Dear Progressive and Disgruntled Seminary Students:
This past Sunday, the New York Times Magazine printed a piece entitled Inside the Unraveling of American Zionism – How a new generation of Jewish leaders began to rethink their support for Israel (November 2, 2021). The article highlighted some of your struggle to sustain your Jewish moral values in the context of contemporary Israel.
I understand your despair over the right-wing oppressive policies of Israel’s recent governments of the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, and your frustration over the sclerotic log-jam towards the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in two states for two peoples. You have legitimate reasons to be upset. I’m upset as well.
What concerns me in the letter that ninety of you signed last year in the context of the Israel-Hamas War that criticized harshly Israeli policies, and among some of you who were interviewed in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine article is that you did not articulate adequately or clearly enough your support of the core Jewish value of Ahavat Yisrael (Love of Israel) nor did you express your concern for and understanding of the legitimate fear that Israelis feel for their safety and security in the face of hostile attacks from Israel’s neighbors.
That said, I am sympathetic to your argument that Israel is tending in the wrong direction concerning the occupation of the Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But, as a life-long progressive Zionist, liberal social justice activist, Reform Rabbi, and Jew, I believe that we in Diaspora communities need to remain as close as possible to Israel and to Israelis despite the repressive policies the Israel government and military administration commit in the occupation for our sake and theirs.
Over more than forty years serving as a congregational rabbi and after having lived in Israel, visited more than twenty-five times, taken hundreds of congregants to the Jewish state to learn from Israelis (left, right, and center, religious and secular, Jewish and Palestinian) what hopes, dreams, and fears constitute their lives, I understand how and why we American Diaspora Jews need Israel as a source of Jewish pride, courage, and strength, as a life-line to the Jewish people, and as a stimulant for our own Jewish renewal. I also believe that Israel needs us for the American liberal values we can bring to the Zionist enterprise.
It is important for American Jewish leaders, in spite of the negative trends we see within Israel, to acknowledge and derive a measure of hope from the fact that there are many good faith efforts by hundreds of thousands of Israelis to liberalize Israeli society. These efforts exist in the growing Israeli Reform and Conservative religious streams, throughout Israel’s civil society, and in the multiplicity of Israeli NGOs working on behalf of democracy and human rights in the Jewish state. There are dozens upon dozens of Israeli groups and organizations working along with universities, schools, hospitals, and community groups to create a shared society between Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Jewish communities.
I suggest to you that how we approach being American Zionists and at the same time maintain our liberalism constitutes the central challenge for 21st century American Jewry. To that challenge, there are a number of questions we ought to be asking ourselves. For you who seem to be turning your backs on Israel and Zionism, I ask you to consider the following as core questions the resolution of which can help recast Israel and Zionism into a positive and sustaining engagement with the Jewish State:
- How do our liberal Jewish values augment Israel’s democratic, diverse, and pluralistic society?
- How do we bring the moral aspirations of the Biblical prophets and the compassion of rabbinic tradition into Israel’s relationship with its Arab-Israeli citizens and the Palestinians living and suffering under Israel’s military occupation?
- How do we join our fellow Jews around the world in fighting our enemies and assuring Israel’s security without sacrificing our moral and democratic values?
- How do we pursue peace as a moral and Jewish imperative despite the threats of terror and war?
- How do we support Israelis while advocating on behalf of democracy and the equal rights and dignity of Israel’s minorities?
- How do we oppose oppressive Israeli policies without turning our opponents into the “other” and losing the possibility of reaching the common ground of peace with the Palestinians based in justice, mutual respect, and security?
- And finally, how do we preserve a Jewish majority in Israel while supporting social justice, a shared society with Arab-Israeli citizens, and the human rights of all?
Our responses to questions such as these will help to make compatible our core liberal Jewish values and beliefs with a democratic Jewish nationalism.
Finally, we cannot afford to lose you to the greatest endeavor and accomplishment of the Jewish people in two thousand years.
Please think about what I have written to you. I wish you well.