. “Some were more politically to the right, were pessimistic about peace issues, and not as adamant about civil rights issues in Israel.” The Orthodox rabbis were primarily modern Orthodox, not haredim, he says, pointing out that the women rabbis performed fully at egalitarian services.

Staunch support for Israel predominated among all the rabbis. Watching a Reform woman rabbi and an Orthodox rabbi play ping pong reminded Cohon of the rabbis’ underlying similarities, he says, but disagreements emerged on some “hot-button issues.”

During a provocative session with three members of the Knesset, David Rotem, a member of Yisrael Beiteinu, the party of controversial Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman, told the American rabbis, “You’re not really the same religion as I am,” displaying his dismissive attitude toward all non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, and really all non-Israeli Jews, says Cohon.

It was Rotem who “proposed the conversion bill that created a fire-storm in the Jewish world in the last Knesset,” he adds. Rotem attacked the Clinton wedding as an example of his disdain, with Cohon noting that none of the rabbis in the room would have married Chelsea Clinton and her Jewish husband on a Saturday afternoon.

The conversion bill, which was supposedly designed to deal with the huge problem of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have no Jewish status, is coming back, says Cohon. “Russian Jews aren’t being converted. No conversions outside of Israel are valid, only government-condoned conversions by city rabbis are valid. And they’re appointed by the Chief Rabbinate.” The conversion policy, asserts Cohon, “totally disenfranchises all liberal Jews.”

The Orthodox rabbis were really quiet during the conversion exchange but some later told the group what a huge issue conversion is in some of their own communities in the United States, says Cohon. “Some of them may be on the acceptance list of the Chief Rabbinate themselves. Others may disagree with the more liberal rabbis but were respectful,” says Cohon. “The Orthodox world is not monolithic.”

That discussion and other intense policy briefings “really armored me in a way. I understand issues better” with more inside information, he says. For example, the day the Arabs commemorated the nakba, or catastrophe, of Israel’s founding, the Syrians were trying to “create a diversion by rushing the border,” says Cohon, a distraction from the violence Syria is perpetrating on its own people. “The Syrian resistance told us that the government paid $1,000 for participating [in rushing the border] and $10,000 if someone was killed.”

An intelligence expert told the rabbinical group that U.S. and Israeli “military and intelligence communities are working more closely together. According to this guy,” says Cohon, “in some areas the Obama administration is working more closely with Israel than during the Bush administration.”

The high-level trip afforded Cohon “access to stuff I wouldn’t imagine I’d ever know. Why did they do this for us? It must have cost around $80,000,” he told the AJP. “It’s about mitug, which means rebranding. Rather than let her enemies brand her it has become essential for Israel to seek to rebrand herself.” Also, the Israeli government and the World Zionist Organization were supposedly troubled by a survey in which they learned that American seminary students are not as pro-Israel as in the past.

With another upcoming flotilla that will attempt to bring supplies to Gaza; a possible vote on a Palestinian state at the United Nations in the fall; and the support of divestment, blockades and sanctions against Israel, “we must follow the money, as Deep Throat said during Watergate,” says Cohon. “The money is coming from states or entities that are against the existence of Israel. They’re trying to South Africanize, or delegitimize, Israel.”

In addition, he wrote in reports home to Temple congregants, “Israel is now the Jew among nations, the focus of a new type of anti-Semitism.”

Meanwhile, Cohon intends to further his own solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: two Palestinian states. “There will be a state of Palestine. It won’t be the exact 1967 borders but will include the West Bank and parts of East Jerusalem. And Hamasland — a criminal state — in Gaza,” says Cohon. “If they keep shooting missiles into Israel legal action should be taken against them. That’s my solution.

“But there’s more to it,” he adds. Cohon will be offering a three-part class to discuss his strategy on Thursdays, July 14, 21 and 28 at 7 p.m. at Temple Emanu-El. For more information, call 327-4501.