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American synagogues reconsider prayer for the state of Israel amid new government

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Israel is observing its 75th Independence Day against a politically charged backdrop. In recent months, tens of thousands of Israelis have protested the new far-right government and its attempt to weaken the independence of Israel's judiciary. Here in the U.S., some Jewish communities are figuring out what it means to support Israel at a time like this. Deena Prichep reports.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Every Sabbath, after the Torah is read at the Park Avenue Synagogue, the congregation offers a prayer for the state of Israel.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in Hebrew).

PRICHEP: It's a prayer written just after Israel's founding that synagogues around the country have been reciting for decades for the safety and security of the country and the wisdom of its leaders.

ELLIOT COSGROVE: I can't imagine a Jewish identity without Israel at its core.

PRICHEP: Elliot Cosgrove is the congregation's rabbi.

COSGROVE: My Judaism has a whole series of values to know the heart of the stranger, that each and every person is created equally in the divine image.

PRICHEP: And he says what's happening in Israel right now does not reflect those values. Cosgrove's congregation is not activist or anti-establishment - this is the Park Avenue Synagogue. But while there are, of course, a range of opinions about Israel, even moderate, mainstream Jews, those who used to see criticizing Israel as a form of antisemitism, are starting to speak out.

COSGROVE: I think this is a moment the democratic part of that sacred relationship - Jewish and democratic - seems to be on the altar.

SHAUL MAGID: So for most of Israel's history, the idea of Israel being a liberal, humanistic country, at least in principle, was largely true. That's not true anymore.

PRICHEP: Shaul Magid teaches Jewish studies at Dartmouth College.

MAGID: Israel is a different country than it was 25, 30, 40 years ago, and I don't think it's going to go back to that.

PRICHEP: This is a country that had a Labor government until the late '70s, but as the electorate becomes more religious, more conservative, Magid says that's a thing of the past.

MAGID: I think one of the main difficulties for American pro-Israel Jews, most of whom are liberal, is that Israel has become an illiberal country - and openly so - and in a way that it's almost impossible to deny.

PRICHEP: So what does liberal Zionism do when Israel is seen as an illiberal country? They take to the streets; they keep offering prayers and, in some congregations, they change them. Jeremy Kalmanofsky is the rabbi at New York's Ansche Chesed synagogue.

JEREMY KALMANOFSKY: I do not believe that the terms (speaking Hebrew) - God send your illumination and your truth - belongs in the same sentence with ministers who have taken such a overtly racist and ultranationalist and aggressive tack.

PRICHEP: These are politicians who have called for an annexation of the West Bank, supported attacking a Palestinian village, advocated for full immunity for all soldiers. And so, even before the judicial overhaul, Kalmanofsky's congregation dropped the prayer for Israel and its leadership in favor of a biblical psalm.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. May those who love you be at peace.

KALMANOFSKY: I'm still Zionist. I still love and support Israel, but I am making a liturgical protest from a community that needs to say something in response to a very dangerous turn in the government.

PRICHEP: Although they have made different liturgical choices, Rabbi Kalmanofsky and Park Avenue's Rabbi Cosgrove both point out that the Israeli national anthem is called "Hatikvah" - the hope. And they, like many American Jews, hope for an Israel they can fully support. Although on the eve of Israel's 75th birthday, many are finding that hope a little hard to hold. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deena Prichep