The head of the Reform movement, Rabbi Tony Bayfield, is to take a senior representative of Oxfam next week to Sderot, the southern Israeli town that has been the prime target of rocket attacks from Gaza.
“We will be going to a school in Sderot,” he told a meeting of the Reform council on Sunday, “and he can see Israeli children who have been physically and psychologically traumatised by the war to understand a bit better that there are two sides to the story.”
They will also visit the West Bank to see Oxfam-sponsored programmes in Ramallah, as well as projects for Palestinian economic development being financed by Sir Ronald Cohen to “show what Jews are doing to contribute to the situation”, he said.
The announcement of his trip came during a discussion on reaction to recent events in Israel, during which the Reform head suggested that most of the movements’ members felt in a “very uncertain state”, which may have affected turnout at some Israel-related events.
Attendance at the pro-Israel rally in Trafalgar Square in January and an Israeli election night meeting last month had been “poor”, he said.
“We are not inspired by the leaders of Israel… that’s a problem,” he said.
But he urged members to continue support for projects in Israel involved in dialogue, bridge-building and working for peace.
Daniel Lichman, mazkir for the Reform youth movement, RSY-Netzer, called on rabbis to be more outspoken in denouncing Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party.
“I hear this a lot from people of my generation,” he said, “who are feeling quite angry and seeking leadership from within the community.
“The only way we can continue to support Israel is by speaking out on those things which aren’t acceptable. And the government that Israel is about to form is not going to be very palatable.”
Reform board member Mike Casale, condemning Mr Lieberman’s policies as “totally and utterly abhorrent”, declared: “Sometimes we’re just a little bit too frightened of really calling an elephant an elephant.”
But Rabbi Bayfield argued that calling the Yisrael Beiteinu leader a “racist” was counterproductive. When he had used the word at the election night event, he recalled being surrounded by people who upbraided him as he was leaving.
They told him, “It may be true but we shouldn’t be saying it because the non-Jewish press will pick that up and use it against us… I took the point that I actually lost the argument because I used that particular word — people were not prepared to engage, the shutters came down and that’s something we have to avoid.”
In his written report to the council, Rabbi Bayfield noted that he had been invited to speak in a number of locations and events over the past two months.
This, he suggested, was partly because “apart from a characteristically brilliant speech at the Israel rally, the Chief Rabbi has been largely silent in public”.