Given the dramatic and traumatic news coming out of Ukraine, Israel, and right here in New York City, it would be understandable if you missed a small news item in the Jewish press regarding a letter signed by nineteen rabbis on the subject of the philanthropy of American Jewry. In order to understand the letter, a little background is necessary. Many people, the Cosgrove family included, give tzedakah by way of something called a donor-advised fund – a financial vehicle by which a person gives to the schools, shuls, and causes dear to their hearts. The largest such Jewish fund, the Jewish Communal Fund, sits at about two point four billion dollars and accepts donations from thousands of individuals, distributing tzedakah according to their recommendations. One recipient of the Jewish Communal Fund is something called the Central Fund of Israel (I know the names are a bit confusing), a forty-eight million dollar fund which gives tzedakah to over 350 organizations engaged in the work of poverty relief, Israel advocacy, bereavement support, and Jewish education. What you also need to know is that the Central Fund of Israel also supports a number of Jewish extremist groups, including Honenu, which gives cash grants to Israelis convicted of terrorism; Lehava, known for organizing “death to Arabs” marches through Palestinian neighborhoods; and Im Tirzu, which famously once produced a video labeling leaders of Israeli human rights organizations “foreign agents,” thereby igniting a wave of death threats. The rabbinic letter, which was organized by T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization, called on the Jewish Communal Fund to drop the Communal Fund of Israel from its list of approved grant recipients. Supportive as American Jewry may be, the rabbis reason, of the soup kitchens, social service agencies, and other worthy charitable Israel-based organizations, American Jews have a moral and legal obligation not to support any group that engages in or incites violence. In signing the letter, the rabbis are sending a clear message about American Jewry’s refusal to tolerate violence.
I encourage you to read the letter and the coverage of the letter – all easily found with a simple Google search. Reading the letter as a rabbi, of course I checked out the list of my colleagues who signed onto the letter. It is a who’s who of North American rabbis: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis taking a stand against the right-wing, extremist elements of Israeli life. The most interesting aspect of the signatories, what I want to focus on, is that one rabbi had asked to have their name “blacklined.” The list is alphabetical, starting with Rabbis Austrian, Blake, and Bronstein and ending with Rabbis Stanton, Tucker, and Timoner, and I could not help but notice where that mystery name sat on the list. Right after Bronstein, Brusso, and Buchdahl, one North American rabbi, number seven of nineteen, sharing an alphabetical proximity to yours truly, sits obscured on that list.
I looked at the list with a combination of bemusement and befuddlement, and I asked myself: Had I signed the letter? I get a million emails, a subset of which come from Jewish organizations, a subset of those asking me to sign on to resolutions, letters, and petitions. It is a lot to manage, and I am at the moment between executive assistants. I just turned fifty, I don’t even remember what I had for breakfast, never mind what letters I signed. Maybe I did sign that letter? Who knows seven? Who knows, maybe I am seven? And then I thought to myself, maybe I am not the only one who is wondering. I mean, it makes some sense – C comes right after B. Maybe other people are wondering if that blacklined American rabbinic name of prominence is “Cosgrove.” Generally speaking, I do not sign on to communal letters. The balance of risk and reward has never made sense to me; it is a tired and dated mode of virtue-signaling that serves only to expose oneself to the vitriol of the other side. But maybe, in this case, I made an exception and clicked that box. What if I am the prominent yet hidden Rabbi C, who believes that American Jews must cease funding right-wing Israeli organizations.
As I tried to untangle what I did – or did not do – I started to probe the substance of the matter with an eye to solving the mystery. What would have prompted me to sign or not sign the letter? What are the arguments for and against signing such a document? For me, for any rabbi, and – for the purposes of this morning – for you or anyone else?
To begin with the reasons not to sign the letter, the answer is pretty clear and can be distilled down to one word, one number: seventeen. As of the writing of this sermon, seventeen Israelis have been murdered in acts of terror over the past few weeks. Just one week ago, three Israelis were killed and at least fifteen others injured in a terrorist attack on a Tel Aviv street on which I am pretty sure most of us, if not all of us, have strolled or eaten – where I hope to be just two days from now. Whether the attacks are coordinated or copycat I will leave to the Israeli intelligence, but to anyone with eyes to see, the elevated threat of the moment is clear as day – a recrudescence of indiscriminate assaults on Israeli civilians. Is this really the moment for American Jews to take a swipe at Israel? With friends like these, who needs enemies?
Not only, one could argue, is the timing of the rabbinic letter ill-considered, but it misses the bigger point. The haters of Israel are not nuanced in their hatred; for them it is not a matter of this or that government. They are not making distinctions between right-wing and left-wing Israelis. They want all of Israel and all Jews gone! And that hatred of Israel, Zionism, and Jews is not just out of Jenin, but well beyond the Middle East – from antisemitic attacks in coffee shops on the streets of Paris, New York, and Los Angeles by thugs brandishing Palestinian flags to college campuses expressing solidarity with every oppressed group save the Jews, whom they hold responsible for “the oppressive colonialist Zionist enterprise.” Anti-Zionism is just the latest form of antisemitism disguised in the cloth of wokeness. And you, you American rabbis, from the luxury of your comfortable pulpits you would dare question the choices of the country whose citizenship you have side-stepped, yet whose very existence you count on when the going in the diaspora gets rough. You, whose Jewish critique of Israel serves to sanitize the antisemitism of Israel’s real enemies – leave us alone, please, in all our imperfections. Better that you just say thank you, go on your way, and worry about your intermarriage rates, your January 6, and your own bad apples.
If I chose not to sign that letter, it is not hard, not hard at all, to imagine why not. Job number one of every rabbi is to protect the past, present, and future interests of the Jewish people – a threshold, some might say, that the letter does not seem to meet.
So now let’s interrogate the other side of the question. What would have prompted me or any rabbi to sign the letter?
Let’s begin with the tactical. As I have said from this pulpit on many occasions, as diaspora Jews we must be judicious in expressing criticism of Israel. First and foremost, and we will return to this, as Jews our words carry a special weight in the discourse surrounding the Jewish state. But it is more than that. The Middle East is not the Upper East Side. If we want to be full stakeholders in the story of the sovereign Jewish state, we can do so by making aliyah. Having chosen not to do so, we are, if you will, limited partners in that enterprise. But this letter, this letter is not about that; it is about philanthropy, one of several ways diaspora Jews express their love for and engagement with Israel. And no different than with any philanthropic choice, we have every right and expectation to ask that our giving expresses our values. For rabbis to use their pulpits to direct, guide, or counsel the philanthropic priorities, the dos and don’ts, of American Jewish tzedakah is not only not untoward – it is their actually their job.
All of which is to say that if the aim of the letter is to give expression to the moral obligation to stand up, warn, and stop American Jews from supporting violence-filled Israeli extremist groups, then it strikes me that the only real question on the table is why there are only nineteen names on the letter. Why not every rabbi? Why not the leaders of every rabbinic organization, every seminary, and every synagogue? Should we fund those who have funded violence against Palestinians? Who have participated in violent attacks on IDF soldiers evacuating illegal settlements? Who have trained vigilantes in the West Bank? No, thank you! We might share the same faith and break the same matzah as they do, but make no mistake – these guys are bad dudes. Not only should we not fund them, but we should actively call them out. Just the other day, the far-right Israeli politician Bezalel Smotrich said that Knesset members of the present coalition should be turned away from synagogues, a statement which was correctly called out by the prime minister as the very talk that resulted in the destruction of the Temple, and, I would add, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Just yesterday, six Jews were arrested for their plans to offer a sacrifice on the Temple Mount ahead of Passover – a provocation anytime, all the more so during Ramadan. Why was there violence on the Temple Mount yesterday? Because rather than seeking calm, extremist elements are doing everything they can to provoke, incite, and inflame – a series of false flag incidents with deadly consequences.
As Jews, we dare not be silent when it comes to Jewish extremists. Not just because as Jews we have a better chance to impact the Jewish discourse than the Arab one. No different than we expect Muslims to call out the radical elements of Islam, all Jews have an obligation to call out the radical elements within our own people. We have a moral obligation to do so, and we have a political and educational responsibility to do so. I have no doubt that a percentage of the haters of Israel are going to hate Israel no matter what Israel does, and that there are those for whom anti-Zionism is indeed cover for their antisemitism. But not every criticism of Israel is antisemitism. And we do ourselves, Israel, and, most damagingly, our children a huge disservice if we paint all criticism of Israel as antisemitism. Be it our children, who did not grow up with the same instinctive anchoring in Israel’s story as you and I did, or the silent majority of humanity who are totally disengaged from the goings-on in the Middle East, they can sense the problematics of a zero-sum discourse that precludes any critique of Israel. I would go so far as to say that by a certain logic, in whitewashing the extremist elements of Israeli society, we actually forward the agenda of Israel’s real haters who see the double standard and who know that we know that they know that we are holding Israel to a different standard than we would any other state. The argument for Israel, or for anything, is made stronger, not weaker, by acknowledging the fullness of the debate. The house of Hillel’s opinions carried the day over those of the house of Shammai because Hillel would state the opposing view before he stated his own; so too when it comes to Israel. In identifying the other side, in naming the excesses, extremisms, and intemperances of Israeli society, those letter-signing rabbis are voicing a love for Israel that makes space for the “yes and,” a love of Israel that can withstand the debates of the day and the challenges of the Jewish generations yet to come.
Why would I, or any rabbi, sign that letter? Easy. There is no greater act of love than to tell the person, the people or the country you love most, that you believe that what they are doing is not in the best interest of their short-, long- and medium-term health.
Last night we all sat down at our seder tables, and this evening we will do so once again. It has always struck me as significant that the same story that reminds us that in every generation someone rises up to destroy us as Pharaoh did, that asks us to pour out wrath on those who hate us, is the same story that teaches us ahavat ha-ger – that because we were once strangers in a strange land we must have empathy and love for the stranger in our midst, wherever we are, and especially where Jews have power, namely, in the sovereign state of Israel. It is not an either/or, it is a both/and, in the Haggadah and for us as Jews. To be eyes wide open, vigilant, and on guard against the external threats we face and also to know that as Jews we spill drops of wine with each plague – our spiritual integrity demanding empathy with the condition of the other, even and especially if that other directs their enmity towards us. This is the double helix of our spiritual DNA; this is what it means to celebrate Passover; this is what it means to be a Jew.
Did I sign that letter? Am I the blacklined Rabbi C seventh signatory? If you think I am going to tell you, then you must be new to the synagogue. Perhaps the point is for you to ask yourself how you feel about what I did or did not do. Would you be proud if your rabbi signed that letter? Are you disappointed that he didn’t? Why is it that you feel the way you do and what does that say not about me, but about you? If invited, would you have signed the letter? Maybe the real point is to remember that both possibilities, to sign or not to sign, are part of the warp and woof of our people’s narrative and that the person sitting next to you, who loves Israel and the Jewish people no more and no less than you do, may have made the opposite choice. And then, maybe, just maybe, in the spirit of Passover, we take a deep breath and acknowledge that all of us are children of one and the same story sitting at the same seder table, telling the shared narrative that has kept our people together from generation to generation.