As I read the news of Amnesty International’s latest report, “Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians,” I could not help but note the irony that I was doing so on Groundhog Day. It all felt so very familiar; we have seen this before, a situation repeated time and again. I have only read the executive summary, not all 280 pages, but for the purposes of this morning, the full flavor is captured in the report’s slasher-film subtitle: “Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity.” The UN’s 1975 Zionism is Racism resolution, the Goldstone Report, the Durban Conference, the Human Rights Watch assessment following last May’s Gaza conflict; and now this report – yet another lopsided indictment of Israel. In the Cosgrove household the best response came from my wife. When I asked her if she was shocked by the report and its sensationalist and one-sided claims against Israel, she turned to me quizzically and asked: “Elliot, are you really surprised? What exactly did you think Amnesty was going to say?” I conceded then (as always), that she was right. This latest Amnesty report is just another instance in a decades-long drumbeat of anti-Israel sentiment emanating from the halls of the UN and other international human rights NGOs.
Over the last few days, I thought long and hard about whether to speak to you about the report. For the most part, I try not to turn this pulpit into political theatre; those who are here, whether physically or virtually, are here for spiritual uplift, for connection to tradition. I know that you know where to go if you want a briefing from the ADL, AIPAC or JStreet. I try to stay in my lane and believe it to be beneath my dignity and yours to use this sacred time and space to say something that is already being said in any number of op-eds. Besides, as noted, I wondered if there is anything actually “new” or “newsy” about the report, and, if not, in speaking about it, am I not somehow abetting Israel’s detractors by feeding it oxygen and breathing life into it? I’ve been warned against the mistake of answering loaded questions such as “When did you stop beating your wife?” There is no good answer. Your opponent’s assumptions are built into the question. They have defined the territory of the debate, so even if you rebut their claims, they have won. Elliot, leave it alone. Don’t engage; stick to the Torah reading. Do you really want people to be able to Google the words: “Amnesty,” “Israel,” “Apartheid” and have “Cosgrove” come up?
And yet . . . having voiced my concerns, I do want to turn to the subject. I do so, because for me, Israel is part and parcel of my Jewish identity; it is central to the vision of my rabbinate; and as long as I am the rabbi here, it will remain central to the mission of Park Avenue Synagogue. I want you, your children, and grandchildren to keep kosher, to observe Shabbat, to create Jewish families, and to do all sorts of other things, including to live proudly as Zionists. None of us chose to live in this miraculous era of a sovereign Jewish state, when – after thousands of years of exile – Jews have the right to national self-determination, but we do. For me that means that to be Jewish today is to be actively engaged with Israel. Regardless of whether the specific claims of the Amnesty report are new, failure to address those claims strikes me as an abdication of my role as a Jewish educator. In the most personal terms, I am not only a rabbi, but the father of four children, some on campus, some about to be. For my children, for your children, as an institution of Jewish education, we must provide the tools to contend with the claims of the Amnesty report and reports like it. In the words of the prophet Isaiah: “For Zion’s sake, I dare not keep silent.” (62:1)
On my read, the report is guilty of both sins of commission and sins of omission. Its lack of acknowledgement of the Jewish people’s historic claim to the land betrays a bias that colors every other claim it makes. After all, if the Jews have no right to the land, then Israel is a national project conceived in sin, its very creation an act of dispossession. The tell sign of the report, if you will, is its repeated references to Israel’s misdeeds since the creation of the state in 1948. This is not a report limited to a post-1967 dispute over the West Bank and Gaza; this is an attack on Israel’s very right to exist. There is no mention of Arab rejectionism, no mention of Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Palestinian terrorism of any kind, or Israel’s right to defend its citizenry, which, last time I checked, is the first duty of any nation.
To describe Israel as an apartheid state is both deeply inflammatory and inaccurate. As Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum explained in his response piece, unlike the South African example, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, tragic as it is, is about territory, not race: two sides fighting to establish their own national identities in the same plot of land. Distinctions among Palestinians are about geography, not race. Israeli Arabs vote, hold office, form political parties, and exercise democratic rights in Israel in a way they don’t in other Arab countries. As for Jews, even Whoopi Goldberg is saying we are not and have never been a race. The very language of apartheid, to cite Koplow again, is not only wrong but a rhetorical shortcut meant as clickbait for the feeding frenzy of Israel’s detractors wherever they may be. I am not one to use the term antisemitism lightly, a point I will return to momentarily. Criticism of Israel is altogether legitimate. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t point out that Amnesty’s singular focus on Israel and not say, China, Venezuela, and other rogue states actively engaging in crimes against humanity, at least begs the question of a glaring double standard, which is one of both Sharansky’s and IHRA’s thresholds for antisemitism. One is left to wonder what is the intent of this report that delegitimizes the right of Jews to sovereignty, denies them the right to self-defense, and extends the web of their misdeeds beyond a territorial dispute to a crime against all humanity.
There is more to say on the substance, and I am sure you have questions, which is why I invite you and your children to sign up for Rabbi Zuckerman’s dialogue with Koplow on Tuesday evening. But what pains me most about the Amnesty report is not any single claim, but just how deeply unproductive it is. In the days since the report, the two sides of world opinion have gone to the mattresses with op-eds, email blasts, fundraising pitches, petitions, and emergency conference calls. For Israel’s opponents, this report serves as a respectable hook on which to hang their criticism and a scrim with which to provide genteel cover for more nefarious anti-Jewish hatreds. For Israel’s defenders, this report has shifted everyone into a defensive posture thus excusing any of Israel’s actual misdeeds. I have all sorts of criticisms of Israel: its systematic and ongoing restrictions of Palestinian rights; its repeated actions impeding Palestinian sovereignty, most recently the illegal outpost of Evyatar; Israel’s inability to house liberal expressions of Jewish life, most recently the collapse of the Kotel deal. But today I am not giving full voice to any of my criticisms, because, well, when a family member is attacked from the outside, that is not what one does. The consequence of the Amnesty report is that it has hardened everyone’s positions, a step back from peace, letting the Palestinians and Israelis off the hook for their roles in the conflict and their roles in resolving it. Whatever Amnesty’s intent may have been, I believe this report will make it harder, not easier, to resolve the very conflict that every caring person so desperately wants resolved.
This week I read Erica Brown’s latest piece on leadership in Sapir. (I hope it is not long before we welcome her to our community again.) Brown writes about the importance of what she calls “long-haul heroes,” people who are able to lean in, “even when it is hard and defeating, even when there is no end in sight, even when the goal may not be within his or her lifetime.” It is not that we don’t have leaders – we do – but they tend to be short-sighted, pugilistic, aimed at the quick win, targeting the symptom, not the underlying cause. Moses was a “long-haul hero.” As evidenced by today’s parashah – and the next one and the next one and the one after that – the building of the mishkan, the desert tabernacle, was a long, arduous process. But it was introduced by way of a guiding north star: “Make for me sanctuary” capable of housing God’s presence. (Exodus 25:8) Even with all the precise details, all the particular materials, all the strict instructions, even in the middle of the desert, not to mention despite the setback of the Golden Calf – to build a sanctuary capable of housing God’s presence. Which is what, eventually, under Moses’s leadership, the Israelites would do. To formulate a shared vision, to construct a path to get there, to stick to it no matter what – that is what sustained ancient Israel, what has sustained our people, and frankly all peoples throughout the ages.
Brown’s article is not about the Middle East, but it did get me thinking. I began to wonder, if I were the head of Amnesty, what sort of report would I want to see produced? What would that long-haul vision look like? A vision that brought the sides closer, not further apart. A vision where positions were softened, not hardened. Well, to begin with, it would be a report that began by stating the right of both Israelis and Palestinians to a homeland. It would then call on the leadership of both countries to speak to their citizenry, to speak to the world, and – most of all – to educate their children in a manner that predisposed everyone toward achieving that outcome. A shared aspirational language of peace for everyone. It would be a report that condemned violence of all kinds, affirmed a country’s right to defend its citizens, and insisted on the vigilant protection of human rights. It would be a report that roundly condemned any action that precluded Israeli-Palestinian co-existence. It would be a report that allowed for people in the Middle East and beyond to freely exercise their opinions on how to work toward said vision without being labeled a colonialist, collaborator, self-hating Zionist, or antisemite. A conversation and process that saw dissent and difference as signs of strength, not betrayal. A report that recognizes that criticizing Israeli leadership does not make a Jew less of a Zionist, just as criticizing the US does not make an American any less patriotic, and likewise for Palestinians. It would be a report that avoids facile comparisons and inflammatory language. It would be a report that makes clear that while there have been missteps along the way on all sides, the future has yet to be written, and in order to move forward we need to learn to let go of the past. It would be a report that shared the quiet truth that peace will only be achieved if everybody is prepared to give up something, that nobody gets everything they want, and that compromise is the essential ingredient to building a shared society. It would be a report that would make everyone a bit uncomfortable in the hard truths it shares, but that, nonetheless, could be a starting point for all our conversations. Show me that report, Amnesty! Defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Just tell me where and when, and I’ll show up and invite my entire congregation to do the same.
As with all long-haul visions, the ultimate blueprint is not a reflection of any one mind – not Amnesty’s, nor mine, yours or any single individual’s. Rabbi Art Green notes the curious phrasing of God’s instructions to the Israelites to build the mishkan, to create a vision “as I will show you,” using the Hebrew word ot’kha for “you,” rather than the expected l’kha. Green explains that the grammar signals that the vision begins not with God, but with every Israelite. In other words, the blueprint for God’s sanctuary is a reflection of the shared vision of all those souls present.
For dreams to come true, we must all look inward and imagine the outcome we desire. Then, with a dose of humility, we must edge out of our comfort zone and recognize that our visions must co-exist with the visions of others. With love, not hate; with generosity, not cynicism; with humility, not sensationalism, we then build trust and work towards mapping out a shared vision – one that will be different than our own but able to exist side by side shalem, whole and at peace, with the visions of others. We may not see its fulfillment, but we will be comforted in the knowledge that our own actions, modest they may be, will bring us one step closer to creating a world worthy of God’s presence.
Brown, Erica. “Visionary Leadership for a Jewish Future” in Sapir: A Journal of Jewish Conversation, Vol. 4, Winter 2022.
Koplow, Michael J. “The Strange Case of Erasing Nationalism from a National Conflict.” In Koplow Column, Israel Policy Forum, February 3, 2022.