For those of you who don’t know what I did over winter break, I will tell you: Together with a sizable number of my in-laws, I went to Egypt. It was a big birthday for my mother-in-law; she wanted to see the Pyramids and I, wanting to stay married, went along. Terrific as it was to see the Pyramids, the Sphinx, Karnuk, Luxor, Abu Simbel, and more, not to mention Cairo’s Maimonides and Ben Ezra synagogues, the most memorable moment for me was when we arrived at our nondescript hotel near the Aswan Dam on the island of Elephantine.
Elephantine is a small island in the Nile akin to Governor’s Island in the East River, its name no doubt derived from a once-thriving Nubian ivory trade. There is absolutely nothing interesting about the island, unless you studied with JTS Professor Yochanan Muffs of blessed memory, which, as it happens, I did. I was his teaching assistant in rabbinical school. His doctoral thesis was entitled “Studies in the Aramaic Legal Papyri from Elephantine.”
In the early 1900s, archeologists discovered evidence of an Aramaic-speaking Jewish community in Elephantine, a garrison stationed there in the fifth century BCE. The papyri of that community date back to before the Dead Sea Scrolls, before the Bible was canonized, before any other documentary evidence of Jewish life. For me – and I assure you, I was the only one in my family to think so – this was the coolest place in the world: the most ancient documented diaspora Jewish community on our planet.
What do the papyri say? Well, most of it is pretty dry stuff – legal contracts, real estate sales, and deeds of emancipation; Muffs’s book is a study of legal terminology. But there are two documents of particular interest to us today. The first is a letter sent by the Jews of Elephantine to the high priest in Jerusalem asking for support to build a house of worship for their local community. The Jews of Elephantine understood that their lives would play out beyond the borders of Israel, and they sought to create a Jewish community connected to, in dialogue with, and modeled after that of their ancestral homeland. The second document, called the “Passover Letter,” contains instructions from Jerusalem to the Jews of Elephantine on the proper observance of the festival of Unleavened Bread, including the dates of the holiday, the prohibitions against working on the holiday, and the obligation to seal away all leaven during the holiday.
Here was the oldest and perhaps first diaspora community in dialogue with the home office back in Jerusalem – a Jewish community that had planted its flag outside of Israel but understood its fate to be inextricably linked to Israel. One community outside of Israel, one community in Israel, connected by an invisible string of practice, peoplehood, and historical pedigree. How shall one relate to the other? What will bond them together despite their geographic and cultural divides? A state of affairs faced by the first diaspora Jewish community of Elephantine. A state of affairs faced by us in the Jewish diaspora today.
Just over a month ago, I spoke to the community about last fall’s Israeli elections: the seismic rightward-shift in the Israeli government, the rise to positions of ministerial power of dark forces whose values stand in opposition to a host of values we hold dear, a list that includes, but is not limited to, religious pluralism, the Palestinian aspiration for self-determination, LGBT rights, Diaspora-Israel relations, judicial autonomy, and democracy as a whole. I was angry and I spoke out in anger.
Today I do not want to give an angry sermon; there is a time to cast stones and a time to gather stones. Today I want to give a calm and constructive sermon. I want to ask the forward-looking question: not how we got here, but where we go from here. We are a proudly Zionist community. Our Jewish identity, no different than that of the very first diaspora community, is inextricably linked to Israel, the national home of the Jewish people, the home to half the world’s Jewish population. The values of the elected government of Israel do not reflect our values. It is not an unprecedented situation. When Menachem Begin was elected Prime Minister in 1977, I am told that there were similar pronouncements about the rise of fascism and the end of Israeli democracy. But for many of us this is new. How shall we relate to Israel in this coming chapter? How shall we express our love for Israel, our connection to Israel, despite the divide, despite our differences with the Israeli government?
In broad brush strokes, over the past month, American Jewry has been divided into two camps. The first camp is appalled by the new right-wing government and have expressed their dismay in open protest. You may have read about the 330 rabbis who signed on to a letter attacking the new government and stating that they would not invite anyone from the Religious Zionist party to their synagogues. You might have read about a colleague of mine, a deep Zionist whom I greatly respect, who announced that he would no longer recite the prayer for the state of Israel in his synagogue. You may know of people who have pulled their financial support from an Israel that no longer reflects their values. A once unconditional love has become conditional. In the words of Abe Foxman: “If Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it.”
The second camp are those people who have received the news of the new government with anything from unabashed support to a wait-and-see attitude to benign indifference. At the AIPAC conference in DC, which I attended last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s video address was greeted with a standing ovation. Neither in his address, nor in any of the sessions I attended was there any discussion of the profound challenges this new government presents to American Jewry. The focus was entirely on the threat of Iran, the importance of foreign aid, and the opportunities of the Abraham Accords. It was an Israel conversation hermetically sealed from the concerns of the American Jewry I know, or, to put it more cynically, the discussions of Iran providing cover for the problematics of the new government.
“Wait and see,” some said, “your response is both hysterical and premature.”
“You don’t live there,” others have told me. “If you feel so strongly, make aliyah and vote. Israeli democracy has spoken and our job as American Jews is to ensure the continued vitality of the Jewish state against its existential threats.”
I believe, both personally and institutionally, that both these options must be rejected. No matter what my grievances are against the present Israeli government, it is unimaginable for me to walk away from Israel. Israel is not just home to half of world Jewry, not just the realization of multi-millennial dreams of Jewish sovereignty, but hands-down the most important project of the Jewish people our lifetime. We will, as long as I am rabbi here, pray for the welfare of Israel – in their moments of triumph and in their hour of need, such as this one when they are in need of our prayers more than ever. As a proud Zionist community, and as an individual who loves a good argument, we invite every member of the elected Israeli government into our community, including members of the opposition. I promise any such visitors the opportunity to express themselves, engage in dialogue, and defend their views. Finally, as a politically engaged American Jewish community, we will proudly do our part to secure Israel’s existential security in the halls of Congress.
All of this I believe. But I also believe, both personally and institutionally, that because the fate of American Jewry is inextricably linked to that of Israel, it is incumbent upon us to do everything in our communal, political, and financial power to support those efforts aimed at creating an Israel that reflects the values that we as a community hold dear. We do not live in Israel, the Middle East is not the Upper East Side, and we must be careful not to make Israel our moral Disneyland. Last time I checked, values like democracy and minority rights aren’t exactly doing so great here in America. But we are stakeholders in Israel’s well-being, and we dare not sit out this round. The rise of a right-wing government didn’t happen overnight, nor, for the matter, did it happen merely due to the corruption and intransigence of the Palestinian leadership. It happened because there has been a decades-long campaign funded by right-wing American dollars to establish an ecosystem of like-minded Israeli schools, think tanks, and media outlets. It happened because the organized American Jewish community has, through their silence, served as the unwitting enabler of right-wing Israeli politics. Moses is our hero not just because he intervened when the Egyptian did harm to the Hebrew slave. Moses is our hero because he intervened when he saw two Hebrews doing harm to each other. If you are invested in the long-term existential security of Israel, which I hope you all are, your concern is not just Iran. Your concern must be when you see Israel doing harm to itself. Your investment should be in all those organizations working to secure democracy, religious pluralism, minority rights, and co-existence between Israel and her Palestinian neighbors beyond and within Israel’s borders.
To be pro-Israel, to truly be pro-Israel, is to nurture those efforts that work towards building shared society. There are so many worthwhile organizations. Roots works at the grassroots level to foster understanding and non-violence; Encounter introduces Jewish leaders to the lived lives of Palestinians. Seeds of Peace seeks to transform legacies of conflict into love. Israel Policy Forum is dedicated to advancing a two-state solution in order to preserve Israel’s future. Kibbutz Hannaton is committed to Arab-Israeli education and leadership. The list goes on and on, and first among equals, as always, is Masorti, the Israeli religious movement whose mission is to create communities reflecting the very values lived by our synagogue. This is what it means to be pro-Israel. These are the groups that deserve to be invited to Park Avenue Synagogue; these are the groups that deserve your support and the support of the organized Jewish community; these and like-minded groups are the ones that we should and will engage with on any future synagogue trip to Israel. The choice is not between supporting Israel’s existential security or supporting efforts to build shared society. That is a false dichotomy that we in the pro-Israel community must flatly reject. It is because we are committed to Israel’s existential security that we support those efforts aimed at creating a secure, inclusive, and democratic Israel living side-by-side with her Palestinian neighbors. Failing to give such support of Israel is not only an abdication of our obligations to Israel but will ultimately lead to a loss of support for Israel in the next generation of Jews and in America as a whole. There is more than one way to be pro-Israel. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
What should our relationship with Israel look like moving forward? It is not an either/or. I am reminded of David Ben Gurion’s comment after the outbreak of war in 1939, as the British issued the infamous White Paper restricting Jewish immigration to pre-state Palestine. “We will fight the White Paper as if there is no war and fight the war as if there is no White Paper.” We, who love Israel as we do, must support Israel even as we harbor objections to the Israeli government. We must defend Israel against its existential threats even as we take issue with its actions that we believe run counter to its long-term interests. We must nurture those ventures that seek to establish an Israel reflecting the values we hold dear. We must, as have diaspora communities from the very beginning, negotiate our relationship with Israel, keeping strong the invisible string – a common faith, a common history, and – please God, in all our differences – a common destiny.