Chief Rabbi Efraim Mirvis has said that his mission to Israel this week, which involved 49 Orthodox rabbis from across Britain, was “not a four-day wonder — it is the beginning of a process, to learn more about Israel, to grapple with issues, to be better informed and better placed to engage with members of our communities”.
Rabbi Mirvis said the aim was to give his rabbinate a “better understanding” of Israel and to deepen their awareness of “both the old and new challenges that Israel faces”, introducing them to representatives from across the political spectrum — from pro-settler activists to Palestinian businessmen.
The delegation met Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home party; Labour leader Isaac Herzog; members of Breaking the Impasse, an alliance of influential pro-peace businessmen, both Palestinian and Israeli; and Ruth Calderon, a Knesset member who founded Israel’s first secular, male-female beit midrash, an institute for the study of traditional Jewish texts.
The rabbis, who lead Orthodox synagogues across the UK, heard both sides of the argument over settlements.
Shaul Arieli, a former member of Israeli negotiating teams who is today a leader of a citizen peace initiative that proposes evacuating many settlements, took them on a tour of the Green Line.
Later in the trip, they had lunch with Danny Dayan, chief foreign envoy of the umbrella body for settlers, the Yesha Council. Yesterday, they were due to have dinner with members of Breaking the Impasse, an alliance of influential pro-peace businessmen, both Palestinians and Israelis.
There was also a focus on Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. They were due to have a briefing by a mayor from the Bedouin sector, which is currently at loggerheads with the Israeli government over plans that may lead to some of its members leaving their villages, and on Tuesday they attended an interfaith discussion.
British gap-year students studying in Israel were given access to the rabbis. Around 100 youngsters, drawn from various youth movements and study programmes, spent an evening with them.
The trip was an initiative of Rabbi Mirvis, a strong Zionist who has pledged to increase the prominence of Israel in communal life.
All rabbis under his aegis were invited, and places were awarded on a first-come-first-served basis. They or their communities paid £200, and the rest was fundraised by chief rabbinate especially for the trip.
Rabbi Mirvis said: “Israel is central to our faith. I would like Israel to feature more prominently in our synagogues and across our communities.
“The Jewish people’s connection to the Land of Israel is deep and it is eternal. It goes to the very fibre of our being as a faith community and as a nation.”
David Mason, rabbi of Muswell Hill Synagogue, said that as well as providing insights about the centrality of Israel to Jewish life, another aim of the trip was to explore the difficulties that the country faces. It partly about “admitting that… there are incredibly deep conflicts between different groups in Israel”, he said.
Elchonon Feldman, rabbi of Belmont Synagogue, said that the objective was to deepen and raise the level of the discussion on Israel in their communities. To this end, he said, Rabbi Mirvis pushed them to take an analytical approach.
“He wants us to challenge each of the representatives,” Rabbi Feldman said.
There was a feeling that the trip filled a hole in the rabbis’ knowledge. Northwood Synagogue’s Rabbi Moshe Freedman said that the trip was important because the situation until now has been that rabbis “don’t have the tools ready” to answer congregants’ questions on Israel.
Asked how he may translate the lessons of the trip into a sermon, Rabbi Freedman said that he would urge openness to different viewpoints within Israel.
He would “try to communicate to people that it’s easy to be emotional about conflicts and to choose sides but you rarely have all the information and you need to have a lot of humility.”
He would say that taking sides on issues facing Israel “like it’s some kind of football match” is “deeply unhelpful”.
Questioned on this message, he said that the idea would not be to silence congregants, but rather “empower them to go and understand and learn”.