If you ask Rabbi Noah Farkas, the president & CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, he’s less concerned about the state of democracy in Israel than about fractures, caused by the judicial overhaul crisis, to the country’s relations with the Diaspora.
“It’s a perfectly legitimate worry and concern, if the extreme judicial reform goes through,” he told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday via Zoom. But he added that “if you see what’s happening on the streets, if you see what’s happening on news, if you see that members of [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s own party have come out against the extreme version of the reform, it’s not a Left-Right issue anymore. It’s really the Center of Israeli politics.”
He added that he’s “not concerned that democracy is going away in Israel. I am not concerned that Israel, as a project and an experiment of the Jewish people, is coming to an end. I am concerned that what happens the day after a version of this reform goes through, how those who were on the extreme, who pushed the original version of the reform, and those who are on the extreme, who are trying to use the opposition just to topple the government – how we all sit down with each other and decide how to move forward as the state, as a people and as a community.
“Israel is a sovereign nation, and it’s not our place [to interfere],” he said. “However, there is, on the other hand, I think, an emerging consensus amongst a younger generation that Israelis are seeing themselves more and more as part of the transnational global Jewish community. And Americans want to be part of that as well.”
Farkas explained that the idea of a “transnational global Jewish community” entails more of a sense of Jewish peoplehood, which many Israelis now acknowledge and cherish. As an example, he compared this situation to the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, which in the past few years reopened and rebranded itself as ANU – Museum of the Jewish People (“anu” meaning “us” in Hebrew). “The word ‘anu’ was chosen on purpose. Who we are as a community transcends national borders.” Farkas explained that the old museum displayed the history of Jews outside of Israel till the Holocaust and had no focus on contemporary Jewish life in the Diaspora. In the new museum, there is an entire floor dedicated to modern-day expressions of Judaism around the world.
Named by The Forward as one of America’s most inspiring rabbis, Farkas, one of the youngest CEOs of a Jewish Federation, is the head of one of the largest and most influential Federations across the country. He served as a clergy member of Valley Beth Shalom, the largest Jewish congregation in the San Fernando Valley, for more than decade, where he led innovations in synagogue life through social action, mental health and next-generation spiritual initiatives. He was appointed in the past as commissioner and chairman of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. He is also a third-generation veteran and served as a US Navy Reserve chaplain during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
Farkas shared that while visiting Israeli a few weeks ago, together with heads of major Jewish Federations across North America, he felt that “our voices were welcomed by everyone, whether they were pushing the reform or pushing back against reform.” He added that this type of welcome “was really enlightening to me.”
“What I care about, and what the American Jewish community cares about, is not the details of a particular compromise. We care about the fact that the Jewish community still sees itself as one nation, one people. What I care about is the day after, what do we do now? What does that next day look like?”
According to Farkas, “both sides [US Jews and Israeli Jews] see themselves as Zionist. Both sides are very nationalistic. Both sides see that they are the heirs to the founders of the State of Israel in some way. And both believe that whatever version of reform is coming or being pushed back against will strengthen democracy.”
He explained that “yes, I’m personally worried about the future of Israel and its democratic nature, especially with [Bezalel] Smotrich and [Itamar] Ben-Gvir and the basket of deplorables that are out there. But what I am seeing at the same time with demonstrations, petitions, negotiations and the strength of the people pushing back against the prime minister, is that Israel is a vibrant democracy in action.”
“Imagine if this had happened in Iran,” Farkas said. “How many people will be strung up from cranes across the city? Or what happened to Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring? They were mowed over by bulldozers, literally. So I’m really proud of how even as messy as it is, of the strong democratic nature of everything that is happening.”
Serious conversations outside of Israel
What Farkas feels is that at 75 years old, Israel now has the ability and maturity to create serious dialogue with Jews outside of Israel from a more understanding point of view. “If Israelis want our voice and we want the younger Jews to lend their voices, it’s not just about Israeli policy but about Jewish destiny, and that’s a really interesting conversation to have. Because Israel is mature enough now; it’s about the partnership with the Diaspora and not superseding Diaspora. And that is a really interesting conversation to have, something that we never had in the history of our people.”
Farkas thinks that the network of Jewish Federations can facilitate this type of dialogue. He mentioned that he is building a partnership with the Israeli-American Council, the umbrella organization of Israelis living in the US.
“IAC CEO Shoham Nicolet and I are building a whole new partnership with the Federation because we have the largest Israeli diaspora here in Los Angeles. What’s most important is that we’re trying to create roundtables at different levels for different types of people.
“We have to get past the apocalypse and get to how to actually get this idea done. What matters the most is that we still mean something to each other. What other global civilization would spend millions and millions of dollars rescuing strangers that they’ve never met, and taking them halfway across the world to safety?
“What other global civilization will be willing to drop everything to help someone again that they’ve never met, who was a victim of terror? Would a haredi [ultra-Orthodox] Israeli help me when I’m in distress? I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. Because regardless [of whether] they care about me or consider me a rabbi or a Jew, I still consider them part of the family. What matters is your own intention, not just the reciprocity.”
Farkas emphasized strengthening the connection between US Jews and Israelis. “We recently hosted an Israeli delegation of bureaucrats that came to North America, and I was the first person they met with. I walked them around our federation building and said, ‘Look at this building, it’s a 12-story, 150,000-square-foot building, made of glass and marble. This building is here because people donated it. It’s here because people care.”
Farkas told the delegation he thinks “every high schooler in Israel should have to take a class on the American Diaspora; one semester, not a whole year, one semester, where they understand what Reform or Conservative Jews are and ask questions, such as how Jewish communities function in the US, what a synagogue is, and why does it exist? What’s the philosophy of Jewish life in the US? What’s the strategy behind it, and why has it been so successful?
“I would start the opportunity for dialogue,” Farkas continued. “Because right now we don’t even know where to begin, since Israelis are so unfamiliar with how Jewish life even works in the Diaspora, especially in a successful Diaspora like Los Angeles. So that should be given over a 12-week course where they have a few books to read and discussions. They can possibly afterwards zoom in with us at some point.
“This crisis has opened an opportunity for American Jews and Israeli Jews to have new types of dialogue that we’ve never had before,” Farkas said. “Because it’s not about security. It’s not about international relations, and it’s not about Iran. It’s about what it means to be a Jew, what it means to be a Zionist, what it means to mutually support each other, which makes us unique among the nations of the world. There is, I believe, a desire for that kind of dialogue.”