“Hamas is an evil empire”. (Tear sheet of paper) No, I don’t want to start that way.
“Of course, Israel has a right to defend itself.” (Tear sheet of paper) No, I don’t want to start that way either.
“The United States should get involved and pressure Israel…” (Tear sheet of paper) No, not that either.
“The Palestinians should unilaterally declare their state…” (Tear sheet of paper) OY.
Talking about talking about Israel is tearing us apart. (Tear sheet of paper) YES.
I am not going to talk about Israel this morning. I am not a political pundit, nor a journalist, nor an expert in foreign policy; and I do not want to analyze what happened this summer, or in Gaza, or in the West Bank. I know only this: it has been the most difficult and tense summer I can remember, and Israel has been on our minds and at our dinner tables and around the proverbial work water-cooler in an intense and sometimes heart-wrenching way that it has not been before. For those who wish I would take sides this morning, who want me to come up with definitive statements that clearly and unequivocally defend Israel or clearly and unequivocally critique Israel: you will be disappointed. For those who wish me to use large and politicized phrases like “massacre” “terrorists” “genocide” ‘Islamicists” “jihadists” “the world hates us” “innocent civilians” or “growing world anti-Semitism”: I will disappoint you. I apologize in advance—after all, that’s what Yom Kippur is about—if I offend anyone or everyone, but even talking about talking about Israel is bound to do that.
Talking about Israel has become a minefield for us as Jews, both among ourselves and among our non-Jewish friends or family. One of the Jewish Forward’s top stories this summer was about the executive director of the United States’ largest LGBT synagogue resigning in an angry e-mail which was circulated via social media. In his e-mail, the director claimed that his synagogue had been more sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians than to the risks facing Jews in Israel. The response online was vitriolic. The Rabbi was labeled a “Kapo, Arab-lover, Jew-hater.” The director’s resignation concluded, “In the end, I would actually prefer the synagogue take a position of silence on the conflict rather than to support the enemy from the bimah.”
Rabbis recently interviewed by the New York Times said that many were anguishing—as I was— over what to say about Israel in their sermons during the High Holy Days. If we defend Israel, we risk alienating Jews who are detached from Judaism and the Jewish state altogether, and those leftists who feel comfortable among us. If we say anything critical of Israel, we risk angering those who believe we should be publicly always staunchly and clearly supportive, and those centrists and rightists who feel comfortable among us. My colleague Rabbi Scott Perlo has coined this the “Death by Israel Sermon.”
Rabbi Ron Aigen from Congregation Dorshei Emet in Montreal wrote, “It used to be that Israel was always the uniting factor in the Jewish world. But it’s become contentious ...even trying to be centrist and balanced and present two sides of the issue... is fraught with danger.”
A case in point: Last year, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California tried and failed to organize an event exploring how to have a dialogue about Israel. “It was just too contentious,” said Jonathan Freund, vice president of the board. “It was kind of ironic,” Mr. Freund said, “because we couldn’t in the end figure out how to talk about how to talk about it.”
Peter Beinert, the darling of the Jewish left and J Street, who always and often speaks about Israel, called on Rabbis in an op-ed in Haaretz, NOT to speak on Israel at all.
But silence is really not a good option. The call for silence rather than debate, discussion, and dialogue signals despair. And trouble ahead.
As does the call for one unified voice.
On July 25, Paul Estrin, the president of the Green Party of Canada published a pro-Israel blog on the party’s website entitled “Why Gaza makes me sad.” His comments criticized Hamas. The article was eventually removed from the website but not before some online commenters issued threats about his personal safety. He planned to fight for his right to express himself and have an opinion that diverges from other members. Instead, those with whom he worked called for his resignation, which he gave.
And the Hillel of Brandeis University, my alma mater and known for its sweeping embrace of all things and all people Jewish, in all shades and variations, voted against including a campus chapter of Jewish Voices for Peace in its organization. In December of 2011 Hillel’s international body published guidelines that say Hillel “will not partner with, house or host” groups or speakers that do not agree with Israel as a Jewish and democratic state”, including any that support the BDS campaign. The Brandeis chapter of JVP insisted it supports only boycotting those goods produced in Gaza and the West Bank, not Israel proper, and it is not anti-Israel.
Whether or not you agree that Estrin was not abusing his authority as President of the Green Party, and whether or not you agree with the politics or tactics of JVP, there is no doubt that tempers are running hot on this issue.
There has been a tear in the fabric of the Jewish community over this one; a tear so real we hear it and we feel it. Where it used to be so easy and so clear— David against Goliath, the miracle of the return to the land, the spiritual connection Jews feel to the land, our history in the land, our Jewish roots and the very meaning of our Judaism as tied to the land—all these are no longer givens.
And we just can’t seem to find a way to talk about it.
In August The Times of Israel put up a general call on their English and French websites asking readers, “Is this a watershed moment for our community?” More than 400 individuals commented on Facebook within a day of the initial call. I’ve chosen 3 of the responses just to share the angst that talking about Israel has created:
Ilana, an Israeli living in Berlin, wrote, “On everyday level I hide. No longer go to the synagogue close to my home, I don’t want my neighbors to know. Postal packets from Israel are no longer delivered to the house. I avoid answering where I’m from when asked — make it into a joke. Politically — I hide. The people who know I’m from Israel give a long lecture about how I fit into their idea of a “good Jew” and the subject was closed. I don’t feel up to handling the world’s issues with Jews anymore.”
Sonya from Ohio wrote: “I am estranged from my son as a result of this. He is a college student and, in public forums, accused Israel of inciting WWIII. I had to remind him that he is a Jew and challenge his thinking. It will divide many households, to be sure, but I will not be silent, even if my son no longer wants a relationship.”
Bryan from Johannesburg, South Africa said it most succinctly: “Never has been as bad as this.”
There is a palpable tear in the fabric. A kriyah tear, like in the black ribbon or clothing of a mourner. A tear over our heart that we wear visibly. We have lost our innocence about Israel. We have lost our ground, our clarity, our assurance. We have lost our agreements, our shared assumptions, our communal cohesiveness. I think we are in grief over those losses, and we are wearing the torn ribbon in a state of communal shock.
This summer was the summer of emotionally exhausting news articles about marches in Europe and marches in New York ad marches in Jerusalem and marches in Toronto. Tunnels and accusations of using human shields and then military explanations about how Hamas was not using UN schools and then more accusations that Hamas was using UN schools and then being barraged with the number of Facebook posts we are supposed to read that divided the world into good guys and bad guys, us and them, topped with hysterical email subject lines in all-capital letters : “IF YOU READ NOTHING AT ALL ABOUT ISRAEL, READ THIS!” or “COPY AND SEND THIS TO EVERY HUMAN BEING ON THE PLANET THAT YOU KNOW, THIS IS A MUST-READ!”
Why has talking about Israel become so hard? Why does it feel that we are either shouting at each other in capital letters or else ducking into a dark corner praying fervently that someone will change the subject?
I’d like to suggest three reasons.
First: your opinion on Israel seems to have become a litmus test of who you are as a Jew. This summer I was sent article after article telling us that if we really loved Israel, if we really wished her well, we would drop everything and go over there in the middle of the war and volunteer. Don’t just support Israel from the sidelines, we were told, as a comfortable Diaspora Jew. Don’t send messages of love and concern, if you are really sincere, you’ll bring those messages over there yourself. Are you a supporter? Prove it, by going over there in times of war.
I was personally sent the message, “Before I purchase tickets for high holidays, I need to know where you and the shul stand on Israel and this summer’s terrible incursion into Gaza. Did you support it or criticize it? If yu supported it, I can’t join you for the holidays.” Is City Shul left or right enough? Prove it by what you say in your sermon.
And not just Jews, non-Jews as well. Every church I know has to have a visible “stand” on Israel-Palestine, and your “stand” will define how you are perceived as a Christian. And for leftists of any religion or none at all, Israel is the ultimate litmus test. Ellen Willis, who was the founder of New York University’s cultural reporting and criticism program, wrote as early as 2003: “...leftists tend to single out Israel as The Problem that must be solved…” “True” leftists, especially university professors, attest to their leftist credentials best with Palestine in the spotlight of their articles. Alan Krinsky wrote in The Huffington Post, “Israel continues to be the demon poster-child of the Left…” And to make matters worse, the Left’s gripe this summer was too often with “The Jews” or “The Israelis”, instead of with the “current Israeli government.” And the Jewish right’s gripe this summer—just as broad and sweeping; it was too often with “The Palestinians” and not “the Palestinian leadership” or “the Gazans” and not “Hamas.” It’s hard to talk about a demon or an angel with any accuracy.
Second, every conversation about Israel feels like it has to be a win-lose proposition. One side must be right and one side must be wrong. Are you FOR or AGAINST? Is Israel a horrible colonialist monster or the only democracy in the Middle East? Is Israel good or evil? Are the Palestinians terrorists or victims? No subtlety allowed, no grey. If anything we should have learned this sumer, it is that the situation is unbearably complicated. Yes Gaza is a nightmare of poverty and corruption with human beings who live there...and, not BUT, and, yes Israel is under constant threat and siege...yes and yes, you are right and you are right and you are wrong and you are wrong...Don’t say it’s easy, if just the Palestinians would do this or that, if just Israel would do this or that...Neither side wants to give in or give up because they are both playing a win-lose game. We come in with all our fixed preconceived notions, looking for “proof texts” for our already-formed opinions in order to make the other side see that it is losing and that we are winning.
It’s like going to a mayoral debate. We all kind of know who we are going to vote for anyway, so why do we go? To be convinced of our original opinion. Called “confirmation bias” it is a phenomenon where we favour information that confirms our hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true. Also called “myside bias” both “sides”—and even calling them “sides” is a win/lose proposition— search, interpret and selectively recall information to prove what they already believe. It’s hard to talk with people waiting to prove that you are wrong. And it’s equally hard to “preach to the choir”—that is, to only speak with people with whom you agree.
And third, our language is not only electrically emotionally charged around this discussion but it’s also usually inaccurate. We use sweeping statements like “Everyone wants peace” when it’s just not clear that everyone wants peace. When it seems that fundamentalists on both sides are doing everything in their power to prevent peace. Statements that begin with “of course” aren’t helpful because there are no givens. And how do we frame our conceptions of the conflict anyway? In the Diaspora we are Westerners and so we “think” in Western concepts but not everyone else does. And loaded words like occupation, genocide, ethnic cleansing, holocaust, Nazi, self-hating Jew, bleeding heart liberal, knee-jerk leftist, right-wing fundamentalist, apartheid, victim, and imperialist are all flawed, historically problematic, and are meant to be conversation-stoppers, not conversation-openers.
This fall, just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, the UN speeches of both Netanyahu and Abbas brought us once again to see just how burdened the language of discourse around the Middle East is. Abbas tried to get the UN to push through a resolution that would somehow end the conflict by reiterating that East Jerusalem will be the new Palestinian capital—a kind of non-negotiable on the Israeli side. And with a return of Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel. And then Netanyahu, declaring that “the old template for peace must be updated,” asserted that Hamas is virtually identical to ISIS and denied that Israel is occupying any land at all.
Ari Shavit got it right when in his book My Promised Land he writes, “On the one hand Israel is the only nation in the West that is occupying another people. On the other hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is existentially threatened...Most observers and analysts deny this duality. The ones on the left addresses occupation and overlook intimidation, and the ones on the right address intimidation and dismiss occupation…” It is hard to talk when our language is lopsided, distorted, and when the speaker and the listener are conceptualizing completely differently.
So how can we talk about talking about Israel?
Ok, it won’t be easy, but the first way is to prepare ourselves for some very difficult listening. The whole “hasbara” effort is not to teach us to listen but to teach how us to speak, how to answer, how to “win” in the battle of wits. We spend a lot of time speaking at each other. Listening is going to be frightening because we’ll be hearing things we won’t like or agree with or even be able to stomach. Listening requires intense courage and patience and an opening of the heart to hear another’s story as if it is true— because it is true for that person, even if not for us.
And it won’t be easy, but the second way is for those of us who have been talking about Israel since 1948 or 1967 to just shut up for a minute, and let a younger generation work out its angst itself. Stop lecturing 20 and 30 year olds about how they “should” feel about Israel and give up the talking stick and let them have it for awhile. They aren’t inheriting the Israel of Golda Meir and Paul Newman in Exodus; the kibbutzniks in tembel hats and Israeli circle dancing on a Saturday night. They aren’t, and that’s a tough reality but it’s their reality, and they will have to work it their own unique relationship with Israel as we did ours. They will continue to wrestle with it but we cannot throw heavy punches to knock them out of the ring. As long as they are in the ring, wrestling, they are engaged.
And it won’t be easy, but the third way is what Jewish tradition teaches in Pirke Avot, where it introduces the term mahloket l’shem shamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven—what Rabbi Melissa Weintraub has translated beautifully as “sacred disagreement.”
We once were masters of sacred disagreement. The Talmud itself is structured as one large debate, with variant voices across centuries sometimes, calling out to each other and passionately arguing while maintaining respect. Our greatest strength as Jews lies not so much in our ability to create times of communal harmony but rather in our ability to weather the storms of adversity even when they are from within.
Pirke Avot continues: Mahloket l’shem shamayim--an argument for the sake of heaven— will stand forever. Such an argument weathers the tests of time and proves to be out of love for Judaism and the Jewish people. Rav Yonah comments on the participants of this kind of “good” argument will live long enough to continue to have many more good arguments! The shining example of this are the schools of Hillel and Shammai, whose arguments “stand forever” and whose debates we still study today as “sacred disagreements.” And of this sparring pair the Talmud says “elu v’elu: both present words of the Living G-d.” It will not be easy, but we will have to relearn the art of sacred disagreement, without tearing each other apart.
The truth is: there are be tears in the fabric which can be re-sewn, if we are willing to live with seeing the seam where the rip once happened.
Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in Haaretz, just days before Rosh Hashana: “...I am, like many of us, a confusion of emotions. I am angry and fearful, grieving and grateful, proud and ashamed and, despite everything, hopeful....I believe we will persevere. I believe this because Jewish history – events we ourselves have witnessed – insists that despair is always premature...Most Jews instinctively know that to be a Jew means to balance paradoxes – security and morality, realism and vision, particularism and universalism, self-defense and self-critique.
This year especially, I will pray that we have the wisdom to hold together as a people, despite the growing pressures on us to fragment and turn against each other.
Most Jews share the same hope – of a strong Israel at peace with its neighbours. We will continue to argue about the best way to achieve that – but as partners, aware that there are no easy answers, that none of us can speak for the totality of Jewish wisdom, that we need each other’s insights to be a whole people, that we cannot thrive without being a whole people.”
I will live this year with the hope of repair of the torn fabric, of tikkun. I’m so proud that City Shul has inaugurated this first year of our shul’s Israel Engagement with 3 programmes on Israel that we have crafted to be both open and reflective. From there, I hope to stand with those who are prepared to become sewers and menders and stitchers; with those who are brave enough to gather the torn sheets and use some tape of love and listening.