“I think that Israel has for far too long related to a rightwing audience. Of course there is funding from the Sheldon Adelsons of the world and his ilk. However, I believe that there is a real danger of alienating the younger generation by continuing along these lines.”
The Interviewee – Belle Jarniewski, Chair, Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre, Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada. Lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
I was born in Winnipeg in 1957. Attended Jewish day school to grade 7. Also lived in Paris, France in the late 1970s. I have worked as an educator, professional translator. Author of Voices of Winnipeg Holocaust Survivors (2010). I sit on several boards including the Canadian Friends of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada and am the President of the Manitoba Multifaith Council.
I am also completing my second term as part of the Canadian delegation to the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance). I have been Chair of the Freeman Family Holocaust Education Centre in Winnipeg since 2009. Currently I am also completing a graduate degree in Theology at the University of Winnipeg writing in the area of Post-Shoah Theology.
In your opinion, what importance, if any, does the existence of a Jewish state have to you personally and to Jewish people in general?
“Israel is very much an integral part of my Jewish identity. While I do not foresee myself ever making aliya, I am well aware as the child of two Shoah survivors, the reality of a safe haven. My interviews with many survivors indicate that in 1930s Germany and France, they believed they were accepted as full citizens and could never have predicted the calamity that was to follow.
“I am , however, very concerned about the direction that Zionism seems to have taken and the policies of the current government. As well, the rise of extremism and racism in Israeli society is a huge concern for me. The occupation has been, in my opinion, a poison that has infected both Palestinian and Israeli society.
“I must say though, that Israel is one aspect of my Jewish identity. I am worried that for many non-Orthodox Jews in Canada, it has become their only means of Jewish identification. I think we need to encourage the next generation to rediscover the richness of our Jewish religion, and our culture, history – both in Canada and their own family roots as well as identifying with Israel. There also needs to be a place for pluralism on the question of Israel.”
Do you feel committed in some way to defend the future existence of Israel?
“I am committed to dialogue on this subject which I believe is an important one. I have often found myself in the midst of polemics by the far right and the far left as well as some who have made some extremely ugly remarks in front of me. It’s very hard to listen to people who are not committed to working toward peace but simply want to see Israel disappear and see everything that is wrong with it and are blind to the things that are right with it.
“I look for those organizations that are doing good work and try to promote them. I am against BDS and believe that it only furthers the agenda of extremists on both sides and have presented on this issue.”
Do you affiliate yourself with a specific denomination in Judaism? What is your view regarding the dominance of the Orthodox denomination in Israel religious establishment?
“Conservative but at the moment there is no longer any synagogue in Winnipeg affiliated with this denomination. I find myself somewhat disappointed at the moment in what is available in our community for those seeking a meaningful egalitarian Jewish experience. I attended a Jewish day school, did a minor in Judaic Studies in undergrad and am now completing a graduate degree in Theology. Judaism remains an important and enriching element of my life.
“I am extremely concerned about the control exerted by the Orthodox rabbinate over the day-to-day lives of Israelis and how that extends to those imagining aliya. The role of the civil courts is limited and has become more limited as time goes on as decisions handed down by civil courts are flouted (such as access to the Western Wall). In the West, we have recoiled in horror at the idea of Sharia law taking hold in Western countries for Muslims, yet in Israel, women continue to be subject to reprehensible treatment due to the rabbinate’s jurisdiction in matters of marriage and divorce.“
Do you feel morally responsible for Israel’s actions (such as its management of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict)?
“I am not morally responsible for Israel’s actions – I don’t make these decisions and I am not an Israeli so I do not choose the government . However, what I can do is decide what organizations in Israel I support – so I would certainly prefer to donate to those groups that I feel are trying to work toward a peaceful solution or for instance improving the lives of Bedouins and Palestinians through education.
“That said, I do feel morally responsible to raise my voice when I see injustice. However I also feel morally responsible to speak out against ANY injustice.”
In your opinion, what is the main thing Israelis fail to understand about the reality of being Jewish outside of Israel?
“That at least in North America, most of us while we love Israel and care very much about its future, see our own future right here. That our everyday concerns as Jews are how we ensure a Jewish future for our children and grandchildren: How do we offer affordable Jewish education? A relevant experience in the synagogue? We are worried that a few decades from now, there will only be Orthodox Jews left here.“
How would you describe Israel’s policy (formally and in practice) regarding its relationship with the Diaspora?
“I think that Israel has for far too long related to a rightwing audience. Of course there is funding from the Sheldon Adelsons of the world and his ilk. However, I believe that there is a real danger of alienating the younger generation by continuing along these lines.
“In the past, young Jews and non-Jews flocked to the kibbutzim of the young country.I would like to see more programming developed that would afford an opportunity for young people to work on projects that show the great work that many organizations are doing to further the cause of peace.“
In your opinion, does Israel have an obligation to defend and help Jewish communities in need?
“I think the commitment is mutual. I also think that Israel has done an exceptional job in stepping in to help communities experiencing natural disasters.“
Have you ever been to Israel? if you have, can you summarize your impressions from Israel?
“I have been to Israel about 30 times. Israel is a fascinating mix. At times I have been totally frustrated by the bureaucracy, by the racism. At other times, I have been moved to tears by the utter humanity.
“For instance in a hospital in Tel Aviv, I noted Palestinian and Jewish patients and visitors sitting together in the atrium listening to a volunteer pianist, I saw a patient brought in from Gaza being treated for ovarian cancer, and I walked into a small rest room for visitors where Palestinian and Jewish Israelis were sitting together watching the World Cup. I immediately thought back to Winnipeg and remembered that this might not be a scene so easily reproduced with Indigenous Winnipeggers. Sometimes we forget that the problems we criticize Israel for are right here in our own backyard.“
Can you tell us a bit about the Jewish community in your hometown?
“I find our community to be very conservative and not very open to pluralism when it comes to the issue of Israel. On the other hand, there are a few very far-left voices whose opinions I am not comfortable with – they want to ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater,’ as I see it. Left-of-centre opinions such as my own are, I fear, considered at best naive.
“I am thrilled to have co-founded a Muslim-Jewish interfaith dialogue group a year ago. I approached a major synagogue at first and ‘they weren’t ready for that type of thing.’ In the end, I am happy that we went it alone. It’s been a fantastic and enriching experience.
“I am also very proud that a group of us in the Jewish community has spearheaded Operation Ezra – which has grown into a multifaith effort based in the Jewish community to sponsor, provide relief to, and bring awareness about Yazidi refugees. I believe our project may be unique as we are the only group nationally (and in North America ) that has brought in families.”
If you could ask the Israeli readers of this project a question, what would it be?
“What do YOU see the as the most important element of the future of the relationship of Israel with the Diaspora?”