February 22, 2019

Fighting for the soul of the Jewish people

These are challenging times for the Jewish people.

Despite our being the wealthiest and most privileged Jews in our 3600-year history, and despite the state of Israel being the most powerful, democratic and humane nation in the Middle East, we Jews feel vulnerable and afraid, and we are more divided in how we respond to our circumstances than any period in my lifetime.

It’s this state of our people that I want discuss with you this morning.

Our challenges as a people are many and serious. The state of Israel is today more isolated internationally than it has been in decades. The anti-Israel BDS (Boycott, Divestiture and Sanctions) movement is growing around the world and on American college campuses. The lack of a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, continuing Israeli settlement construction, and a political marriage between Israel’s ultra-Orthodox political parties and an increasingly violent settler movement is provoking negative and hostile world reaction and Jewish consternation.

In the context of a violent and destabilized Middle East, many Jews are unsure of what to really think about the Iran Nuclear Agreement given that we don’t trust Iran whose mullahs have sworn to destroy the state of Israel and have armed Hezbollah with 100,000 missiles aimed at the heart of the Jewish state.

Is it any wonder that so many Jews are agitated, frightened, angry, resentful, and confused? We are a people, after all, with a long memory and none of us who’s conscious of our historic experience can dismiss the threats of hardened anti-Semites.

The wide range of Jewish reactions to these threats, however, is stunning. One would think that given all the forces confronting us that we’d be of one mind – but, of course, we aren’t. Many Jews believe that liberal elements of the Jewish community have lost their bearings, are in denial and refuse to understand our enemies for who they really are and what they could do to us if we aren’t aggressively vigilant.

Others believe that conservative elements of the Jewish community have lost their moral compass, and that Israeli security challenges have overwhelmed every other consideration and excused behaviors that neither advance our people’s security nor comply with Judaism’s moral standards.

On each side, the left and the right, there’s a feeling of self-righteous certainty about the truth of what’s really going on. It’s that certainty that shines a light on both the left’s and the right’s weakness. No one is prescient and able to tell the future.

I’m not here to argue for or against the Iran Nuclear Agreement. I know that there are thoughtful, loyal and deeply concerned Jews on both sides of this debate. Of course, I’m very concerned as a citizen and a Jew that loves Israel about what this agreement will mean over time, but frankly, I’m just as worried about what’s happening within our own community in our relationship with each other and the state of Israel.

I remember so clearly the days when the American Jewish community was unified. Today, we’ve become more Balkanized, isolated and alienated from one another, and we’ve turned against each other to a degree I’ve never seen before.

The consequences of our intensifying American Jewish infighting spurred on primarily by the right-wing policies in the state of Israel and by the harsh Israeli occupation of the West Bank, are turning off far too many Jews and potentially a generation of young American liberal Jews who we as a people can ill afford to lose.

A year ago I exchanged emails with a young woman in our congregation who had entered rabbinic school and was spending her first year of study in Jerusalem. She is bright, kind and passionate. Her family includes long-time Zionists and former leaders of the state of Israel. But being in Israel and witnessing the right-wing policies of this and the last Israeli government, she had become disheartened.

Though Israel proper within the Green Line is a strong democracy, my young friend was witnessing a growing corruption of the classic liberal Zionist principles on which she was raised and the state was founded. She was shocked by growing racism in Israeli society, dismayed by the Israeli government’s conceptualization of the situation with the Palestinians, befuddled by ongoing settlement building, theft by Jews of documented Palestinian-owned land, demolition of Arab homes in East Jerusalem, a different legal standard for Palestinian west bank residents and their Israeli settler neighbors, and horrified that a liberal democracy can tell Israeli Arab citizens that they could no longer work in Israeli Jewish communities because they pose a “security threat.”

My young friend was fearful that demagogic and oppressive forces are gaining popular currency in Israel itself and that the Israeli government is increasingly intransigent in dealing effectively with its many challenges.

She was disheartened, as well, that the chief rabbinate maintains coercive monopolistic control over religious life in the state, and she wonders whether it would be preferable to give up Israel’s Jewish character for the sake of preserving Israel’s progressive democracy.

All these trends had caused her emotionally to disengage from Israel while living there, in the very heart of Jerusalem, and she confided that she felt like a heretic. She didn’t know what to do or how to think about Israel going forward.

In response, I wrote her an email and then posted it, with her permission, on my blog and I am talking about it with you today also with her permission. I titled the blog “An Open Letter to American Liberal Jewish Young Adults” who feel, like her, disconnected from the state of Israel. This blog went viral because, apparently, it resonated not only with my intended audience of young American Jewish adults, but with their parents and grandparents who worry mightily that their children’s and grandchildren’s relationship to the Israel they love is weakening.

I wrote the following:

“First, I want you to know that I’m proud of you, of your critical thinking, of your commitment to live an enriched Jewish religious and ethical life, to be a learned Jew, and that you yearn to make sense of what Israel means to you.

Second, you aren’t alone. Shabtai Shavit, a former director general of Mossad, Israel’s security service, recently confessed his own concerns about the “future of the Zionist project” and the threats against it in the region and international community. Shavit harshly criticized Israel’s political leadership’s ‘…haughtiness and arrogance, together with more than a bit of the messianic thinking that rushes to turn the [Israel-Palestinian] conflict into a holy war.’

Shavit worried aloud that ‘…large segments of the nation … have forgotten… the original vision of Zionism: to establish a Jewish and democratic state for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel…’ and that ‘the current defiant policy [of settlement building] is working against [this vision].’

He called upon Israel to enter into conversation with moderate Arab nations (i.e. Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) and negotiate, based on the Saudi Peace Plan of 2002 (despite its problems), a two-states for two peoples resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will augur, as promised in the plan, the complete normalization of relations between Israel and the moderate Arab and Muslim world.

Shavit concluded soberly: ‘I wrote the above statements because I feel that I owe them to my parents, who devoted their lives to the fulfillment of Zionism; to my children, my grandchildren and to the nation of Israel, which I served for decades.’” (Former Mossad Chief: For the first time, I fear for the future of Zionism – Haaretz, November 24, 2014 – http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.628038)

I told my young friend, among other things, that she had to find a way to hold at once her conflicting thoughts about Israel while maintaining her active engagement with the Jewish state not only because Israel is the home of the entire Jewish people, but for the first time in 2000 years we Jews world-wide can test the most exalted moral principles of prophetic Judaism within a democratic Jewish state and thereby fulfill Isaiah’s prophesy that the Jewish people become an or lagoyim, a light to the nations of the world (Isaiah 42:6).

I told her that the Jewish people cannot afford for her, our future leadership, to disengage from Israel, that we liberal lovers of Israel need her to become our next generation’s leaders in American Zionist organizations, and the advocate that Israel deserves and we and the Jewish people need.

When I wrote to her, the American Jewish community was starting to come apart at the seams. Since then, in only a year, division has intensified because of the debate, heightened rhetoric and fears around the Iran Nuclear Agreement.

Many of you know that I support the Agreement even with its flaws, but I don’t for a moment doubt that those against the agreement love the state of Israel as I do. I do, however, doubt many of their love and tolerance for me and those who think like me based on the slanderous, dismissive and intimidating rhetoric that they are using against us for their political ends.

What’s happening within our community isn’t good. We need to turn down the decibels of the rhetoric and speak with far greater humility and civility to and about each other even when our passions are piqued and when we think the other side is sorely mistaken. We need to regard the other side of the debate not as our enemy, but as part of the same team that seeks what is best for America and Israel.

Let me say, however, that there are some within the broad Jewish community who I believe are not part of big-tent Judaism; namely, extremists on the right in the ultra-Orthodox community who say, as Israel’s Minister of the Interior David Azoulai said this summer, that Reform Jews aren’t Jewish, and those in the settler movement who think nothing of stealing Palestinian land and throwing fire bombs into Palestinian homes thus murdering entire families. I also question those Jews on the far left who have disassociated themselves with the Jewish people and are cavalier about legitimate Israeli security concerns. Everyone else, and that’s a lot of people, are part of our Jewish and pro-Israeli tent.

Heightened passions in our debate with each other, in Hebrew we call this a machloket, are being fed mostly by right-wing American Jews who fear that this agreement is not in either Israel’s or America’s best interest, that we’ve given away the store to a mortal enemy in Iran that with a nuclear weapon would create a new Holocaust. That position has been the stance of Prime Minister Netanyahu, his right-wing allies and the increasingly fanatic, violent and now murderous settler movement.

For the Prime Minister and his allies here and in Israel and the West Bank, everything has become equal existential threats to the state of Israel and the Jewish people: Iran, ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, terrorism, Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas, the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel international BDS movement, left-wing Israeli NGOs, the New Israel Fund, Israeli Arab citizens coming in droves to vote, and even President Obama and the P5+1.

This absolutist one-size-fits-all us-versus-them attitude is playing powerfully to age-old Jewish fears. The debate in the United States has turned particularly ugly very fast, and doomsday rhetoric has escalated so dramatically that two of our region’s most thoughtful and serious Congressional Representatives and pro-Israel advocates, Adam Schiff who supports the agreement and Ted Lieu who opposes it, told me and a small group of people in the last month that debate on the nuclear agreement’s merits and flaws has been made far more difficult because of the heated over-blown rhetoric.

Left-wingers calling Senator Schumer a traitor marching to the orders of the Israeli government is just as outrageous and false as those on the right who accuse Congressman Jerry Nadler of new York a traitor and President Obama of appeasement and cloaked anti-Semitism.

There is, however, believe or not, a potential silver lining within all the ugliness because we Jews aren’t new to inner conflict and internecine warfare. From the earliest stages of Jewish history we’ve fought with one another, sometimes viciously.

From the conflict between Joseph and his brothers to Absalom’s attempt to dethrone his father King David, to the civil war between radically Hellenized Jews and the Maccabees, to the struggle for authority and legitimacy between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the Rabbinites and Karaites, the Hasidim and Mitnagdim, the Zionists and early Reform anti- Zionists, and now between the very different visions of Zionism and Judaism, controversy has characterized every Jewish generation and has been a usual state of the Jewish people for millennia.

So…what’s the silver lining? Jewish controversy often has yielded constructive new Jewish narratives and timeless advice and wisdom to move us forward as a people and as a religious and ethical tradition. Controversy has refined us as a community, and the history of conflicts resolved reassures us when we we’ve been divided and under threat as we are now that we can still come together.

We especially need wisdom and advice today because of all our divisions, in what Jewish identity means, in what the state of Israel means, in how we think about the non-Jewish world, in how we accommodate ourselves to life here in America and around the globe.

None of us should be so surprised by the depth and breadth of arguments today, for it’s come with the emergence of Jewish national self-determination over the last century. National policies in Israel affect us here as what we do affects Israelis, and those policies always are subject to strong debate and opinion.

Add to the mix the fact that we Jews are by nature and nurture an edgy, argumentative, opinionated, critical, and self-critical lot, and the result is conflict. We’re lovable too, of course; but we’re very tough and probably way too stubborn for our own good.

When I think about how complicated we Jews are and how difficult are the challenges we face, I take a small measure of comfort in what Yehudah Bauer, a scholar of Jewish history and the Holocaust, recently wrote:

“The Jews were always in opposition to the whole world. The Jewish people would be endangered by unity. The quarrels and disputes are the engine that drives [our] culture forward, backward or sideways. That is its elixir of life. If we are deprived of the constant ability to quarrel, we will be finished. The endless debates, from the Middle Ages to our own time, constitute the vitality of this people…” (Haaretz -February 26, 2013):

Bauer is right. We are a vital and contentious people, but we can’t leave it there because if we do our divisions will grow wider and we could lose our Jewish community here and the state of Israel as a democracy and our national home.

Putting the extremists aside, many of us to their left and to their right need to turn away from the precipice and back towards each other. We have to agree to disagree while recognizing that we are still one people and that we share common interests in the security, viability, democracy, and Jewish character of the state of Israel and the health, vitality and unity of our people worldwide. Said simply, we have to regard each other as part of the same team or we will lose what is most important to the people of Israel, our sense of unity and the Jewish democratic state of Israel.

The classic example of how we Jews have respectfully disagreed with each other is the relationship between two early first century BCE sages, Hillel and Shammai, and the schools of thought that followed them. They and their students debated vigorously everything of consequence, on belief, religious practice, ethics, and Jewish law. At times they were able to reconcile their differences, but so often their positions were at polar extremes.

In one of their most famous cases recorded in the Talmud, after a lengthy debate that carried on for three years, their argument was at last settled by what the Talmud called a bat kol – a heavenly voice – that declared, “Eilu v’Eilu divrei Elohim chayim – These and these are the words of the Living God, but the law is in agreement with Beit Hillel.” (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b)

The Talmud explained that Beit Hillel’s decisions were not necessarily better than Beit Shammai, only that Hillel predominated because his disciples were “kindly and modest and studied their [own] rulings and those of the School of Shammai… teach[ing] that the one who humbles oneself is raised up by the Holy One.”

Hillel and Shammai gave rise to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and generations of rabbis who were compassionate, loved justice and walked humbly before God. The Zealots fought to the death against Rome on Masada and everyone else died there while the rabbis saved Judaism from annihilation.

The most extreme West Bank settlers are the Zealots of today, and given that the Israeli government isn’t stopping them from their hostilities and violence, they are leading the state of Israel over a cliff.

Their defiance has infected otherwise reasonable Jews worldwide. Hillel’s humility and respectful debate is what we need now, but increasingly it’s rare in Jewish life today. The recalcitrance that has, from the Israeli side, resulted in failed negotiations for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, understanding that the Palestinians too are responsible, is as serious an existential threat to the Jewish people as anything that ISIS and Iran can do to us.

Yes, there are many on the left who believe that the right wing has lost its moral bearings. And there are many on the right who dismiss and delegitimize those with whom they disagree.

I’m trying to be as objective and self-critical as I can be, and I’m convinced that most of the responsibility for the serious division amongst our people is coming from the right wing that not only advocates policies in Israel and the West Bank that will doom the democratic and Jewish character of the state of Israel but has also crossed the line of civility.

In the early 1960s, the historian Richard Hofstadter characterized a “paranoid style” of politics as leading to “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy” (“The Paranoid Style in Politics,” Harper’s Magazine, November, 1964). It’s that kind of paranoia in Israel’s leadership today and in the right wing of the American Jewish community coupled with the belief that only its side holds the truth that has led to Israel’s increasing international isolation and a head-to-head argument with the President of the United States, arguably the best proven friend the state of Israel has in the world.

What should be of special concern to every Jew today is how the extremism on the right, here and in Israel, is damaging the fabric and soul of our community and of the Jewish state itself.

Hillel and his disciples along with the loyal opposition represented by Shammai and his followers ought to serve as the corrective to those who prefer intolerance to tolerance, militarism to negotiation and a winner-take-all attitude as opposed to compromise and accommodation.

We Jews have too much at stake not to insist that our leaders and community step away from the precipice and restore humility to our politics and civility towards our opponents as modeled by both the followers of Hillel and Shammai.

May that, at the very least, be our people’s mission in this New Year.

L’shanah tovah.