New Light on Zion

October 03, 2016
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove

Rosh Hashanah

In retrospect, I don’t think any of us would have faulted him for keeping quiet. The year was 1916 and Louis Brandeis was nominated to be the first Jew on the Supreme Court. It would be a long and bruising confirmation battle. Was the country ready for this progressive and potentially polarizing figure, a Jew no less, to take a seat on the highest court in the land? Brandeis had not arrived at his Judaism until his fifties; in his own words: “Throughout long years which represent my own life, I have been to a great extent separated from the Jews.” Perhaps it was a 1910 mediation with striking garment workers that prompted Brandeis to identify with his brethren of Eastern European origin for the first time. It could have been a chance meeting between Brandeis and the journalist Jacob de Haas, who regaled Brandeis with tales of his late Uncle Lewis Dembitz’s Zionism. Maybe, some say, it was the influence of Aaron Aaronsohn, head of the Jewish Agricultural Experiment in Palestine, who planted the seeds of Palestine’s promise in our Kentucky-born justice. The truth is, nobody, perhaps not even Brandeis, knew why he became a Zionist later in life. What we do know is that in August 1914, as the efforts of European Zionists were shut down due to the outbreak of World War I, and world Jewry turned to America for leadership, it was Louis Brandeis who was elected chair of the World Zionist Organization. 

So when he was nominated and subsequently appointed to the Supreme Court in 1916, had Brandeis decided to focus solely on his judicial obligations and let his newfound parochial ties slacken, we would, I suppose, understand. What happened, we know, was just the opposite. Precisely one hundred years ago this coming year, owing to Brandeis’s intervention, the Balfour Declaration came into being. In a story told most recently in a fabulous new book by Jeffrey Rosen, it was Brandeis who, by way of his influence on President Wilson and Lord Balfour himself, was able to secure the long-awaited dream of international sanction of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” the political cornerstone for what would become the modern State of Israel. (Louis D. Brandeis: American Prophet, p. 165; Phillipa Strum, Louis D. Brandeis: Justice for the People, p. 273; L. Stein, The Balfour Declaration, pp. 427-8)

Critical as Brandeis was to the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, instrumental as his leadership was in rallying the men, money, and discipline to grow a national movement, it is Brandeis’s ideological legacy to which American Zionism is forever indebted. Remember, to declare oneself a Zionist in those days was to be subject to the charge of dual loyalty. As Rosen explains, populist sentiment was suspicious of foreigners, and legislators sought to limit immigration, as a spirit of anti-hyphenated-identity pervaded our country. To the non-Jewish community, but more importantly, to the Jewish community, Brandeis articulated a vision whereby one could be both an American and Zionist. “Let no American,” he declared in 1915, “imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with patriotism. . . . Every American Jew who aids in advancing the Jewish settlement in Palestine, though he feels that neither he nor his descendants will ever live there, will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so.” The most important thing about these words is that they were spoken to a room of American rabbis. Brandeis was the Sandy Koufax of his day – no Jew or non-Jew could touch his stature – and here he was telling American Jewish leaders not only that they could, but that they must, support the nascent State of Israel. Brandeis is the father of American Zionism not because of the Balfour declaration and not because of his fundraising skills. Brandeis is the father of American Zionism, because one hundred years ago he championed the revolutionary and countercultural idea that every American Jew become a Zionist without necessarily making aliyah, emigrating to Israel. Brandeis sought to facilitate a rapprochement between competing sectors of American Jewry, the young and the old, the established American Jewish leadership and the Eastern European immigrants. He understood the loyalties that stood in conflict, he understood the tension embedded in American Jewry, and he articulated a compelling vision whereby one’s Zionism and patriotism were not only not mutually exclusive, but were interdependent one upon the other. “To be good Americans,” Brandeis insisted, “we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.” The force of Brandeis’s persona, the force of his ideas, the competing loyalties he bridged, all led to the birth of the movement we call American Zionism.

This Rosh Hashanah it is 100 years later, not just the birthday of the world, but the centennial of American Zionism. On the one hand, we could say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. A contentious presidential election, a protracted battle over a Jewish Supreme Court nominee, a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, and a bubbling cauldron of world conflict with concomitant debates on US military intervention. We would not be wrong to reflect on a peculiar feeling of déjà vu. And yet, we know that for American Jewry, for Israel, and for the all-important relationship between the two, we live in an era that our predecessors could not have imagined possible. The establishment of the Jewish State, the affluence, ease and assimilation of American Jewry, be it measured in Jewish Supreme Court justices, Nobel laureates or tech titans - American Jewry punches way above its weight. Just last week, both presidential candidates met with the Israeli Prime Minister, meetings that were as unremarkable to us as they would have been inconceivable to Brandeis. And while the scar of the Shoah is a wound from which our people will never recover, nor ever forget – we are, without question, living in an era of unprecedented blessing. The playing field is very different that it was 100 years ago. So as we gather for our annual check-in, as we come together on Rosh Hashanah, on this, the 100th anniversary of American Zionism, let’s ask the questions of the hour. Where are we? How did we get here? And most importantly: where shall we go from here?

The challenge that Brandeis faced and was able to reconcile – that patriotism was entirely compatible with Zionism – was a challenge of a bygone era. By the time Brandeis passed away in 1941, American Jewry faced a new question, how to support American war efforts while finding refuge for a persecuted European Jewry. A few years later, with the establishment of Israel in 1948, American Jewry was, on the one hand, jubilant in the return of Jewish sovereignty and self-determination, but also disoriented in the realization that they had, by making the choice not to emigrate, somehow sidestepped the arc of Jewish history. It is worth noting that the campus bearing Brandeis’s name was established in that same year – 1948 – as if to assert that American Jewry was here, and here to stay. The golden age, if you will, for American Zionism came in the sixties and seventies. Whether it was the Six-Day or the Yom Kippur War, Entebbe or Munich, triumph or terror, the combination of fear and pride prompted American Jewry to respond with unprecedented support – political, philanthropic, and in terms of emigration to Israel, personal.

Students of American Jewry differ as to when the turning point occurred. When exactly did the Golden Age end, ambivalence creep in, and occasional criticism replace unequivocal support? Some say, it was the Lebanon War, others the first intifada a few years later, and some suggest it was even earlier, in the wake of the Six-Day War, when Israel chose not to heed the advice of Ben-Gurion, who, upon hearing of the IDF’s capture of Hebron, reportedly said, “Well done, now give it back to them.” Some, to be sure, say it wasn’t Israel that changed, but American Jewry, that as we began to assimilate, it was a weakened and wavering American Jewry that began to criticize the Jewish state. Regardless of the start date and who started it, what is clear is that at some point we entered a new chapter in our relationship. Long gone were the days when Israel could claim the role of powerless victim, the David to the Arab world’s Goliath. No longer was Israel the young, scrappy, and hungry place of milk, honey, and moral purity depicted in Leon Uris’s Exodus. Yet again, American Zionism would face a test of competing loyalties. Not those of Brandeis’s day: patriotism vs. Zionism; not those of 1948: emigration or not; but a new conflict – a conflict inconceivable to our predecessors – that if not named, discussed openly, and, most of all, addressed, will imperil the critical bond between the two vital centers of world Jewry today.

So what is the conflict facing American Jewry today? The late, great Leonard Fein once wrote:

There are two kinds of Jews in the world. There is the kind of Jew who detests war and violence, who believes that fighting is not ‘the Jewish way,’ who willingly accepts that Jews have their own and higher standards of behavior. And not just that we have them, but that those standards are our lifeblood, are what we are about. And there is the kind of Jew who thinks we have been passive long enough, who is convinced that it is time for us to strike back at our enemies, to reject once and for all the role of victim, who willingly accepts that Jews cannot afford to depend on favors, that we must be tough and strong.

“And the trouble is,” Fein concludes, “most of us are both kinds of Jew.” (Moment, Sept. 1982)

Fein wrote these words in 1982 with the backdrop of the first Lebanon War just prior to the horrific bloodshed of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, an incident that would eventually prompt the resignation of then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. Fein’s reflection draws out what was, and I believe remains, the fundamental tension American Jewry faces regarding Israel, and that is the competing loyalty between our particularism and universalism, or as the sociologist Steven M. Cohen writes, our protective and prophetic impulses. Our tension is not that of dual loyalty, nor, for most American Jews, the question of emigration. Rather it is the simple but inexorable fact that as American Jews, each one of us is two kinds of Jew, heirs to two laudable and sometimes conflicting traditions of particularism and universalism.

First, our particularism. To be a Jew means to be a member of a distinct family, a mishpachah, and as such our first concern is necessarily directed toward the well-being of that mishpachah, protecting the Jewish past, present and future – from generation to generation, which in the case of Zionism means the safety and security of our brothers and sisters living in Israel. In the temporal shadow of the Shoah, in the actual shadow of Iran, in the face of suicide bombs, indiscriminate knife attacks, Palestinian intransigence, corruption and celebration of terror, in a world of anti-Semitism, anti-normalization, ISIS, Holocaust denial, BDS, and de-legitimization of Israel in the Middle East, Europe, UN and college campuses, is it at all curious that the Jewish people should be “shields up” and put Israel first? In a world where the resolutions attacking Israel as “racist” or “apartheid” emanate from those people and places who stand guilty of their own colossal abuses of human rights, why would we pay heed to such hypocrisy? Would any other sovereign nation, we rhetorically and rightfully ask, respond with Israel’s restraint and military code of ethics, when its own citizenry is subjected to indiscriminate attacks? In such a world, what kind of Jew would do anything other than put our particular concerns for Israel as our pre-eminent if not sole loyalty?

But to be a Jew also means a commitment to a prophetic tradition and a series of universal values, namely, putting the welfare of humanity at the forefront of our concerns. American Jewry has a historic commitment to civil rights and civil liberties, tikkun olam, and a host of progressive causes. How exactly do we square the circle of the dream of Israel as a liberal democracy while bearing witness to the growth of settlements and asphyxiation of the two-state solution? Those of us excited to celebrate the centennial of the Balfour declaration are surely aware of its second clause, the one stating that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” a promise affirmed in Israel’s founding declaration. To see the checkpoints, the disparity of resources, the communal and familial dislocations wrought by the security barrier is to witness a breach in the very universal values we are taught as Americans, as Jews, and as American Jews. With every piece of legislation in which Israel declares itself hostile to religious pluralism, hostile to the Judaism we practice here in the States and here in this synagogue, is it at all curious that American Jews should find themselves increasingly alienated from the Jewish state?

I am trying, mind you, not to pick sides. What I am trying to do is explain where we are and how we got here. Far too many people far too often brush the struggle aside, claiming it is just a generational gap - whether you were born before or after 1967, AIPAC or J Street, New York Times or Wall Street Journal, or – my favorite – a willfully blind devotee of Israel or a willfully ignorant self-hating Jew. Such divisions, however, are not only intellectually false, but they diminish the complexity of our moment and misrepresent our tradition. We are heirs to two authentic traditions, protective and prophetic. As Hillel taught: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, then what am I?” Yes, we are here for the Jewish New Year, but it is the creation of universal humanity that we are celebrating. Of course we read of the birth of our patriarch Isaac, but we also read of God’s care for the other, Hagar, whose name literally means “the stranger.” The universal and the particular: both are of our deepest concern. Both sides have a point, both rooted in Jewish sources. I am reminded of the story of the married couple who came to the rabbi to resolve their differences. The rabbi listened to the husband and said, “My son, you are right.” He then listened to the wife, and said, “My daughter, you are right.” Overhearing the conversation, the rabbi’s wife questioned, “How can they both be right?” To which the rabbi replied, “My dear, you are also right!” This is not about who is right and who is wrong, we are both kinds of Jew, both of us are right – in Hebrew, sh’neinu tzodkim – and that is precisely the point and the problem. American Jews are blessed and burdened with two identities and Israel is the Rorschach test that brings it all to the fore.

I think of the ADL, the Anti-Defamation League, the senior statesman of American Jewry, committed both to civil rights, and to combating anti-Semitism and the de-legitimization of Israel. Just a few weeks ago, over the course of twenty-four hours, the ADL issued three different statements. The first applauded the US-Israel aid package. The second denounced BDS. The third, significantly, chastised the Israeli Prime Minister for equating Palestinian aspirations for sovereignty with ethnic cleansing. This is the ADL, the big boy of American Jewry, all tangled up in the question of whether its focus should be on the defense of Israel or its critique.

I think of a committee on which I serve at the AJC, the American Jewish Committee, which, like the ADL, is a premier Jewish advocacy organization. The committee is called the Jewish Religious Equality Commission (JREC), and it seeks to break the stranglehold of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate on matters of personal status. With one sermon to give each week, I wonder, shall I use those precious minutes to defend Israel against its enemies or to decry Israel’s scorn of that which is most dear to me – my Judaism and the Jewish community I serve?

I think of our college kids. Taught from birth to treat the stranger with kindness because we too were once strangers in a strange land. Taught to love Israel and defend her, and hopefully by way of a Birthright trip to Israel get even more engaged. Then, we send them off to campus where Israel is subjected to such a barrage of criticism that they are effectively told that their love for Israel is in conflict with every other progressive value they and their contemporaries hold dear.

I think of my own children who have been to Israel more times than they can count, have family there, and one day want to live there. This summer my eleven-year-old son asked me without any prompting: 

“Hey Dad, you know the Israeli national anthem – Hatikvah – that line about the two-thousand-year hope to be a free nation in our land?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Well,” Jed continued, “how do Israeli-Arabs feel when they sing it?”

It was a terrifying and gorgeous moment. My kid was doing exactly what I always hoped for: loving and defending Israel, but thinking of the other, the stranger in our midst. And because my child was doing everything right, a conflict of values was set into motion.

I could give a million examples, but they all point to the same conundrum: an American Jewry caught between the switches, caught between its universalism and particularism. Which is why, today, on this Rosh Hashanah, I want to challenge you. Left or right, young or old, AIPAC or J Street, I want to challenge you. We came to synagogue not to hear how the world is, but how it ought to be. So let us leave the safe space behind and enter into the brave space where we define the conversation we want to have. One hundred years after Brandeis and Balfour, fifty years after the Six-Day War, twenty-five years after the Madrid Peace Conference, let’s draft the next chapter of American Jewry’s relationship with Israel. Today, on this Rosh Hashanah, let’s call for the birth of a New American Zionism.

First and foremost, we need an American Zionism that begins with love for the Jewish people, a Zionism that teaches our children and grandchildren the story of our exile, the pitfalls of powerlessness, the dreams of every wave and every stage of our national longings and our right to the land. American Jewry has become woefully ahistorical, and we need a Marshall Plan to rebuild our deficit of memory, because you can’t love a country that you know only by way of CNN. By my count, Park Avenue Synagogue already has two trips to Israel this year, and in the hours to come we will announce a third trip next spring on the occasion of fifty years since the Six-Day War. As long as I am rabbi, we will go at least once a year. We need formal, informal, and most importantly, experiential curriculum; our children should be in dialogue with Israeli children, by way of technology, exchange programs, sister congregations, any means available. Every Bar and Bat Mitzvah should be given a trip to Israel, underwritten if need be. We need a full time shaliach, an Israel educator, on staff, a Yom HaAtzma’ut celebration that is the talk of the town, and a redoubling of our efforts on Hebrew language, because that is our bridge to each other, to our past and to our future. We need to do more, we need to do it better, and we need to be all in.

Next, we need an American Zionism with a dose of humility. The Middle East is not the Upper East Side, and the democratically elected government of Israel has every right to make decisions in the best interest of Israel even when they run contrary to our sensibilities. Israel lives in a very rough neighborhood, and the community of nations holds Israel to a nasty double standard that is often, but not always, laced with explicit or implicit anti-Semitism. Lest we forget, Abraham was called Ha-Ivri, meaning “the other,” because he stood alone when the rest of the world stood on the other side. There is nothing wrong, in fact there is everything right, with standing at Israel’s side, even when, and sometimes especially when, it makes decisions we ourselves would not make. We dare not be the proverbial football player who takes a knee because we object to this or that policy. Given the choice of defending a sovereign and imperfect Israel or enjoying the moral purity of exiled victimhood, I would choose the former over the latter any day, and so should you. In school, on campus, on Capitol Hill, the coming generation of American Zionists must be given the tools to be resilient, self-confident, and adroit defenders of the real, not imagined, Jewish state.

But for the coming chapter of American Zionism to ring authentic and stand the test of time, we must also be willing and able to integrate the other, universal and prophetic dimension of American Jewry. If the project of Zionism, as Martin Buber once reflected, is the Jewish use of power as tempered by morality, then it is a project that sometimes Israel gets right and sometimes Israel gets wrong. If the dream of Israel is to serve as a homeland for all Jews and all forms of Jewish expression, then we must confront the bitter truth that that very dream is threatened by the government of the Jewish state. If on this year’s coming anniversary of the Six-Day War, Israel’s challenge remains how to remain a liberal democracy without sacrificing its security concerns, then we dare not stand idly by as that dream slips away. There is nothing wrong with helping, chiding, or goading Israel towards these goals as long as that nudging comes from a place of abiding concern for Israel’s safety and security. We dare not let the ideological, philanthropic, and social media extremes define the field of play and terms of the debate. If you don’t live in Israel but want to effectuate change there, then do it systemically. Support religious pluralism, support the Conservative/Masorti movement, support efforts aimed at Arab-Jewish co-existence and dialogue, and support those efforts aimed at creating a two-state solution. Those of us in this room, we who live between the forty-yard lines, have a unique role to play in shaping of the coming chapter of American Zionism. With the stakes as high as they are, the sane center must speak with passion and with volume, we must protect each other from the ideologues on the extremes, we must rally the men, women, money, and discipline for a cause that is just and above all else, we must let the Jewish world know that we are all in this together.

Finally, the coming chapter of American Zionism needs to understand that American Zionism is not a substitute for American Judaism. The problem with the golden age of American Zionism was that for far too many Jews, support for Israel became a vicarious faith, a civil religion masking the inadequacies of our actual religion. The only way Israel will learn from, listen to, or care about American Jews is if American Jews show themselves to be living energetic Jewish lives. We dare not pin our angst over Jewish continuity on the politics of Israel. A robust American Jewish identity can weather policy differences with this or that Israeli government and withstand the slings and arrows of campus culture – something a paper-thin Jewish identity cannot do. One hundred years ago, Brandeis asserted that to be better Jews, we must become Zionists. Today, we know that to be good Zionists, we must be better Jews. If you are interested, really interested, in the future of American Jewry’s relationship with Israel, then make sure in the year ahead you do that one thing truly in your power to do: live a vibrant Jewish life. Build up your own Jewish identity and that of your children and grandchildren, and do everything in your power to support those individuals and institutions committed to nurturing and sustaining the American Jewish community.

With the passing of Shimon Peres last week, the Jewish people lost a great leader. In his eulogy, Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke of the differences between them, reflecting on one late night conversation in particular:

“From Israel’s perspective,” Netanyahu asked Peres, “What is paramount: bitahon, security, or shalom, peace?”

Shimon replied “Bibi, peace is the true security. If there will be peace, there will be security."

Bibi responded, “Shimon, in the Middle East, security is essential for achieving peace and for maintaining it.”

The debate intensified, the two men argued, one from the left, the other from the right, one the prophet of peace and the other the protector of Israel, until like two worn-out prize fighters, they put down their gloves. So who was right? With the passage of time, Netanyahu reflected on their exchange, concluding sh’neinu tzodkim, “we are both right.” Though their politics differed, Netanyahu explained, no one camp has a monopoly on truth, and their views stemmed from a shared and principled commitment to Israel’s future. In Netanyahu’s words: “…The goal is to ensure our national existence and co-existence. To promote progress, prosperity and peace – for us, for the nations of the region, and for our Palestinian neighbors.”

Friends, our politics as American Jews, no different than in Israel, may indeed differ. And no differently than Israelis themselves, let us acknowledge that conflicted as our souls may be – universal and particular, prophetic and protective – deep down, sh’neinu tzodkim, we are both right: we are both kinds of Jew. This is no concession; it is actually our strength. It is the starting point for drafting the next chapter of American Zionism, and it is the seed that bears the promise of our future.

Or hadash al tziyon ta·ir, v’nizkeh kulano m’heirah l’oro. “Cause a new light to shine on Zion, and may we all soon share a portion of its radiance.” May this year and the years ahead be radiant ones, for us, for Israel, and the shared bond between us.