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Religious Freedom in Israel Needs Not to be Overlooked

Like many young Jews around the world who have traveled to Israel through Birthright, I was deeply moved by the experience. During Birthright, not only was I mesmerized by the breathtaking views of Jerusalem and the rich history of Jewish life in the Holy Land, but I had the opportunity to connect with my roots in a way that I never knew was possible. It was a blessing to have gone and it was life-changing, to say the least. Moreover, learning about the ongoing conflict between Israel and its neighbors was very troubling. After personally doing research into both sides of the conflict, I formed an opinion that both sides must take responsibility for the inability to coexist peacefully.  Nonetheless, I believe Israel’s existence is legitimate and it should have the right to defend its people and borders. With that said, “the conflict” is often the focus of people’s discussions about Israel, but the country’s internal politics are equally important and have major repercussions for the Jewish community worldwide. Religious freedom in Israel is an issue that groups like Birthright need to address with their participants. It needs to be a central message because it involves what we want to teach people about the land we all care so passionately about, and the image we wish to portray.  Not only is this issue a problem for the majority of Israelis, but it overshadows the great progress and contributions Israel has made.

When I came back to the States after I had extended my trip for an additional two months in Israel, there was nothing I wanted more than to tell people how beautiful and great the country was. I wanted to address the misconceptions about Judaism.  To add strength to my argument, I wanted to make clear that Israel is also pivotal to the advancement of democratic values not only in the Middle East, but around the world. Israel’s Declaration of Independence reads that the government will uphold the “full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex.” I told people it is the only full democracy in the Middle East, that they are a humanitarian state that takes in refugees from places around the world such as Darfur who have also experienced genocide. I wanted to exclaim that they are cutting edge in environmental issues, education, and technological advances.

Yet it deeply saddens me that after such a long history of hatred and oppression experienced by Jews, today there is too often fierce division between Jews. Jews have spit on, stoned and harassed other Jews, just because of differences in how we demonstrate and manifest our relationship with God. The Rabbi on our Birthright trip, Andrea Berlin, told us a story of her last time in Israel. She was hit with a chair that was thrown over to the woman’s side of the Western Wall because someone thought the women were praying too loud – and these stories are not uncommon. I had firsthand experience on numerous occasions, being sneered at and told I wasn’t welcome at the Kotel by Jews who prayed differently than I did.  Jerusalem should serve as a place of unification, yet in 2013 – and as we approach 5774, it is the place that too often sees division.

The decision of what I should tell my non-Jewish friends about my experience in Israel was an unexpected dilemma. Should I share with them only the amazing parts about Israel and keep silent about the one issue which upset me the most, out of fear that it would generate or reinforce negative opinions of the entire Jewish community? No Jew who visits Israel to connect with Judaism and the people of Israel should be faced with this struggle. Instead, let’s both make organized trips to Israel an unforgettable and great experience, but also put more effort and resources into remedying the unfortunate injustices and inequalities between different Jewish denominations, with the hope that they will become more inclusive.  Let’s do this so when anyone questions Israel, there will be no doubt in our minds that it is a place of freedom and equality.

 Jake Stuckey is an intern at the RAC and a student at University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

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