Recently, a friend of mine told me a story: A rabbi in a large Jewish congregation – say, somewhere in the great state of California – was asked by a permanent member of the congregation for the rabbi’s opinion and thoughts regarding a panel discussion to be centered around the issue of “Jewish values in relation to Israel, and the important role that the American Jewish community has in engaging in such a discussion.” The member of that congregation was happy to learn that the rabbi thought it was a great idea, and furthermore proceeded to suggest some important topics for discussion, and esteemed candidates to participate in that panel. The member was disappointed, however – though by no means surprised – that the rabbi, for “obvious reasons,” did not feel comfortable participating as a panelist. Even more so, the rabbi thought that other rabbis in town will react in a similar fashion.
My immediate reaction to that story was surprise, and indeed disappointed at the rabbi’s stance on the matter, in particular the rabbi’s refusal to participate in such a panel discussion. My friend, while knowing I was born in a kibbutz in Israel, and that to date I still carry with me certain naivete, nonetheless asked me why I was so surprised by that. Here’s my response:
What was the rabbi afraid of? And why was that rabbi so afraid? Was the rabbi afraid to discuss, and expose the community to the problematic issue of Israel’s occupation and rule over other people for the last 48 year? Was the issue of ruling, by military means, over other people, depriving them in many cases of basic human rights and national aspirations, inconsistent with Jewish values? And if so, what to do about it? And if not so, if it’s not an occupation, what is it? If it’s an annexation, de facto – by the settlers, in cahoots with the various governments since the Six-Day war of 67 – then what about the rights of the Arabs, the Palestinians there to vote? Isn’t that, well… an apartheid, to deprive them of these basic citizen rights? And if the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria – call it what you will – is part of greater Israel, what about the danger of the Jewish people becoming a minority in the not-so-distant future, losing the characteristic of being a Jewish, democratic state?
Was that particular rabbi – be it a he or a she – afraid to touch, and open all these wounds? Even though, the rabbi is the spiritual and religious leader of the congregation? And as such, isn’t the rabbi supposed to discuss these issues? Was the rabbi further afraid of talking and debating the question of the Israeli Arabs, citizens of the state, some 20 percent of the population, and their status as “second-class” citizens? Especially in regard, and in connection to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s perceived racist remarks about them before the last elections. Furthermore, was the rabbi afraid to discuss the ethnic question? The great divide, the “ethnic demon” as it is called in Israel, which is still so prominent in its society, and separate – in income, education and position of power – Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews?
Too hot to handle, for that rabbi. But what about the Jewish-State Law? What about losing the democratic values to a stricter, more orthodox, religious regime? And what, if we are at it, of the danger of Israel – due to the foreseen makeup of the new government – becoming even more theocratic in nature? Do away with pluralism, religious pluralism in particular, maybe? Put forward more objections and changes to equality between the sexes, for instance, in marriage and in divorce. And to go along with that, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots. What so difficult, what so frightening in talking about, and discussing these issues in the open, here in America. Maybe we should tell the Israelis what we think about these matters, and maybe we shouldn’t. But why not talk about it here, among ourselves? Jews in America engaging in conversation about the future of Israel? And with it, the future of the Jewish people as a whole? What can be more natural, essential than that?
Perhaps that rabbi didn’t want to ruffle any feathers, or was simply afraid of losing the congregation rabbi’s job. What’s not in doubt in my mind, as I told my friend, is that the rabbi, like other rabbis in that California town, and indeed throughout the land, was afraid. Period. Exclamation point. You name it. Which reminds me that when it comes to Jewish values, none is better than Rabbi Nachman of Breslov and his famous saying, to remind us all what our world, and us Jews within it, are all about: “A person walks in life on a very narrow bridge. The most important thing is not to be afraid.”