BY FRANCINE M. GORDON / AJT //

Dennis Ross offers an eloquent playbook for Israeli and Palestinian leadership in his recent New York Times opinion piece, “To Achieve Mideast Peace, Suspend Disbelief,” (March 4, 2012).  “These are hard times for trying to promote, much less make, peace between Palestinians and Israelis,” he writes. “Most Israelis and Palestinians simply don’t believe that peace is possible,” he notes, before setting forth a 14-point agenda for discussion that could generate palpable change in the status quo.

Francine Gordon

Francine Gordon

There’s another status quo that similarly must be addressed, even during such hard times for peace: a status quo within Israel itself that denies religious rights to women and Jews other than Orthodox.

During such hard times, it is absurd that once a month Jewish women are detained at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for wearing prayer shawls. This happens, oddly enough, even as it has been made clear in recent months that the overwhelming majority of Israelis do not believe in many aspects of the “Public Jewish Law” as currently defined and applied by an Orthodox minority. Lawsuits, social protests and civil disobedience are challenging the religious status quo that governs matters of personal status and spirit.

Unlike the peace process, in which we can have little direct impact, all Zionists can have an important role in the process of social change. In my case, I turned my Israeli activism inward, supporting voices within Israel’s society that are working toward making Israel a modern, healthy Jewish democracy. I invite others to join me.

In this area of activism, “suspend disbelief” is replaced by the explicit effort to build a public belief system that creates a national Jewish identity consistent with a 21st century democracy. The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project was urging the Zionist community to begin confronting the religious status quo even before the Israeli electorate sent Yair Lapid and 18 other members of his Yeish Atid party (There is a Future), as well as Naftali Bennett and 11 of his HaBayit HaYehudi party (The Jewish Home) members to the Knesset.

Even before Lapid began speaking about sharing the burden of national service with Jews of all backgrounds, the SRSS Project was advocating for an equal sharing of benefits – such as freedom of religion – of a democratic society. The project’s support of groups such as Women of the Wall creates a visible and moral protest against the imposition of unfair rules in the public sphere in the Jewish State.

Ross urges Palestinians to be “willing to speak of two states for two peoples and to acknowledge that there are two national movements and two national identities.” He gives no parallel directive on the Israeli side, which seems to suggest that Israel’s national identity is something that Israelis and her Diaspora supporters agree upon.

The current Israeli political situation, which is a response to several years of civil unrest due to the actions of an over-empowered, ultra-Orthodox minority, shows this is not the case. One of the reasons young pro-Israel activists on college campuses in the United States have so much difficulty defending Israel is that our Zionist community has lost its common narrative, its common core belief system.

With political change clearly underway in Israel, the huge question is whether the current prime minister will make a coalition with parties that will respect the rights of all Jews, regardless of gender or adjective. It is hard to watch as Israeli police take women away because of their religious attire at monthly Rosh Hodesh services. Is this the type of Jewish state that 21st century Zionists, regardless of their place of residence, want to see?

Is Israel being a “light unto the nations” when the country permits certain public buses to demand that women sit in the back? How can society redefine a national identity that balances core democratic values with core public Jewish values? How can Israeli Jews and American Jews work together to redefine the core values of the nation state?

During these hard times between Israelis and Palestinians, do we really need to witness the detainment of Israeli, American and British Jewish women at the Western Wall for their choice of tallit? This type of official state behavior is but one example of the abuse of power by the religious authorities in public life. A turning point came in the remarkable first speech by Yeish Atid MK Ruth Calderon in the Knesset last month. The exchange between this modern female Talmud scholar and a rabbi from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party was historic.

Unlike the situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it showed there is the potential for real change right now within Israeli civil society, provided Prime Minister Netanyahu has the courage to build a coalition that respects the spiritual civil rights of all Jews and that values gender equality in the public sphere.

Ross cautions that “The moment Islamists come to define Palestinian identity is the moment when this conflict with be transformed from a national into a religious one – and at that point it may no longer be possible to resolve.” He raises no similar red flag with respect to Israeli identity.

Yet it is clear to many that the current Jewish identity of Israel is of a very fundamentalist nature, creating challenges to the democracy. It would be instructive for Mr. Ross to encourage Israel to find a way to balance democratic ideals and sacred values based on a shared faith tradition, truly being an or l’goyim – light unto the nations – in a region that needs strong examples of good governance and fair societies.

To achieve peace of mind in Israel, we need to build belief. Israelis and Zionists – not just Israelis and Palestinians – need what Mr. Ross terms “an agenda for discussions that can actually generate changes that ordinary citizens on both sides could see and feel.” Making these changes within Israeli society will strengthen the moderate, middle voice and ultimately, when the other side is ready, those are the voices that will suspend disbelief in order to achieve Mideast peace.

Francine Gordon, of Beachwood, Ohio, is founder and president of the Sacred Rights, Sacred Song project. She maintains a residence in Jerusalem.

THE 911: The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song project presents the Southeast Regional Premiere of its Concert of Concern on Sunday, March 10, 7-8:30 p.m. at Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs. The project is focused on raising awareness about the need for gender equality and freedom of worship in Israel for women and Jews of all background. Visit www.sacredrightssacredsong.org to buy tickets, or call 404-579-3264.