Category Archives: Othodox Judaism

Finding Our Center

Rosh Hashanah Morning

September 9, 2010 / 1 Tishrei 5771

Rabbi Charles K. Briskin


On a pleasant Sunday afternoon in June, I went to a rally at the Israel Consulate to show my solidarity with fellow lovers of Israel. I went because I was sad, angry, and conflicted about the Gaza Flotilla incident and I needed to be with people who love Israel unconditionally. I knew that my perspective might be different from many who were there. But that shouldn’t have mattered; after all, we came to show our support.

I had hoped to be uplifted. Instead I was brought down. The crowd cheered wildly to the most strident and unapologetic speakers. They were polite to the very few who were measured and nuanced. They were antagonistic to David Pine of Americans for Peace Now. This progressive Israeli peace organization once attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters to rallies in Tel Aviv. At this Los Angeles rally, its message was not heard. As Pine tried to speak he was booed and heckled. Despite the organizers efforts to quiet the crowd, they failed. This lover of Israel was silenced.

Whether they agreed with his left of center message or not, didn’t the rally-goers deserve to hear from one of the invited speakers? I’m pleased that the organizers included Pine on the dais. I’m angry that the crowd was not willing to listen. Rabbi Sharon Brous, one of the rally’s moderate speakers lamented its turn of events. “[It was] a tragic episode, filled with complexity and nuance, [that became] a Lakers’ rally, complete with flag waving, chanting and sloganeering.”[1]  Like Brous, I too, felt uneasy. I hoped to feel connected and uplifted. I left alone and disheartened.

We begin this New Year, with two seemingly intractable sides coming to the negotiating table. Do the initial conversations between Netenyahu and Abbas represent a ray of hope that will uplift us, despite the deep pessimism of most outside observers? What about our conversations?  Can we overcome the intractability between the right and the left?  Can we regain our center and listen to one another respectfully because despite our disagreements we share much in common.

Lovers of Israel desperately want a safe and secure Israel that can live peacefully with her neighbors. Lovers of Israel want its secular Democratic values to prevail. Lovers of Israel want Palestinians, the Arab world and much of the world to acknowledge Israel’s legitimacy as the Jewish State. Lovers of Israel want her to remain the most moral, transparent, and free nation in the region. We will fiercely debate how to advance these goals, but let’s begin with finding safe and common ground for our discussions. If we turn a deaf ear to our fellow lovers of Israel, we will become more divided and we cannot afford this in our current climate.

The Days of Awe provide us with time for solitary and serious introspection. We look to the texts of our tradition for guidance and moral clarity. These days are intense; yet by Neilah hopefully we are uplifted and prepared to meet the New Year enthusiastically with promise and resolve. We renew our commitments to one another and to the communities we care about during the Days of Awe. We have difficult conversations that lead to healing. High Holy Days services draw us together in large numbers to reflect upon the year that was and imagine the year that will be.

As we begin 5771, where is Israel in your conversations and commitments?  What promise does Israel’s future hold? Will you listen to a different perspective from someone who loves Israel as you do? Can we work together to reach those who are sympathetic yet confused about Israel? Or those who are disengaged or indifferent? Can we find the appropriate language to discuss Israeli policies openly and when warranted critically, with mutual respect?

Is that so hard? It is in the current environment, but mutual respect must remain a goal. We need not look far to see why. Look at the deterioration of civil conversations in our country. There’s so much seething anger; recriminations abound and people no longer talk or debate; they just yell. This discontent has seeped into the Jewish community too as well and has flared occasionally here at Temple Beth El.  Some of our disagreements are about Israel’s policies and conduct. And unlike Israelis who engage in vigorous debates about the decisions of its leaders, American Jews are finding it more difficult to do the same.

Let me be clear; we must be vigilant in defending Israel against the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic canards we see too much, in the Guardian Newspaper, the anti-Israel blogosphere, and this week especially, Time Magazine. I hold Israel to a high moral standard as many of us do, but Israel must not be held to a different standard than other nations of the world. Politicians and diplomats who delegitimize Israel must be held accountable for their words and deeds.

So too must we hold Israel’s leadership accountable. Too often these days, thoughtful and measured critique from within the Jewish community is out of bounds. The prevailing attitude is, “You’re with us or against us.” To be with us means; accepting the conventional party line, keeping your concerns to yourself, and not asking questions. It’s the attitude that Brous and many other Jewish leaders are trying to counteract, but are finding themselves drowned out by the masses. Some are so entrenched in their positions that they can no longer come together in a safe and private setting to find common ground and work together to combat some of the more sinister and threatening attitudes towards Israel. Those who ask tough questions or who present a different perspective are feeling alienated or silenced. This cannot continue.

Despite some gaps, lovers of Israel share common ground. For example, we can agree that 5770 was a tough year for Israel’s politicians and diplomats. Some distress was the result of external forces; some they brought on themselves. Last fall’s Goldstone Report on the 2008-2009 battle with Hamas militants in Gaza; the ill-timed announcement of new building permits for disputed Jerusalem housing during Vice-President Biden’s March visit; the response to the Gaza Flotilla in May; the controversial conversion bill that the Knesset tried to move through committee this summer. Journalists, pundits and bloggers had a field day in the Israeli, international, American, and Jewish press.

It was difficult abroad as well. Boycott, divestment and sanction efforts against Israel continue, especially on college campuses in the United States and throughout Great Britain; Ambassador Michael Oren was disrupted repeatedly by the Muslim Student Association during a talk at U.C. Irvine. Despite increasingly robust sanctions, Iran is still advancing its nuclear weapons program. Hezbollah is amassing more powerful rockets along Israel’s northern border, and Gilad Shalit is still being held captive. This week we’re reacting to the incendiary cover article in Time Magazine, titled “Why Israel Doesn’t Care about Peace.”

Ongoing delegitimazation efforts are forcing progressive lovers of Israel to tack sharply to the right in response.[2]  Many in the Jewish community are hunkering down and turning inward while many of Israel’s staunchest supporters have taken such a hard line stance that the nuanced and critical debate that once was commonplace between lovers of Israel has ceased. Loving yet critical voices like Peace Now’s David Pine, rabbis and activists who support J-Street, social justice organizations like Rabbis for Human Rights, the New Israel Fund, and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel are being attacked by other Jews through scurrilous attacks and defamation campaigns.[3]

Many people are confused and conflicted. They want to make sense of what they are reading in the newspapers and seeing on television, and perusing online, but are having difficulty cutting through the rhetoric and propaganda.

Most of us who love Israel unconditionally believe that Israel remains very good. Nevertheless, we believe Israel can still do much better. Talking more openly with one another about how Israel can do better and opening our ears to different points of view will enlarge the debate for additional voices. It won’t be easy; however that approach, I believe, will engage those who have been disillusioned and confused. If we can create more room in the center to allow a thoughtful and open exchange of ideas, we will move the debate forward, for the good.

A more tolerant and receptive debate will enable us to highlight more powerfully what remains very good about Israel. For example, did you know that Israel’s economy is growing at its fastest pace since 2008; and with Israel’s acquiescence, Palestinian led development of infrastructure and business especially in Ramallah has resulted in dramatic economic growth? Both economies, mind you, are currently more robust that ours.

Did you know that the intense lobbying of President Obama and his administration led to Israel’s invitation to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development[4]?  This elite organization brings together advanced democracies that work to coordinate economic, social, environmental and financial policy. This achievement is certainly one remedy to delegitimization efforts.

You may find this hard to believe, but according to a recent Gallup poll, Israelis are among the happiest people in the world.[5]  It’s remarkable that despite Israel’s many existential threats, from the Islamic fundamentalism of Hamas, Hezbollah and the Iranian Mullahs, to the Ultra-Orthodox fundamentalism of Israel’s rabbinate[6], Israelis enjoy full and enriching lives on the beaches of Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem’s synagogues.

This has been Israel’s reality since our spiritual homeland became a nation sixty two years ago.   The Jewish state demonstrates many contradictions. It was established by mandate of the United Nations in 1948, joining many of the modern Arab nations that too were carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and the British and French Mandates. Yet for decades the U.N has treated Israel like a pariah state, applying a different standard to her than to other nations and targeting her disproportionately with punitive resolutions and sanctions.

Israel is a secular democracy. Yet, the small minority of Haredi—Ultra Orthodox Jews yearn to establish a religious hegemony based on their narrow definition of what it means to be a Jew. Freedom of religion is one of Israel’s core values. Government funding maintains synagogues, churches and mosques. Yet non-Orthodox synagogues receive minimal support and non-Orthodox rabbis have no rabbinic authority. The government pays salaries of Orthodox Rabbis, priests and Imams. But not Reform rabbis.

Israel is the only true democracy in the region. It is a Jewish and democratic state that protects the civil rights of its Arab minority–twenty percent of Israel’s citizens. Yet, Israeli Arabs are often treated like second class citizens; so democratically elected Arab members of the Knesset freely critique Israel’s policies towards them from the floor of the Knesset.

Freedom of the press provides space for independent journalists to examine accusations of corruption, misconduct or malfeasance. Opinion pieces offer scathing critiques of Israel’s leaders or policies, and also permits as well racist and hateful invectives from Israel’s most zealous and dangerous demagogues.

Israelis celebrate their egalitarianism. Women are drafted into military service; Golda Meir was Prime Minister almost forty years ago, and women today hold positions of power and leadership. Yet in front of the Western Wall, its police arrest prominent civil rights activist Anat Hoffman for the “crime” of carrying a Torah scroll.

Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel has been the homeland of the Jewish people for thousands of years. Our people were born there. Abraham and Isaac journeyed for three days from Be’er Sheva in Israel’s south, to Mount Moriah, in Jerusalem where Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son. Hannah wailed in prayer for God to grant her a child. She did so in a temple near Shilo, north of Jerusalem. Israel’s prophets preached throughout the land; the great sages, Hillel and Akiva lived, taught and died in Eretz Yisrael.

The land of Israel resonates deeply within the Jewish soul. Yet we cannot ignore that Palestinian Arabs were living on this land when Israel became a nation sixty two years ago, and many were displaced during the Arab led campaigns against Israel.

These existential issues and many others will result in passionate conversations and debates. I hope we conduct them from a place of love for Israel and respect for one another. We who remain deeply engaged with Israel and think critically about Israel need to recognize these contradictions and acknowledge that there are no easy answers. We can be proud of her accomplishments, question some of her decisions and regret her failures.

We must be willing and able to discuss openly all facets of Israel, for like any young and maturing country, Israel is far from perfect. Unfortunately the loudest voices in the conversation today, her supporters and her detractors tend to represent the ideological poles. We cannot allow those few voices label all Israelis as colonizers, all settlers as zealots, all Palestinians as terrorists and all Arabs as anti-Semitic. We cannot reduce two diverse and complex peoples into two simplistic monolithic stereotypes.

Instead, we must find the middle ground between the narrow-minded, chauvinistic and misleading messages that emanate loudly from both sides. Strong emotions occupy the poles, but solutions are found in the center. If we want to shift the conversation, find more common ground and suggest solutions, we must listen to one another. We must address Israel’s challenges with one hand as we fight off the attacks of her enemies with the other. Our heartfelt critique and defense of Israel must come from our deep engagement with Israel—its land, people and state.

We must stop alienating Jews who struggle to develop their relationship with Israel by asking tough questions, expressing concern for a moral failure, or offering bold solutions. They do this from a place of love for Judaism, the Jewish people and Israel. The old tropes of Israel right or wrong; Israel never wrong; or Israel, always wrong can no longer be sung.

We need to regain our center with the nuance and balance that is missing today. So as we begin 5771, let’s make these promises to one another. Let’s pledge to discuss Israel openly with the love and respect she deserves, from different points along the ideological spectrum.

Let’s work harder to better understand, even if we don’t agree with other viewpoints. Let’s ensure a place in our community and our synagogue for supporters of AIPAC, J-Street and the New Israel Fund.

Let’s understand that we span an ideological spectrum from right to left yet can come together because we love Israel and will do what is necessary to ensure her survival. Let’s narrow the gap between the ideological poles, and reduce the shrill tones of our conversations. Let’s acknowledge our differences yet find a way to listen to one another. Our different opinions will help us better understand and appreciate the complexity and the nuance that is at the heart and soul of thoughtful conversations about Israel.

I dream of a day when a rally for Israel will draw people from the left and right, where AIPAC can share the stage with J-Street, where voices of moderation, mutual understanding and tolerance will prevail. I dream of a day when a rally for Israel will truly unite all lovers of Israel. Above all, wherever rallies are held, I hope and pray that the maker of peace on high will bring peace to us, to all Israel and all the peoples of the earth. Oseh Shalom Bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu, v’al Kol Yisrael, v’kol yoshvei tevel, vimru,  AMEN

My thanks and appreciation to my friend, Steve Beitler for his thoughtful analysis, and to my friend and colleague Rabbi Zachary Shapiro of Temple Akiba, Culver City, CA for our fruitful exchange of ideas in the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days.

[1] Rabbi Sharon Brous; The Narrowing of the Heart and Mind: American Jewish Response to the Flotilla. The Jewish Journal, June 11, 2010

[2] Look at blog postings by Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL for examples of these shifts.

[3] One of the most vicious has been the campaign to discredit the New Israel Fund.

[5]  Israel was tied for 8th on this list, with Canada, Switzerland and Australia. The United States was 14th.

[6] See Michael Oren “Seven Existential Threats” in the  May, 2009 edition of Commentary Magazine.