Do You Care About Israel? Why?
Kol Nidre 5782/2021
Rabbi Danny Gordis tells a story from the days he was dean of the Ziegler Rabbinical School, our Conservative Movement rabbinical school on the west coast. The year was 1994. A 19- year old Israeli soldier, Nachshon Wachsman, was kidnapped by Hamas terrorists. He was held hostage for six days during which time Israeli intelligence used every means at its disposal to learn his whereabouts and during that time much of the rest of the Jewish world held its breath. Eventually, having discovered the location of the hideout where the terrorists were holding Wachsman, Israel dispatched its elite commando unit, Sayeret Matkal, in a rescue attempt. Almost everything that could go wrong went wrong. The unit lost the element of surprise; the terrorists shot Wachsman in the throat and chest, and in the firefight that ensued, the commander of the commando unit was killed as well. Several other commandos were badly wounded. Following that harrowing week, Rabbi Gordis held one of his regularly scheduled she-ur klali (school wide learning) sessions and he decided that during that hour, which would be attended by the entire school that, “as a small expression of the utter devastation that I felt” – his words, he would teach something dedicated to Nachshon Wachsman’s memory. After the class, as the students spread out nonchalantly on the gigantic terrace that overlooks the Santa Monica mountains and the 405 freeway, one of the rabbinical students caught up with him. She looked at Rabbi Gordis quizzically and then asked: “What does what happened to an Israeli soldier have to do with any of us.” 27 years later, Rabbi Gordis who made aliyah and now lives in Israel and is the Senior Vice-President of the Shalem College in Jerusalem, writes, “I have no recollection of what I taught that day — but I vividly remember that young woman and her question. And I remember wondering how she and I could be in the same institution.
And I ask you tonight: How could a Rabbinical student not care about Israel? How could a Jew not care about Israel?
During the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, a few months ago some 90 rabbinical students wrote a letter accusing Israel of and I quote: “violent suppression of human rights” and the letter refered to “apartheid occupation in the Palestinian territories.” It was a long letter filled with empathy for the suffering of Palestinians. But there was not a single word of empathy for Israel. In a lengthy statement of protest that found ample words to indict Israel of the harshest of crimes, they could not find time to utter one word of criticism of Hamas, or the fact that Israel was under attack, or that the goal of Hamas was nothing short of the complete and utter destruction of the Jewish state. I think it is admirable that they demonstrated care about the plight of Palenstineans -lord knows their own leaders do not – -but not one word of care and concern about Israel? How is that possible? Rabbi Gordis was upset about 1 rabbinical student 27 years ago. Today 90 of them signed the letter. Do I take comfort that there were very few students from our Conservative Seminaries as signatories? A little. But, how is it possible that there were any? How is it possible for a rabbinical student to care about the plight of Palestinians but not about the plight of Jews? How is it possible for a Jew not to care about Israel? I have no doubt that these students will tell me that they do care about Israel – and their harsh attack was meant as an expression of their concern. With friends like these…
But alas, these students are not alone. In a recent survey of liberal Jews, “34% agreed that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States, 25% agreed that “Israel is an apartheid state” and 22% agreed that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.”
For the record, as someone who likes to think of himself as liberal, I do not agree. And it pains me that some of you might.
There was a big brouhaha at the Wheatley High School Graduation this past May when a senior student, a Moslem, urged her fellow students to find their voices and speak out on the issues of our day -and then in giving examples – listed “the genocide against Palestinians that is being practiced in aparheid Israel.” The outrage was swift and harsh. Adults surrounded and berated the young student. The confrontation grew so heated that faculty summoned the police in fear that things could turn violent.
I understand her excuse – she is a 17 year old Muslim who probably hears charges against Israel over and over in her mosque. But what was the excuse of the adults who practically assaulted her? Grown men and women. They too might tell me they were expressing their love and concern for Israel, but they didn’t show much care and concern for the young student. Like those rabbinical students – if those adults had any expectation that their criticisms would be heard – they should have started by showing they care. I know that’s how it works for me- I assume it works the same way for you – if and only if I know you love me and care for me – am I prepared to accept your critique of me.
So, I reached out to the young girl and her family to engage them in a conversation. I wanted to begin by telling her that I do care about her and then try to help her see her words through my eyes to explain that there were perhaps other ways of looking at the world that I could help make her aware of. But the family had become so traumatized by the anger and attacks that they rebuffed my outreach and any hope of turning an unfortunate event into a learning opportunity was lost. Fortunately there has been a lot of dialogue with those rabbinical students and I am hopeful it will be a learning experience for them. We all need to spend less time shouting at each other — and more time engaging each other – in a sharing of our hopes and beliefs. But it does all begin by showing that we care – for them as well as for our cause.
I understand why a young Muslim girl wants nothing to do with Israel or her people. I would like to try and change that, but I understand. But I do not understand when 1 in 10 American Jews believe that Israel has no right to exist.
Look, I know it is complicated. In a recent essay, Doniel Hartman divides Jews into “troubled Zionists,” and “untroubled Zionists.” Count me as one of the “troubled” Zionists. I spend a good deal of time arguing with my brothers and sisters who are untroubled.
The number of Jews who are, “untroubled” by so many of the things that trouble me –well that too troubles me. But our debates are between Jews who care for each other. What worries me much more and what I feel the need to address on this sacred eve – is the rising number of Jews who do not seem to care about Israel. Whose being troubled has pushed them out the door – to the point they no longer really care – or express that care only to criticize and condemn.
If a recent Pew survey is to be believed — most of you sitting here today would still describe yourself as committed to Israel – even if you, like me, find yourself troubled or even hyper-troubled. And I understand that for we troubled Zionists here in America and in Israel as well – our position is becoming harder and harder to maintain. In 2021, we, those who care but are also troubled, we feel as if we have one foot on the boat and the other on the dock. And as the boat keeps moving further and further from the dock, we realize that at some point we are going to have to jump – either onto the boat — or back on the dock.
Tonight I wish to speak to those who are “jumping ship.” The increasing number of American Jews — especially young Jews who as Doniel says, are questioning whether Israel is still an ongoing experiment or has become a failed one. Many of our young people not only embrace progressive, universalistic values but they also reject particularism and national identities – and this makes being a committed Zionist, even one who is troubled, harder and harder for them.
There is a new book out — I recommend it for your reading: “The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family,” by Joshua Cohen. I have to begin with a word of full disclosure – the author and his family are amongst our dearest friends – so I am not even going to pretend to be objective – even though many who are objective believe Josh is one of the most thoughtful new Jewish voices on the literary scene. But you can judge for yourself. Now you have to remember — this is a novel. It is not true or at the very least not objectively true. In describing the book, the review in the New York Times called it: “… a rigorous meditation on Jewish identity, and an exhaustive meditation on Jewish-American identity, a polemic on Zionism, a history lesson.” The reviewer, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, goes on to say that Josh’s book “… is an infuriating, pretentious piece of work – and also absorbing, delightful, hilarious, breathtaking and the best and most relevant novel I’ve read in what feels forever.” Those are her words – not mine. (But go get the book and judge for yourself — I asked Josh for a percentage of any sales that might result from this sermon)
The book has two protagonists – Reuben Blum “a Jewish historian – (but not a historian of the Jews)” – at the fictional Corbin College in upstate New York that seems to be a lot like Cornell.
Professor Blum is co-opted onto a hiring committee to review the application of an exiled Israeli scholar specializing in the Spanish Inquisition, one Benzion Netanyahu – the father of Benjamin Netanyahu. It does not take a literary scholar to realize that in the clash of these two men we experience the clash of the two major Jewish identities of our time – Israeli and American. Josh is not kind to either of them.
One heated exchange between the two professors resonated with me. Netanyahu both needs Blum – the American professor and disdains him for the choices he has made for his life and his family. Blum and his family — and by extension American Jewry in general — is for Netanyahu a dead end, a Faustian bargain where American Jews like Blum have sold their eternal Jewish soul for the worldly comforts of contemporary America. In one heated exchange, Netanyahu says to Blum: “I know what to expect of a Jew, who when dealing with another Jew in the context of goyim can only act in the greatest solidarity or the greatest betrayal.” “Ouch” – that hurts. As an American Jew are those my only choices? Solidarity or betrayal?
Blum struggles to understand Netanyahu’s stark choices. Blum, like most of us – thought he had successfully constructed his life as a subtle navigation – threading his way through a non-Jewish landscape – attempting to be true to himself, his Jewish identity and his American surroundings. Netanyahu mocks him for thinking that he has accomplished this goal – indeed has accomplished anything other than making himself look like a toady, obsequiously kowtowing to his Wasp superiors.
And so as one who stands here today — closer to Blum than to Netanyahu – I too am forced to confront this challenge. What if Benzion Netanyahu in Josh’s novel was correct? What if our only choice with respect to other Jews in the context of goyim is to choose an act of betrayal or solidarity?
I began by asking if you care about Israel? “Yes!” we shout out in unanimous acclaim. “But…” I suspect that for every single Jew of conscience that affirmation comes with a “but!”, with a qualification. Yes,” we say, “I care about Israel — but…” – and then we, being the troubled Zionists that we are, go on to list the litany of concerns and complaints about the treatment of Palestinians and a host of other injustices that dominate the contemporary Israeli scene from the oppressive stranglehold that Ultra-Orthodoxy imposes on a nation that seems to willingly accept it, to a political system that encourages domination by the most minor and extreme political parties. Or maybe you are one of those Jews who is no longer afraid to stand up and be counted in opposition to Israel – you stand with groups like “Jewish Voices for Peace” and “If Not Now” and you march shoulder to shoulder with Arab students on campus – yet you still want to have your cake and eat it, as you go on to say “– but, this does not mean I do not support Israel – it is merely this Israel, this government, this iteration that I oppose.” Josh Cohen’s characters mock us, all of us. It cannot be done. The ship is departing the dock – and we, you and I are going to have to jump – one way or the other. Troubled or untroubled, committed or not – will we stand with Israel or will we abandon her? There is no threading this needle. The choice must be made: loyalty or betrayal.
The character of Professor Blum in Joshua Cohen’s novel is so far gone – -he cannot even perceive that he is being mocked. But as I read, and realized that he was me – I felt the pain, an attack on my core beliefs that was so deep — it could no longer be ignored. How many sermons have I spent in subtle machinations trying to have my cake and eat it too? I have been the rabbi to a congregation of troubled Jews. I have tried to help you – help all of us, navigate our way through this non-Jewish landscape – to find a way to affirm both Jewish and liberal values. But in the end, for all of our cleverness, and all of our compromises – they still will not accept us, and they still do not like us – unless we become them – and even then they will disdain us for trying to be them.
Lest my right wing friends rejoice – “finally he has seen the light, finally he has become one of us!” No I have not! I am no less a liberal Zionist today than I was yesterday. I have since day one embraced Zionism, the right and need of the Jewish people for a Jewish state in the land of Israel and I am no less committed today than I was yesterday to expecting that this Jewish state will exist on the highest moral ground. I want Israel to be strong and safe and function as a democratic state committed to equal rights, freedom and dignity of all its citizens regardless of national, religious identity – Jew and Arab alike.
I am no less liberal today than I was yesterday — what has changed is that today I need to affirm, loudly and unequivicably – I AM – a Zionist; I AM a Jew – and if you the non-Jewish world, the liberal progressive world, the right wing Christain world — if you are not willing to accept me as I am – well that is now YOUR problem, not MINE. I stand with my people. I stand with Israel. I stand with 3000 years of Jewish survival. Let America love me or hate me – but let them love me or hate me for who I am.
Dara Horn’s new book – one I also recommend for your reading, is titled: “People Love Dead Jews” – it is a fascinating thesis she writes about. But my question for you today — is there any hope that they can love live Jews? Golda Meir speaking about Israel once said – “the one thing about this country is that it is our own. Nobody has to get up in the morning and worry what his neighbors think of him.” Well, if this country is going to be our own then we too need to be able to wake up and not worry about what they think of us.
I present no argument on Israel’s behalf tonight. Some will still make their arguments – hoping that the words can be found to convince themselves and their friends that there is no need to turn on Israel. To those who think Israel is a racist, fascistic, apartheid enterprise — some will try reason and point out how Israel’s current minister for regional cooperation is Issawi Frej an Arab and Muslim who used to work for the Peace Now movement. Or that the minister for immigration and absorption is Pnina Tamano-Shata who is Black. The Mossad rescued her, along with thousands of other Ethiopian Jews from hunger and persecution when she was a small child. These who are dedicated to defending Israel in liberal circles might remind you that Nitzan Horowitz, the first openly gay man to lead an Israeli political party – is the Health Minister. And that a member of the Raam party which is an outgrowth of the major Islamist political group in Israel will probably be named as a deputy minister. You didn’t like King Bibi? – -Well he was voted out of office – in a democratic process. Tell me where else is that possible in the Middle East? Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority “postponed” elections this past April as he is in his 17th year of a four-year term.
Or maybe they will try to reason with you another way. Did you read the report from a few weeks ago when America was hastily departing Afghanistan, after the tragic bombing at the Kabul airport – as everyone feared another bombing was imminent? Did you read how an American drone bombed a sedan suspected of carrying explosives for yet another attack -but – there was collateral damage and the drone killed 10 innocent people – 7 of them children. I am still waiting for the outcry of the world over such an injustice. Oh, and our government now admits that the whole thing was a tragic mistake – that there were no explosives. Is it possible that the world understands the nature of such difficult decisions except when it is being done by Jews? We live in a world where there is no tolerance for terrorism – except when it is happening to Jews. A young Jewish college student stands in my office making her argument for a Palestinean State – one that would exist side by side with Israel. One that most of us who care for Israel acknowledge is a wonderful idea but at least at this moment terribly risky. So I ask – “do you understand what a risk you are asking Israelis to take? What if you are wrong – and the result is the complete destruction of Israel and her people?” “That,” she replied, “is a chance I am willing to take.” Apparently the extinction of a Jewish state and the Jewish people are a small price to pay for liberal values. A friend and colleague Rabbi Aaron Brusso reminded me of a cartoon he saved from when he was a kid. It had a picture of an Israeli with a kippah talking to a Native American who was sitting and smoking a peace pipe in front of a teepee. The Native American said to the Israeli, “I have to tell you, land for peace didn’t work out so well for us.”
This young woman repeats the things she hears on her college campus and tells her rabbi that Jews are interlopers in the Middle East – Europeans imposing themselves on a foreign culture. As Rabbi Brusso worte, “Patiently I try to remind her that when God told Abraham to “go forth” in the Torah a cyclical relationship of journey, arrival, expulsion, journey, and arrival began and would last for thousands of years. Jerusalem is not some recent add on to our tradition. Every seder ends with next year in Jerusalem, every wedding with the breaking of a class. Hebron was where Abraham purchased a burial plot for his wife Sarah. Bet El is where Jacob fell asleep on a rock and dreamt of angels going up and down on a ladder to heaven. Jericho is a city Joshua marched around. Jews, he writes, are not in Israel primarily because they have been persecuted elsewhere, Jews are in Israel because since the beginning it has been our home.”
We here at Temple Beth Sholom have joined synagogues around the world in spending thousands upon thousands of dollars to “beef up our security.” We built balusters to protect our entrances and hired trained security to protect the sanctity of our services – why? Because we are supporters of Israel? No, because we are Jewish. And our enemies understand – even if many of us have not yet grasped this truth – that there is no subtle position to be negotiated, no intellectual argument that needs to be made — there is loyalty or betrayal.
ADL’s most recent Audit of Antisemitic Incidents in the United States recorded more than 2,100 acts of assault, vandalism and harassment, an increase of 12 percent over the previous year. This is the highest level of antisemitic incidents since ADL’s tracking began in 1979. The year included five fatalities directly linked to antisemitic violence and another 91 individuals targeted in physical assaults. Assault, harassment and vandalism against Jews remain at near-historic levels in the U.S. The deadly attacks in synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway have made American Jews feel more vulnerable than we have felt in decades.
And you think if we modify our positions, merely adjust our behavior, alter our beliefs – we will appease them? That they will then love us?
As I read Josh’s book, I shared the uncomfortable realization that Taffy Brodesser-Akner expressed in her NY Times review – that I found myself sympathizing with Benzion Netanyahu’s point of view – “that we Jews seem to be doomed to a unique form of torture where we are expected to be polite and quiet as this injustice goes on… and the unique sadness and terror of Anti-Semitism for the Jews lies not just in its violence, but in the people around you pretending that the violence doesn’t even exist.”
90 Rabbinical students penned a letter accusing Israel. It was filled with anger and resentment. Any expression of love and empathy was for them – -not for us.
I present no rebuttal to them today. I have just come to affirm my loyalty – to tell you on this sacred night how much I care about Israel and her future. How much I care about Judaism and her future. I have come to proclaim my loyalty.
I am a Zionist and I am a Jew. Deal with it!