Recently, I was among more than 400 American rabbis, cantors and rabbinical and cantorial students who signed an open letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressing our deepest concern about his government’s latest settlement decisions.
What especially prompted the letter was a decision he and his government took to build a new settlement in an area east of Jerusalem known as E1, which every prime minister since Yitzhak Rabin has promised the United States that Israel would not undertake in advance of a final-status negotiations. If built, this settlement would cut off the north and south of the West Bank and effectively block the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state. We see the building of E1 as a dagger aimed at the heart of a two-state solution.
Nobody who signed the document did so lightly. It is always difficult for spiritual leaders to take controversial decisions and it has been especially difficult for American Jewish leaders to openly dissent from the government of Israel.
But I and my fellow signers believe we have a Jewish and moral obligation to speak out now because decisions such as this are endangering the basic principles on which Israel was established – democracy, respect for human rights, tolerance of minorities and political and religious pluralism. We also believe that without a two-state solution, Israel’s very security and safety will be threatened.
In the United States, any Jewish leader who criticizes the Israeli government is immediately targeted by some Jewish organizations as a fifth columnist who does not genuinely love Israel. Fortunately, in recent years, with the advent of organizations like J Street, we are creating a space where real dialogue on Israel can take place for those who love the people and state of Israel and are concerned for its future as Jewish democratic state.
The government of Israel and the Obama administration both need to know that the American Jewish community does not march in lockstep behind Prime Minister Netanyahu, and that when he and his ruling coalition government continue to flout world opinion and common sense by building more settlements, he is not speaking for us.
It is never easy to tell a painful truth; it is harder still to tell your family. And as a husband, a father, and a rabbi, the Jewish people are my family, and the state of Israel is my homeland. I recognize that it is my duty to support Israel, to celebrate her triumphs, and defend her from her dangers, and I have always done so forthrightly, with love and without apology. Right now, arguably the greatest danger to the long-term survival of Israel as a democratic state with a Jewish majority comes from the settlement project.
There is an honorable tradition within our community of rabbis, cantors and spiritual leaders speaking out and acting within the political sphere to support and advance basic Jewish principles and values – the principles and values of our faith. In the Babylonian Talmud, (Shabbat 54b) it is taught that:
All who can protest against [something wrong that] one of their family [is doing] and does not protest, is held accountable for their family. [All who can protest against something wrong that] a citizen of their city [is doing and does not protest], is held accountable for all citizens of the city. [All who can protest against something wrong that is being done] in the whole world, is accountable together with all citizens of the world.
One also thinks of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching shoulder to shoulder with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in support of civil rights and racial justice. We Jews also resonate to Deuteronomy’s exhortation, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Jewish tradition teaches that our purpose is to work to repair the world in the image of the dominion of God as characterized by the principles and values of justice and peace.
Heschel taught that “the opposite of good is not evil. The opposite of good is indifference.” He knew that the only way to stand for Jewish values was to stand for others. He knew that when his government promoted policies that betrayed him as a Jew and as an American, he was compelled to step forward and let his voice be heard.
Today, even with the formidable threats to Israel from the outside, the lack of a two-state solution is also among the greatest threat to Israel’s existence. Rather than surrender ourselves to an eternity of conflict and despair, we have no choice but to raise our voices and speak out against policies which hundreds of thousands of Israelis themselves recognize as a threat to their Jewish democratic state. We recognize that Israeli citizens themselves who live and fight for the State of Israel directly are the ones who must decide the policies of their own government. But as lovers of the people and state, we cannot stand silently and idly by without voicing our concerns respectfully and as part of the greater Jewish family.