Showing Up for Israel
Read Full Sermon
Friends, in the last twenty-four hours a cease-fire has been announced between Israel and Hamas. Let’s hope it holds. I have no doubt that in the days to come there will be no shortage of analysis of how we got here, who started this recent conflict, and who won and who lost. As lovers of all humanity, we mourn the loss of life on both sides. But even with the cease-fire, there is a battle raging on another front, one that this latest conflict has brought into relief: the battle for the soul of American Jewry. Can Israel count on the reflexive support of American Jewry any longer? In Israel’s hour of need, will we show up when the hour demands?
The fault lines are there for all to see, my tale about the run-up to tomorrow’s rally being but one of them. Just yesterday I read a news item – you may have seen it – reporting that dozens of rabbinical students from a variety of seminaries signed a letter calling Israel – and by extension, American Jewry – to account for violent suppression of human rights. The letter made no mention of Hamas, terrorism, or – for the historically inclined – decades of Arab rejection of any sovereign Jewish presence in the Middle East. There is nothing fringe about the signatories to this letter; they represent the coming generation of Jewish leadership – future leaders who, when given the chance to leverage their moral voice and put pen to paper, do so in support of Palestinians, not Israel. Their willingness to openly declare their dismay with Israel signals the tectonic shifts taking place beneath our feet. It is an uncomfortable realization that we make even worse if do not name it for what it is: a generation of Jewish leaders who didn’t grow up associating the Palestinians with Munich and the murder of Klinghoffer. For them Israel is a privileged power and the plight of the Palestinians yet another example of racial and social justice in need of remedy. They have a different set of assumptions shaped by a different set of life experiences. Their solidarity rallies mean something totally different to them than yours.
The winds are shifting – for rabbis, for future rabbis, and for American Jews as a whole. If you want to see the effects of the shift, just look at Capitol Hill. Every caring human being wants a cease-fire: To call for one is not interesting unto itself, except when such calls give the appearance of moral equivalence, of failing to make a distinction between attacker and defender. The fact that twenty-nine Democratic senators called for such a cease-fire, the fact that leading House members have called to put a pause on the sale of the very aid Israel needs to defend itself from its enemies, signals something about these leaders’ perception of support for Israel by the pro-Israel community; these leaders sense something that we would rather not admit to. The fact that historically fierce defenders of Israel in Congress have been silent in the face of anti-Zionism and antisemitism signals that they are more concerned about a political lashing from an energized left than about losing the tepid support of American Jewry for Israel. The transformation is not just in a political party; the transformation is in the importance assigned by a political party to American Jewry’s traditional support of Israel. This isn’t about facts, about who started the conflict or that the ideology of Hamas is the antithesis of every liberal value progressives claim to hold dear or that flag-bearing Palestinian thugs have beat up Jews on the streets of Los Angeles and New York this past week. It is politics – about perceived power and about keeping power and that right now a calculated shift is taking place. A whole lot of people are noting that American Jewish support for Israel is not quite the dependable and united front and force it once was.
To the question of how we got here, well, that is a question on which we could spend hours, and others are better equipped to speak to than I am. Some of it, I imagine, has to do with a long-in-the-making divergence between an increasingly universally oriented American Jewry and an increasingly parochial or particularistic Israel. The combination of politics and personality that has made progressive support for the policies of a right wing Israeli government a nonstarter. None of this happened overnight, whatever finger-pointing can be directed at American Jewry, we need only rewind the last decades of Israeli decision-making to realize that what we are seeing today is the chickens coming home to roost. The settlement creep, Israel’s inability to actualize a two-state solution, the nation-state bill, the systemic inequities faced by Israel’s Arab population – in other words, Israel’s repeated inability to give expression to its foundational and fundamental aspiration of being both a Jewish and democratic state living side by side with a Palestinian neighbor. “Power,” as John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson, “always thinks it has a great soul.” This story is not just about American Jewry, it is about Israel’s repeated inability, like the biblical Samson about whom we read this morning, to successfully negotiate its power with the leadership responsibilities that come with it. And, because I have said it for the last twenty years, I may as well say it again: It doesn’t help that the very Israel that is wondering about the withering of American Jewry’s support for the Jewish state is the same Israel that has done pretty much everything it can do to make me feel as a Conservative Jew that the Judaism I preach, teach, and practice here in America, from which my support of Israel is derived, is not considered Judaism in Israel.
Ultimately, what really matters is not how we got here, but where we go from here – the time, thought, and energy we must spend to move forward. The issues are complicated, and I readily admit that it is a daunting challenge how to move the needle, given the situation in Israel, the situation in America, and the situation for American Jewry. Perhaps at this point, the first step is to ensure that our community, Park Avenue Synagogue, is a model for the kind of change it is we seek to see in this world. A synagogue that is proudly and unapologetically Zionist and insists that our Zionism acknowledges and works on behalf of the right of Palestinians for self-determination. A community that teaches our children to love Israel, to learn about Israel, to travel to Israel, to live in Israel and that no different than an American does not stop being pro-American when one disagrees with this or that administration, one does not stop being a Zionist if one disagrees with decisions of this or that Israeli government. We must be a home for radical moderates, for people who are willing to foster dialogue with people whose opinions differ from our own, a community that rejects the illiberalism of cancel culture, a community that is willing to listen to each other with empathy and curiosity, an earnestness to speak our minds even as we show a willingness to change our mind. I don’t have the answers, but maybe, just maybe, if we speak into that centrist megaphone loud enough and long enough, we can make the sane center the sane majority. We can model something transformative and help American Jewry regain its footing towards building a shared future with Israel.
Friends, I will not be attending the rally tomorrow. For those interested, it will be 11:00 am at 7 World Trade Center. Where will I be? I will be getting on a plane to Israel. Through the generous support of UJA-Federation, I will be participating on a rabbinic solidarity mission to Israel. We will visit those traumatized by the recent fighting; we will express gratitude to those leaders and soldiers upon whom the safety of Israel depends; we will visit projects of Arab-Jewish cooperation and community building. Most of all, all those rabbis I mentioned earlier – in all their diversity of views – will be showing each other and the communities we serve a model for Israel engagement, by way of our willingness to be together, and perhaps most importantly, by way of showing that when someone is hurting, as Israel is now, you just show up. It is a great example of a whole lot of hemming and hawing, a whole lot of maybes, turning into – through the generosity and leadership of UJA – something I hope to be impactful for us, for our communities, and for the relationship between American Jewry and Israel.
For me, a mission to Israel. For you, it may be the rally. For another, it may be engaging politically. For some, it might be supporting an organization whose mission is peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians; for yet another it might be supporting the soldiers of the IDF. But make no mistake, each one of us and all of us together must show up! Do it because it is the right thing to do; do it because Israel needs you to; do it because the world is watching. When it comes to Israel, there can be no sitting on the sideline. To not be actively engaged with securing the future of a democratic Jewish state is to abdicate the responsibility of what it means to be a Jew. That is our north star; that is what our community stands for. You show up. You show up. You show up!