February 27, 2020

The Clash Over Support for Israel

Have the Jews paid a price for defending Israel?

I am a lover and supporter of Israel. I dedicate much of my life and waking hours to defending, supporting and promoting Israel. I say this not to brag or take credit, but to be crystal clear that in asking whether Israel has helped or hurt Judaism, I am not querying whether the state of Israel should exist or whether it has been a blessing to the Jewish people.

Israel is the greatest modern miracle of the Jewish nation. Its existence has saved countless lives. It is the sole democracy in the Middle East and is a global bastion of human rights. Had Israel existed in 1940, 6 million Jews may not have died, and the Holocaust might not have occurred. Israel is the pride and joy of the Jewish people. Those who do not agree with this statement likely are ignorant of Jewish history and blind to Jewish purpose.

But what is the price Judaism has paid for the state of Israel? Is it possible for the Jewish people to remain a light for other nations as they engage in daily struggles to protect and promote their nation state as it is assailed from all sides?

I joined the Chabad movement as a boy, attending summer camp and meeting the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, when I was about 10 years old. The Rebbe’s universal message of globally spreading Judaism appealed to me. By 14, I had switched to a full-time, live-in Chabad yeshiva in Los Angeles. By 19, I was the Rebbe’s student emissary in Sydney, and by 22, along with my wife, Debbie, his full-time rabbinical emissary at Oxford University.

I reveled in making Judaism a light unto the nations. Why should Christianity and Islam, daughter religions of Judaism, make all the impact, with Judaism getting no credit? Where was the Jewish message for non-Jews about passionate marriages, kosher sex, raising inspired children and creating close-knit communities? Why was Judaism a spiritual backwater that appealed only to Jews?

My intention was not to proselytize non-Jews to Judaism. To the contrary, I wanted everyone to find purpose in their own identities and backgrounds. I wanted everyone to — as my friend Marianne Williamson once said — “honor their own incarnation.” But I also wanted universal Jewish values to influence them.

To that extent, I diverged from the traditional Hillel and Chabad campus model of focusing almost exclusively on Jews, and created a student organization that had thousands of non-Jews. Within two years of its creation, the Oxford L’Chaim Society had grown to become the second largest in Oxford’s history.

At that time, the late 1980s, I was keenly aware my beloved Israel was under attack. I was astonished by how much hatred the Jewish state engendered. I dedicated myself and our organization to Israel’s defense. In 11 years, we hosted six men who had or would serve as Israel’s prime ministers: Benjamin Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin. This was in addition to hundreds of other pro-Israel speakers and debaters.

The more I stood up for Israel, especially through ads in the media, the more my liberal friends and admirers began to desert me.

We trained students to be Israel’s spokespeople at important forums such as the Oxford Union. Some of our student leaders and participants went on to be top political officials, including Ambassador Ron Dermer, Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who was one of Israel’s greatest champions before turning on Israel with his support for the Iran nuclear agreement and his vote against the Taylor Force act in Senate committee.

While I continued to defend Israel, I published books on sex, relationships and marriage. I was wearing two hats: Hebrew warrior and relationship guru. The two peacefully coexisted — until about a decade ago, when they began to sharply diverge.

My relationships identity appealed to a liberal crowd that saw me as a rabbi in tune with modern times, someone who made religion accessible and relevant. My defense of Israel appealed to an opposite audience of conservatives that saw Israel as being unfairly maligned by the left. Evangelical Christians flocked to the message of Israel as a beacon of freedom and bastion of human rights.

However, the more I stood up for Israel, especially through ads in the media, the more my liberal friends and admirers began to desert me. How did my universal message of one human family mesh with my passionate defense of a Jewish nation state? How did my belief in the equality of all humankind coexist with what they saw was Israel’s displacement of the Palestinians?

Then-President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran brought this conflict into stark relief. Liberals delighted in his election and his policies. Those who loved him and supported him were the same people who agreed with my thoughts on Judaism, supported my anti-genocide campaigns in places such as Rwanda, and agreed with my furtherance of Holocaust education.

So how could I so strongly oppose Obama on Iran? Did I not understand this enlightened leader was making peace? The disdain people felt for my ferocious opposition to Obama’s Iran policy was a disappointment not in my politics, but my faith. Is Judaism not a religion of peace? How could we hate the Iranian mullahs?

After the Holocaust, any argument that Jews can survive as a religion without a state is profoundly ridiculous.

I suddenly felt the clash of two identities. My Jewish, rabbinical identity told me to follow Isaiah, beating swords into plowshares, filling the world with love and harmony. But in looking at the existential threat facing Israel, I did not feel the words of Isaiah were immediately relevant; the words of King David in Psalms seemed more appropriate: “Those who love God hate evil.”

As we took out more ads — including with Elie Wiesel — against the Iran deal, pointing out the abomination of giving the world’s foremost sponsor of terror $150 billion in unfrozen assets — much of it in cash — I felt myself losing my once-stalwart liberal base. “Perhaps Shmuley had bamboozled us and was an extremist fundamentalist all along.”

But the clash here was not about Shmuley-the-relationship-counselor versus Shmuley-the-Hebrew-warrior; it was a clash of Shmuley the rabbi, representing the universalist goals of Judaism, with Shmuley the Israel fighter, representing the existential survival needs of the Jewish nation-state.

As many saw it, it was a conflict between Jewish universalism and Hebrew parochialism; Judaism as a religion for all people versus Israel as a state for only Jewish people.

It was at this point I recalled the story of Roman Emperor Vespasian and the greatest rabbi of the last years of the Second Temple, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai.

The gist of the story is this: It’s 2,000 years ago and the Romans have surrounded Jerusalem. They are about to invade, annihilate the population and destroy the Holy Temple. The Jewish rebels fighting the Romans have made it a capital offense for anyone — including the greatest rabbis — to leave Jerusalem, for fear traitors will seek terms with the Romans or betray the Jewish cause.

Zakkai decides the Jewish cause is lost. The Romans will destroy everything. He fakes his death and is taken out of Jerusalem in a coffin, as bodies cannot be buried in the holy city. He is granted an audience with Vespasian, who is then a general, and greets him with the words, “Hail, Caesar.” Vespasian says the rabbi deserves death for giving him the imperial salutation when he is only a commanding general. Just then, a messenger comes in from Rome and says, “Hail, Caesar. The Roman emperor in the capital city has been deposed. You have been proclaimed the new emperor by your troops.”

Vespasian looks at Zakkai and is impressed, thinking the man is some kind of prophet. Vespasian agrees to grant the rabbi three wishes, the most important of which is Zakkai’s request that even if Jerusalem is destroyed, Vespasian will allow the rabbis and teachers to go to the city of Yavneh and establish a yeshiva there for the continuity of Judaism, the religion, unmolested by Rome.

But wait. What about the Temple? What about Israel? What about Jerusalem? What about the Jewish nation state? Clearly, Zakkai made a decision. Israel was lost, but Judaism would remain. The Jewish people would live on not through borders, an army and a capital, but through Jewish mitzvot and Torah observance. The people would survive through rabbis rather than soldiers, through scripture rather than a state, through the minute strictures of the halachah rather than the borders of a country.

From that fork in the road where Zakkai could have asked Vespasian to spare the country instead of sparing the Torah and teachers comes our present dilemma. For 2,000 years, Zakkai’s gamble — for which he was strongly criticized by fellow Talmudists — more or less worked. The Jewish people survived in exile through their Judaism.

I say “more or less” because survival came at the price of humiliation, expulsion, persecution, constant attack and finally, annihilation in the Holocaust. Yet for all those immeasurable and unspeakable horrors, Judaism and the Jewish people survived, even as millions did not.

Judaism ensured the Jewish people would be the first and only nation to survive by belief rather than borders, with rabbis rather than fighters, and the Bible and Prophets rather than an economy and markets.

But along came Theodor Herzl and spoiled the party. What kind of existence is this, he asked, as he surveyed the never-ending humiliation of European Jewry — even those who, like Alfred Dreyfus, had thought they might assimilate into non-Jewish acceptance? This is a wretched life, Herzl thought. We have no dignity. We need a nation state. A Jewish home. A place where Jews can live with prosperity and security provided by their own army.

The rabbis cried foul. Does this mean Israel would replace Judaism? Indeed, many early Zionists were fiercely secular. It’s not hard to understand why. They felt Judaism with its ultimate reliance on God rather than the efforts of the individual was holding back the Jewish people.

Herzl predicted a Jewish state within 50 years. He was off by about five. However, those critical five came with an event: the Holocaust. If Israel had met his prediction, 6 million Jewish lives might have been spared. The Nazi policy was Jewish emigration before it was annihilation. It’s just that no country — including the United States — would take them in. So they were killed at a rate of about 10,000 per day.

In effect, what Herzl did was expose Zakkai’s decision as profoundly incorrect. Yes, Judaism allowed the Jewish people to survive — until they were gassed and turned into ash in the crematoria of Auschwitz, Majdanek, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau.

After the Holocaust, any argument that Jews can survive as a religion without a state is profoundly ridiculous, which is why the Neturei Karta, aside from being an embarrassment to Judaism as they hang out with killers such as former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also are profoundly ignorant.

The world is not accustomed to seeing Jews stand up for themselves and would prefer us being the people of the book rather than the people of the Uzi.

I am a rabbi. I want the Jewish people to be a light unto the nations. I believe Judaism has redemptive teachings to share with the world on family, sexuality, marriage, human dignity, putting the accumulation of wealth in perspective, equality of women, respect for all of God’s children, hatred of evil and fighting human rights abuses.

As a religion, we can and should impart those values. No one gave us the opportunity to do so when authorities shoved us into ghettos, resulting in poverty-level existence. However, the emancipation of European Jewry provided that opportunity. Judaism finally might be heard.

Jewish luminaries such as philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86) began the process, even as they compromised some of the core of Judaism in an effort to make it more palatable. The creation of the United States gave Jews full rights and acceptance, and for the first time in 2,000 years, there arose the possibility that rabbis and Jewish thinkers might go public via TV, radio and later, the internet, as well as publish books that profoundly impact hundreds of millions of non-Jews.

Modern media and a new, open, liberal mindset allowed Judaism — for the first time in history — to become a light unto the nations, without having to influence the world through the medium of Christianity or Islam.

I firmly jumped on this bandwagon, using Jewish wisdom to counsel non-Jewish families on a national TV show. I sought to rescue faltering marriages, restore lost intimacy and passion from monogamous relationships, and help parents inspire their children with values.

But as the world turned on Israel, I felt the call of my people. How could I not stand up for the Jewish state, where two of my children served in the army and where my people were fulfilling the ancient dream of returning to Israel and Zion?

I threw myself into the Israel wars via public debates on campus, public debates on CNN, Fox and MSNBC and global advertising campaigns that defended the Jewish state.

With that decision came the loss of much of my liberal audience. How could I, an enlightened person who spoke about human rights and rescuing relationships, not care about the Palestinians, my critics, who were also Israel’s critics. How could I justify Israel’s aggression?

My response that Israel is the great Arab hope was met with deaf ears. I believe the flourishing of a democracy in the Middle East with full rights for all its Arab and Muslim citizens would give lie to Arab dictators who claim that things such as press freedom are impossible in the Middle East. There was a bias against Israel that seemed hard to surmount.

The quandary I faced took me back two millennia to Zakkai, sitting before Vespasian. Would I be silent on Israel so I could remain a rabbi to the gentiles? Would I allow Israel to suffer while I spoke on television about kosher sex? Would I allow my closest friend and former student president Cory Booker to betray Israel and the United States by voting to give the killer mullahs in Tehran $150 billion so Booker’s many admirers would continue to see me as the enlightened Chassidic rabbi who mentored him? Would I be silent to remain popular among the Hollywood set while Israelis were blown up on buses and in cafes?

No, I would not. I would not remain silent, regardless of personal cost.

But this wasn’t primarily about me and the price I personally paid. It was about a choice. As the world turned against Israel and as anti-Semitism sprang up around the world, being a fighter for Israel often meant forfeiting the opportunity to be a light unto the nations. The world at large was not going to listen to someone accusing it of anti-Semitism. The world was not going to see someone who defended Israel — which it vilified as an apartheid occupier — as a moral and spiritual light.

As my son Mendy told me, it’s almost as if the nations of the world were so brutal toward us that they completely reoriented our national mission from spreading the word of God to basic survival. And after they forced us into survival mode, they faulted us for fighting back and said those who fight have no right to preach a spiritual message of universal oneness and cosmic healing.

Photo by Getty Images

The election of President Donald Trump has magnified this divide. Those Jews thankful to Trump for moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; withdrawing from the catastrophic Iran nuclear deal; stopping the vilification of Israel at the United Nations; ceasing the funding to the Palestinian Authority as long as it channels that money in a pay-for-slay policy for killing Jews; and recognizing the Golan Heights, are treated as unworthy of the mantle of Jewish teacher. If you show the Jewish virtue of hakarat hatov, basic gratitude, toward a president who has strengthened and legitimized Israel immeasurably, especially at the United Nations, you are promoting darkness to the nations rather than serving as a light.

There now is an undeniable conflict between being an Israel warrior and serving as an exponent of Judaism, such that the more one engages in the former, the less effective he or she is in the latter. And one is forced to choose?

To detach Judaism from Israel is to make our religion a lifeless corpse bereft of soul.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at Hillel and Chabad on campus. They care deeply about Israel. Still, they pay, at best, lip service to the battle against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement on college campuses without mounting any serious and coordinated national campaign to combat it. Why? Their local directors will say — in their minds, with good cause — that if they stand for Israel or fight openly against Israel Apartheid Week, then students won’t come for chicken soup on Friday night. Hillel directors and Chabad rabbis feel they are forced to choose between advocating for Israel and losing more liberal-minded Jewish students, or forfeiting the fight for Israel and getting Jewish students to come to Torah classes or lectures on the Holocaust.

I cannot tell you how many college campus activists have expressed to me privately that Israel now is so toxic a subject on campuses that mixing it with their Jewish activities would cause them to lose more than half their participants.

To these Chabad rabbis and Hillel directors, I responded, “But, wait. If you’re going to cut out Israel from your programs — with the exception for some meaningless tokenism like having a falafel party on Yom HaAtzmaut — then you’ve cut out the heart of Judaism. Israel is central to everything Judaism stands for. What’s next? If God is offensive to atheists and makes you look backward and unscientific for your beliefs, do you drop Him as well? If mikveh is misunderstood by women as a belief that their menses make then unclean, do we cut out that, too? Or the Sabbath, if people believe it’s a day of idleness for people who are lazy and don’t want to work, will the Sabbath also be stripped out of Judaism?”

To this, one of Hillel’s most generous benefactors told me, “Look. I would never say this in public, but the battle for Israel on campus is lost. We should have woken up two decades ago. But we didn’t. And now, if we prioritize fighting for Israel, we cannot be impactful with teaching Judaism.”

So what can we do? Is Israel an unqualified blessing, or has its creation come at the expense of Jewish globalism? Has the creation of a nation-state in our ancient homeland in the Middle East compromised the universal impact we Jews were meant to make as a religion? Has Israel made us parochial rather than global? Myopic rather than universal? Limited rather than expansive? Controversial rather than popular?

Has Israel and the battle we must wage for Israel undermined the Jewish people’s capacity to use Jewish spirituality to influence the nations? The answer is yes and no.

We must not give up on explaining that Jewish spirituality and its success in sustaining the Jewish people is intimately connected with Israel.

Yes, the world is not accustomed to seeing Jews stand up for themselves and would prefer us being the people of the book rather than the people of the Uzi. A cynic might say the world does not so much hate Jews as hate Jews who have power and stick up for themselves. Take Hollywood, for example. Nearly every month, the industry releases an excellent movie about the tragedy of the Holocaust — yet it has not produced one positive movie about Israel since Paul Newman starred in “Exodus.” Jews with yellow Stars of David on them dying and being gassed moves and touches Hollywood writers, directors and producers. Jews battling in Merkava tanks on the Golan Heights, or Israeli commandos storming terrorist outposts in Gaza to ensure they never again are slaughtered, is seen not so much as heroic but as oppressive to Israel’s neighbors.

On the other hand, having Israel warriors has greatly enhanced Judaism. Having a home for which we are prepared to fight and stand up for ourselves in global PR has given the Jewish people a dignity we previously did not possess when we were a pitied nation.

Christian evangelicals now flock not only to support the Jewish state but to learn about the Jewishness of Jesus. In my book “Kosher Jesus,” I argue, based on Christian scripture and the New Testament, that Jesus was a Jewish patriot who fought for the freedom of Israel against the Roman oppressors and was put to death by Roman proconsul Pontius Pilate for his defiance.

Were it not for Israel, the Jewish people — and the Jewish religion by extension — would not have the impact it is having on evangelical Christians. Likewise, were it not for Israel, there would not be a true renaissance of Judaism — not only with the hundreds of yeshivot and seminaries that have opened but with Jewish communities the world over that have strengthened their bonds to their faith because of Israel’s inspiration.

But for those who are more liberally minded and are true globalists, yes, standing up for Israel has somewhat impaired our ability to influence them with Jewish values. For example, the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, may be the ultimate statement of globalist influence. When I was last there three years ago, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was treated as a global celebrity, feted by world leaders, even as Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke two hours after him, couldn’t fill half the room because attendees were boycotting his appearance.

Right now, we may not necessarily win over the globalists as we fight for Israel. They will punish us for standing up for ourselves. But I believe that in time, this will change. There will be a backlash against the false and fraudulent liberalism of today that would demonize Israel even as it fetes Iran, Turkey and China.

As for the price we pay until then, I feel it absolutely is worth it. Israel is worth it. The Jewish homeland is worth it. The Jewish state is worth it. Not only because without Israe there would be no sanctuary for Jews in an age of global persecution, but because as the Talmud says, “He who is without a home is not a person.” Even for Jews who live in the Diaspora, it is Israel that gives our Jewish identity dignity. It is Israel that gives our Jewish observance meaning. And it is Israel that gives every Jewish man, woman and child the greatest pride.

What meaning would our daily prayers have without the supplication of the divine presence returning to Jerusalem? How do we seek to be connected to the teachings of Abraham without understanding that they stemmed from a particular place and time in Israel? To detach Judaism from Israel is to make our religion a lifeless corpse bereft of soul.

Until such time as the world comes to see Israel’s virtue — an event made much harder by globally ingrained anti-Semitism — my advice is that we cannot give up the battle on joining the two. We must not give up on explaining that Jewish spirituality and its success in sustaining the Jewish people is intimately connected with Israel.

We Jews create strong families because we understand bonds that stretch across time and space, like our connection to Israel. We understand holiness because of the holy land of Israel. We understand ecstasy and longing because every year, we read of Moses’ ecstatic longing to enter Israel. We understand the need to keep one’s word and fulfill one’s promises — because after 2,000 years of exile, God kept his promise and returned us to the glorious, beautiful and majestic land of Israel, even as we continue to wait for the long-promised complete redemption of our people with the Messiah, when Israel and all the nations of the Earth will live in peace, men will beat their swords into plowshares, and no man will ever again teach his son the art of war.

May it happen now.


Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the author of 33 books, including “Judaism for Everyone,” “Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life,” “Kosher Sex,” “Kosher Adultery” and “Lust for Love,” co-authored with actress and activist Pamela Anderson. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.