One of the great blessings of my retirement is that I am under no pressure to think aloud in front of a congregation about complex issues facing us as a Jewish community. That filter is missing as I do what everyone (I hope) does – think for myself without worrying about the two potential losses that enter every rabbi’s calculus: members and job.
That’s especially true when it comes to Israeli politics. What was a non-issue in my youth and became a controversy in my adulthood (and then a minefield) is now a third rail. Almost every day, someone asks me to sign onto a letter of critique or concern. Gatherings of protest happen each week. Israeli friends, many of whom emigrated from the US, find themselves allied with people so far to the right or to the left of them that it is hard for me to believe.
A friend on the cusp of his rabbinate asked me what I would say if I were in a pulpit today. I first expressed relief that I am not. And then I put down some thoughts that had rolled around in my head but were not committed yet to print.
A dear friend is a Presbyterian minister. We have led two interfaith trips to Israel. The first time, we filled a bus. Last time, we filled two buses. Our upcoming trip already has 65 people registered and the trip leaves in February 2024. The Presbyterian denomination as an entity has been lukewarm (if I am being generous) about Israel, though my friend is much more centrist. Many of the folks who have traveled with us have been very critical and have looked to us to offer some wide perspectives on Israel and Palestine, and we have done it.
As the Jewish leader, I take very seriously my responsibility to show these folks the miracle that is modern Israel, not only the holy sites and certainly not predominantly the points of conflict. It is what I have done for 40 years of my rabbinate.
I can also say that, when called upon, I have done my service to the government of Israel as best I can. The Israeli Embassy is, of course, in Washington, DC. In a different time (when I was active as a rabbi), I responded to the request of the ambassador at the time to reach into the White House through my personal contacts and to gather groups of colleagues when he needed to speak with them. I was not an advocate; that was the ambassador’s role. But I found him ears, even when my opinion may have been different from his.
I have also been close with other embassy personnel, and I am gratified to have been of support to both Israeli and American embassy staff in the performance of their duties (as I have been to government leaders in the United States).
So, I consider myself credentialed. And even if there were people who considered me to be anti-Israel (and there were), I can comfortably say (and did) that I did more to promote White House attention to Israel and particularly Iran than they did by their sloganeering and racist inferences about President Obama.
But what I have noticed over all of these years is that what is expected of me as an American rabbi is pushed steadily to the right in order to be considered supportive and centrist. In fact, not just to the right, but to the bigoted. I believe that human rights apply to all human beings, including the right to self-determination, but the "Palestinian exception" has become an unapologetic standard for anyone to call themselves pro-Israel. I believe that the support of the American Jewish community is essential to maintaining the full allyship of the US government, but the disenfranchisement of non-orthodox/non-secular Jews (see, for example, access to worship at the Western Wall) has been an acceptable platform in governments we have been instructed to support out of loyalty to the national endeavor. I believe that the beliefs of Christian Zionists are dangerous to Israel and to the First Amendment, but I have been expected to embrace the John Hagees and Mike Huckabees of the world because at least one ambassador speaking for his Prime Minister considered them more reliable allies than liberal Jews.
Every time we push back on these dangerous and unrelenting right-wing values, the demarcation of the "center" shifts a little to the right. Positions considered reasonable for discourse in the past are considered dangerous by the members of the current government. Suggesting them puts us on an unofficial enemies list.
And the worst of it is we are being dragged voluntarily, not just because the right has mastered the language of subtle accusation that we are enabling another catastrophe for the Jewish people, but because we are asked to consider what we are willing to do to ensure the thriving, even the survival, of the State of Israel. Those of us not as committed to the far left as typifies the partisans of the far right actually contend with breaking hearts when we ask ourselves if our faith in Jewish values as we understand them is more compelling than our faith in the political future of an independent Jewish state as it is presented. My powerful resentment is against those in the Israeli government who exploit this tension rather than acknowledging its hold on us.
Former Ambassador Michael Oren said to me that there are only two nations in the history of the world that have had uninterrupted democracies throughout their entire histories -- the United States and the State of Israel. Both are endangered, and I won't give up on democracy any sooner than I will give up on the two nations that are my home.
I make that representation independent of the noxious proposals that are roiling Israeli society. My concerns are not new. Today, they are only more pronounced.