Daniel Greyber
Rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in Durham, NC

An open letter to progressive American clergy

Many American Jews are hurting this week. I did a baby naming a few days ago; one set of grandparents Zoomed from their bomb shelter in Israel. Two of our synagogue teens spending the year in Israel slept in bomb shelters, eventually fleeing Tel Aviv. Our synagogue elders have children and grandchildren being called up in Israel’s military reserves. But in a recent congregational conversation about the tragic events currently unfolding in the Middle East, several people expressed feeling misunderstood by their liberal friends when it comes to Israel / Palestine. “We agree on so many things but when we talk about Israel, people seem only to acknowledge Palestinian pain and suffering. I feel very misunderstood, and alone.” I’ve been thinking about why they feel this way.

Jews disagree about the U.S. Middle East foreign policy; so can you. We know criticism of Israel is not antisemitic; many Jews are outspoken critics of the Netanyahu government. Our community aches at (another) war with Hamas, even when, on Al-Aqsa TV last week, a Hamas political leader called on Arabs in Jerusalem to “cut off the heads of the Jews.” Not “Israelis.” “Jews.” Every war is tragic and Jewish tradition mourns the death of every innocent life, even those from whom we are estranged, even our enemies.

According to Jewish tradition, when angels sang as Pharaoh’s army drowned in the sea, God silenced them: “My angels are drowning in the sea and you sing?” I wrote to my congregation last week that moments such as these challenge us to feel more. As Jews, I told them, our hearts must soften, not harden, with compassion for Palestinian mothers and children suffering and dying in Gaza. As one rabbi said this week, “There are not only sides; there is grief, and we cannot lose the essential humanness that weeps tears for all who suffer.” But I wonder if my congregants feel that their liberal friends also weep for Jewish suffering in Israel?

I pray this week we might make more room in our hearts for millions (not an exaggeration) of innocent Israeli civilians spending nights in bomb shelters. For a generation of children in towns next to Gaza growing up with PTSD, scarred by sirens and years of terror from indiscriminately fired rockets falling from the sky. For five-year-old, Ido Avigal, of Sderot who was killed a few days ago in a rocket attack. For Gershon Franko, 55, who died, unable to get to a bomb shelter because he was disabled.

When you hear about Israeli deaths, injury and trauma, I ask you to pause – just for a moment – before jumping to a political argument about Sheikh Jarrah or Al Aqsa or the occupation. If, as you wrestle with events unfolding in Israel/Palestine, there is space in your heart for Palestinian, but not Jewish, pain, I fear, as Yeats said, you’ve made “a stone of [your] heart.” “Our part,” writes Yeats, is “to murmur name upon name, As a mother names her child.”

Antisemitism is (among many things) a refusal to see Jews as people. Depicting the world’s only Jewish majority country – Israel – as invulnerable and totally wrong demonizes Jews. An invitation to expand our hearts is not gaslighting or an attempt to justify Palestinian oppression; it is a plea from Jewish neighbors in your community to be seen and understood during a time of need, to know they are not alone.

The Israeli poet Amir Gilboa once wrote:

If they show me a stone and I say it’s a stone,

They’ll agree it’s a stone.

If they show me a tree and I say it’s a tree,

They’ll agree – it’s a tree.

But if they show me my blood and I say blood,

They’ll say it’s color.

This week, Jews, too, bleed. Do you see blood, or just color?

Conversations in America will not determine the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the type of conversations we have about it will impact the future of interfaith dialogue in America. I do not claim to possess “the” answers to any of life’s questions. I am not a politician or Middle East policy scholar; I can only offer my own knowledge and experience of Israel. I don’t speak for all Jews, but America is my home and, as a rabbi, I want to be in conversation and relationship with you. As we look to the future, I invite you to share questions with me and other rabbis and Jewish leaders that have arisen for you and your community about Israel/Palestine in the past few days and weeks. In the meantime, I will try to fulfill the words of Psalm 122 by praying for the peace of Jerusalem, “that there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels. For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your well-being; for the sake of the house of Adonai our God, I seek your good.”

About the Author
Daniel Greyber is rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in Durham, NC and author of Faith Unravels: A Rabbi's Struggle With Grief and God. He is currently a fellow in the seventh cohort of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative of the Shalom Hartman Institute and his articles have been featured in a wide range of Jewish publications.
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