High Holidays 5779 – Rejecting the Binary: Reflections from a Liberal and Zionist

Labels are a funny thing.

I am not talking about the label on your new shirt that itches your neck or the label on your mattress which says it should not be removed under penalty of law.

I am talking about the labels that define us; labels which somehow describe us.

Some of my labels would be:

I am Jewish.  I am American.  I am Caucasian.  I am male.  I am a rabbi.

What can you learn about me from these labels?

Am I more or less likely to support a certain candidate or purchase a product?  Am I more or less likely to live in a certain neighborhood?

Entire industries have been created to mine this information. The Facebook scandal this past year showed the extent industry will go to create profiles of us.  And of course, we each fabricate our own implicit bias as we learn information about each other.

Let me add one more label to your profile of me.  I want you to think about your first reaction to what I am going to say.  How do you think this next label defines me?  Pay attention because I am going to ask for a few responses.

I am a Zionist.

I am a proud Zionist.

What is your first reaction? What does that mean to you?  What do you think that label says about me?

[RESPONSES FROM CONGREGATION]

I am proud to be a Zionist, a lover of Israel and a critic when needed.  Israel, like all democracies, needs our critique.  Two things can be simultaneously true: Israel is a miracle AND sometimes Israel’s actions are wrong. This is what I want to grapple with today.

It is not easy to stand here and share this even though this is my 17th High Holidays at Beth El.  Over these years, I have shared my struggles, pride and amazement about Israel with you many times.  Still, too many rabbis and leaders of Jewish institutions avoid talking about Israel.  We know, no matter what we say, people will be upset. Leaders fear donors or influential members will think our comments are too far Left or too far Right. Many leaders therefore self-censor rather than wade into this challenging issue.

Leaders who remain silent don’t appreciate that avoiding congregants’ struggles does not mean they disappear.  The void gets filled by detractors, haters, and zealots instead.  People are grappling with their relationship with Israel even if Jewish leaders remain silent.

As a rare voice addressing feeling stuck between expressing support and criticism of Israel, Ron Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress and a philanthropist throughout the Jewish world, wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times recently.  He wrote:

“Israel is a miracle.  The Jews of the diaspora look up to Israel, admire its astonishing achievements and view it as their second home.  However, today some wonder if the nation they cherish is losing its way.”[1]

Lauder’s piece is significant because it names the struggle so many American Jews are having.  Some have complained Lauder showed our ‘dirty laundry’ in too public way but his sentiments and warnings are correct.

Many of us agonize over Israel.  It is the Jewish Homeland.  It is the land of our ancestors and of Jewish longing.  The 12th century Iberian poet Yehuda Halevi captured the experience of living in the Diaspora with a love of Israel when he wrote:

My heart is in the east, and I am in the uttermost west [2]

Like the poet, my heart is in Israel even as I live in the west.

But I struggle in this complicated relationship.

Burying my head will not solve the struggles American Jews are having as Zionists, lovers of Israel, and Israel’s occasional critics.

Today, the term Zionism has become weaponized.  From college campuses to op-ed pages, a Zionist is often described as an oppressor of Palestinians, a human rights violator, a Jewish settler on a hilltop in Judea or Samaria.  Zionists are painted with the brushes of colonialism, oppression and even being antithetical to Jewish values.

On the popular web site, Urban Dictionary, a Zionist is defined as:

A race supremacist, colonialist, extremist. One who believes in a political ideology that hijacked judaism, soon to hijack Christianity” [3] the website says.

But I tell you, Zionism is none of those things.

Zionism is as old as the Hebrew Bible.  Zion, Tzion, is older than 1948.  It is older than Herzl’s The Jewish State published in 1896.  Jews have been longing for Zion since the Prophets Isaiah and Samuel, Jeremiah and Amos, Micah and Ovadiah wrote, sang, warned, celebrated and lamented Zion.

Zionism has been the dream of the Jewish People for millennia.

Daniel Gordis describes it as:

The State of Israel is the place to which the Jewish people have returned in order to reimagine what Jewish life might be like, what the Jewish people might be. It has been the power of dreams, the possibility of reimagination, which has long fueled the very best of what Israel could be… Israel did what few would have imagined possible… (Israel) made the desert bloom.

Seemingly bereft of natural resources, a fledgling state decided to make the most of the only resource it had – human intellectual capital – with results far exceeding what anyone could have imagined.

(Gordis concludes,) What we need to recall, especially at times like this, is that the Israeli power of imagination is still alive and well.[4]

Zionism is the movement for self-determination for the Jewish People in our Homeland.  The dream of Zionism does not deny self-determination to anyone else.

I am not apologetic about Israel’s right to exist.  I am proud of what Israel has accomplished in its 70 years.  It is a leader in technology, culture, agriculture, and more.  It took a language which lived in the pages of the Bible and brought it back to life.  Hebrew is a living language in the streets of Tel Aviv, the alleyways of Tzfat, and the scientific research labs of Beersheva.

But no person or place is perfect. In Israel’s current reality, the country wrestles with significant internal and external issues.  How does Israel integrate its ‘religious Jewish’ and ‘secular Jewish’ identities?  How does Israel prioritize religious pluralism with multiple streams of Judaism as well as Islam, Christianity, Bahai and other faiths trying to co-exist in the country?  How does Israel defend itself against terrorist groups and nations vowed to destroy the State?  How does Israel resolve a 50 year occupation without any real Palestinian partners stable and strong enough to enforce peace?

A dangerous dichotomy has seeped into the broader Jewish community as well.  It isn’t only clergy who must walk a tightrope.  I hear from many people who feel if they criticize Israel, friends on the political Right yell at them saying they are playing into the hands of Israel’s enemies.  And if they stay silent, friends on the political Left accuse them of capitulating.

In this environment of extremes, many of us feel cornered and trapped.  We feel we don’t have a way to express our love and support for Israel while also decrying Israel’s faults when they arise.

Being a Zionist is filled with complications, a myriad of narratives, and hard conversations.

As a lover of Israel and a liberal, I stand before you having felt stuck and sometimes alienated by the land I love.   It feels like many Israeli policies concerning the Diaspora, Jewish identity, religious pluralism, conversions or marriage by non-Orthodox rabbis and other issues devalue the Jewish communities outside Israel.  It feels like Israel assumes I will support the country no matter what it does.

So,

  • On the eve of Tisha B’Av this year, when Prime Minister Netanyahu placated the Ultra-Orthodox parties by detaining my colleague, Rabbi Dubi Haiyun, a Conservative rabbi in Haifa, in a pre-dawn arrest at his house. And his crime was simply performing marriages outside of the restrictive Orthodox rabbinic courts – our stream of Judaism was momentarily negated.[5]
  • Last year Netanyahu, after lengthy negotiations with the different Movements of Judaism, pulled back from upgrading a section of the Kotel available for non-Orthodox, egalitarian prayer services. It has only now been approved for expansion by using a loop hole requiring it to be handicap accessible thus bypassing committees dominated by Orthodox parties.[6]
  • Or this summer when American and Israeli activists were questioned at Ben Gurion airport upon arrival as an act of intimidation designed to quell criticism of government policies.[7]
  • And Israel’s new Nation State Law which affirmed the country’s Jewishness but also pushed Israel’s Arab citizens further to the margins of Israeli society.

These are all wrong.

And I am fearful of the insidious destructive impact of occupation on Israeli and Palestinian societies. What is the impact on the 19 year old Israeli soldier stationed at a checkpoint or patrolling villages?  What is the impact on the 19 year old Palestinian waiting to pass through a checkpoint?  What is the societal impact for each?

Each of these incidents, pull at me.

Israel is not perfect but, in countless ways, the dream of Israel is already a reality.

From reading the headlines in the U.S., you would not know Israeli Supreme Court Justice, Salim Joubran just retired from the High Court as he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.  Justice Joubran is an Israeli Arab who sat on the Supreme Court since 2004.[8]  Did you know Israel had an Arab Supreme Court Justice?

Do you know the Israeli Knesset has 18 Arab Knesset members?  While the relationships are often tense, it proves the strength of Israel’s democracy when Arab Knesset members can push back against the State from the Parliament’s floor. Beyond the conflict, they are also allies with other Knesset members on various issues.

Let me be clear – an Arab Supreme Court Justice, over a dozen Arab Knesset members, growing number of Israeli Arabs attending universities throughout the country[9]… these are not the actions of an Apartheid State.  Anyone calling Israel an Apartheid State is only trying to win quick sound bites… but they are not describing Israel.

Israel is short of its best but its national ideals are captured in its Declaration of Independence:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL… will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions…[10]

Israel is not there yet… but nor is America.

My struggle as a liberal and a Zionist is encapsulated by Israel’s internal dynamics with the LGBTQ community.  On one hand, Israel’s Gay Pride parades marched through the country this summer.  Incredibly, more than a quarter million people participated in Tel Aviv’s Pride Week.[11] It was the 20th anniversary of the celebrations.

But then the Knesset, dominated by conservatives, passed a law excluding gay men from utilizing surrogacy to become fathers. People filled Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square in protest.[12]

Charles Dickens was not thinking about Israel but maybe he was correct:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…[13]

In the face of the political Left and political Right, loving Israel is complicated.  I appreciate the pulls Dickens is describing.

On the American Left, I am disgusted by the pervasiveness of intersectionality.  When Linda Sasour, one of the leaders of the Women’s March on Washington, says you cannot be a feminist and a Zionist[14] and she advocates a One-State solution which would destroy Israel, I no longer have common ground with her.

When protesters gathered in North Dakota at Standing Rock to fight for indigenous peoples and against the Dakota Access Pipeline, anti-Israel slogans, flags and banners appeared.[15]  Our common ground is shaken.

At too many Black Lives Matters events, Israel is degraded.[16]

In many progressive circles, their hate of Israel taints their cause.

Last summer in Chicago at the Dykes’ March, a Jewish group was banned from participating because they carried a rainbow flag emblazoned with the Magen David, the Jewish star.  They were told the flag was contrary to the march because the star was a symbol of oppression.  At this year’s Dykes’ March, scores of Palestinian flags were carried by the crowd.[17]

Marches, protests and movements on the political Left are being co-opted by haters of Israel.

There is a funny paradox.  As Palestinian flags waved in the LGBTQ marches, I thought to myself that I am 100% confident that any gay or lesbian Palestinians would be far safer in Tel Aviv or Haifa than in Hamas controlled Gaza City or Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where ultra-conservative Wahhabism reigns.

The blurring of issues among American liberal movements forces me to excuse the anti-Israel rhetoric of the Left which I cannot accept.  And on the American political Right, there is a lack of will to hold Israel accountable when needed.

My response to this quagmire… where I cannot turn to the left and I cannot turn to the right is to reject its very premise.

Maybe Deuteronomy was correct when it said:

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֣ם לַעֲשֹׂ֔ות כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֛ה ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֖ם אֶתְכֶ֑ם לֹ֥א תָסֻ֖רוּ יָמִ֥ין וּשְׂמֹֽאל׃

Be careful to do what the LORD your God has commanded you; do not turn to the right or to the left.[18]

I reject the binary alternatives I am being forced into.  I reject the notion that I either have to be a liberal and therefore attack Israel in the name of the oppressed or I need to blindly accept and support all Israeli policies.

I am a liberal and a Zionist.

In spaces where Israel is wrongfully demeaned, accused, and undermined, I will speak out.  When people challenge Israel’s right to exist, I will stand up.

And, when Israel does wrong, when Israel is not living up to its own ideals, I will also will speak out.  When freedoms of the press are challenged, civil rights are restricted and the politics of the immediate outweigh the statesmanship of true leadership, I will speak out.

And, I will speak out about the incredible things happening in Israel as well.  Independent of or maybe despite the many complexities of the country, Israel continues to do miraculous things.

So l want us to take a step forward together.  Beth El is a community in which we are honest about our struggles, our joys, our sheer awe that the State of Israel exists.

This is the more difficult path but it is also the authentic path.

לֹ֥א תָסֻ֖רוּ יָמִ֥ין וּשְׂמֹֽאל׃

Do not turn to the right or to the left.

This year, a number of congregations have joined together in a new campaign.  Started by members of Congregation Teferith Israel in the District, it is called the Campaign for Jewish Values in Israel.  While each congregation is implementing it in their own way, it is a joint effort to connect directly with Israel and support amazing NGOs having a positive impact on Israel’s civil society.

At Beth El, we are doing this alongside our traditional Israel Bonds Appeal on Yom Kippur.  This will provide you options for engaging which you may not have known about.  Rather than feeling constricted by the pulls of the Left and Right, let’s lean into Israel more.

I am tired of those who say I ‘can’t do’.  This is a chance for us ‘to do’, to impact, to support Israel and to help Israel become its best self.

The NGOs we have selected are:

  • Masorti is the Conservative Movement in Israel and works to nurture religious pluralism.
  • The Jerusalem YMCA Chorus was founded by Beth El member Micah Hendler and brings together Jews and Palestinians to sing together.  They have received numerous awards for their work.
  • Association for Civil Rights in Israel is Israel’s oldest and largest human rights organization and the only one dealing with the entire spectrum of rights and civil liberties issues in Israel and the West Bank.
  • Magen David Adom is Israel’s national ambulance, blood-services, and disaster-relief organization, serving as emergency medical first-responders for the country’s 8.8 million people.
  • IsraAID works to provide long term disaster relief and rebuilding in 47 countries around the globe.  Israel has been the first to set up emergency hospitals after typhoons in the Philippines, give aid after earthquakes in Haiti, Japan and Nepal and caring for asylum seekers in Greece.

If you feel moved to support these groups, information will be available on Yom Kippur during the appeals.

We are also bringing a wide range of programs to Beth El as we continue the congregational theme of Israel in its 70th year.

Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America will be at Beth El on October 16.  Yehuda is a thought leader in the complex relationship I have been discussing.  This is part of an initiative of the Washington Federation and Hartman Institute. Yehuda’s talk is titled, “The Moral, the Political and the Partisan: Jewish Community and Values in an Era of Polarization.”

Zach Schaffer will be here to share his incredible experiences as a millenial navigating the space of being a Zionist amongst peers pushed to indifference by the complexities of Israel.  Two years ago, Zach and I visited Israel and the West Bank together.

Tal Greenberg is our Israel Shaliach replacing Itsik who returned to Israel after being with us for two years.  Tal is an incredibly energetic, warm and thoughtful woman who will be connecting throughout the Beth El community.  I encourage you to meet her, invite her over to meet your Beth El friends and hear her story.  The Shaliach program is also supported by the Washington Federation.

This December will be the inaugural Sorkin Teen Trip to Israel.  Inspired by Jerry Sorkin z’l, Beth El’s past President, our religious school 10th graders will travel to Israel with a special curriculum to build their leadership skills and connect with the Land.  It is expected this will be an annual trip for each 10th grade class for students who complete the Upper School program.

And next July, I will be leading a family mission to Israel.

In the year ahead, let’s lean into Israel.  Together, let’s deepen our relationship, unpack it and even challenge our labels of each other. We need Israel and Israel needs us. So from a place of love, I will offer Israel tochacha, critique, when needed.[19]

But I will not be absent or silent in conversations or spaces which wrongly undermine Israel’s right to exist.  I will not acquiesce to the narrative of Israel as colonialist.  I will not allow people to excuse terrorism as an acceptable response.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written:

The Prophet “Jeremiah kept warning the people that the strength of a country does not depend on the strength of its army but the strength of its society.  Is there justice?  Is there compassion?  Are people concerned about the welfare of others or only about their own?  Is there corruption in high places?

Do religious leaders overlook the moral failings of their people, believing that all you have to do is perform the Temple rituals and all will be well: God will save us from enemies?  (Sacks concludes,) Jeremiah kept saying, in so many words, that God will not save us from enemies until we save ourselves from our own lesser selves.”[20]

Saving ourselves from our own lesser selves demands we speak out when Israel is wrongly demeaned and speak out when Israel is wrong.

I am a Jewish American Caucasian male.  I am also a liberal and a Zionist. I yearn to express all this without pause or reservation, and without concern of how others will judge me.

So, what labels do you go by?

I hope you can be proud of your labels, even if they are a bit messy at times.

May 5779 bring peace, prosperity and greater understanding.

Shana Tova

________________________________________________________________________________

References:

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/13/opinion/israel-ronald-lauder-nation-state-law.html

[2] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/quot-my-heart-is-in-the-east-quot-yehuda-halevi

[3] https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=zionist

[4] https://www.jpost.com/Opinion/A-dose-of-nuance-What-is-Zionism-really-for-500374

[5] https://www.timesofisrael.com/us-jews-fume-after-arrest-of-conservative-rabbi-over-weddings/

[6] https://www.jta.org/2018/08/27/news-opinion/plan-expand-western-wall-egalitarian-prayer-section-gets-final-approval

[7] https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/editorial/.premium-netanyahu-s-gate-of-darkness-1.6385066

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salim_Joubran

[9] https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/number-of-arabs-in-israeli-higher-education-grew-79-in-seven-years-1.5763067

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israeli_Declaration_of_Independence#Official_translation

[11] https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/tel-aviv-pride-parade-2018-everything-you-need-to-know-1.6157821

[12] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/lgbtq-community-israel-protests-surrogacy-law_us_5b54dc12e4b0de86f48e2e45

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Tale_of_Two_Cities

[14] https://www.thenation.com/article/can-you-be-a-zionist-feminist-linda-sarsour-says-no/

[15] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/standing-rock-and-palestine-the-struggle-for-justice_us_5838e22ee4b0c2ab94436936

[16] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/08/why-did-black-american-activists-start-caring-about-palestine/496088/

[17] https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/chicago-dyke-march-flies-palestinian-flags-after-banning-jewish-ones-1.6216718

[18] Deuteronomy 5:32

[19] Leviticus 19:17

[20] http://rabbisacks.org/not-being-a-victim-reeh-5778/