Reflections on AIPAC, “The” Speech and Parashat Ki Tissa

March 6, 2015

Rabbi Joseph R. Black – Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO

This past week I attended the AIPAC policy conference in DC.

Over the course of three days 16,000 people – Jews, Christians and concerned concerned citizens came together to not only voice their support for the Jewish State – but also to learn, grow and take an active part in our political system by lobbying our elected officials on matters that are crucial to the State of Israel.

While at the Policy Conference, I attended seminars and heard speakers on topics as diverse as:

o   Israeli agricultural and technological innovation

o   Fundamentalist Christian support of Israel

o   Combatting BDS:  Boycott, divestment and Sanction

o   Anti-Semitism on College Campuses

o   The history of ISIS

o   And, of course, the dangers of a nuclear Iran – punctuated by two speeches by Benjamin Netanyahu – one to AIPAC, the other to a joint session of Congress

We heard from politicians from across the political spectrum sharing their love of and support for the State of Israel.  We heard the testimonies of men, women and children who have benefitted from Israeli technology:  from Solar power to bionic prosthetic limbs.

On Monday, we gathered on Capitol Hill to lobby our senators and congress people and encourage them to continue their support of Israel and to do whatever they could to keep the pressure on Iran – the world’s largest and most dangerous supporter of global terrorism.

Our goal  as lobbyists was very clear:  we wanted our elected officials to hear, unequivocally, that the specter of a nuclear Iran was disastrous – not only to Israel, but to the entire Western World.

This was my third policy conference and it was, by all measures, the largest pro-Israel gathering ever.  I was impressed not only by the way that the conference was organized – but also by the diversity of the delegates.  Unlike the picture that some want to paint of AIPAC as a mouthpiece of the far right, we were joined by progressives, leftists, Gays and Lesbians, young and old, religious and secular and everyone in between. AIPAC is making a concentrated effort to change its image and I, for one, am very impressed. This summer, I will be travelling to Israel with a delegation of so-called “progressive” American Rabbis and I have already registered to return to the policy conference next year with what I hope will be a large and robust Temple Emanuel contingent.

Our torah portion for this Shabbat, Ki Tissa:  sets up a powerful paradigm – a “split screen” of action which shows us, on the one hand, Moses and God engaged in an intense dialogue on the top of Mt Sinai. Moses begs to see God’s face  – to understand and commune with the Divine.  And all of this happens at the same moment that the Israelites are building the Golden Calf and violating the very intimacy and connectivity that Moses so desperately seeks.

In our text, as Moses and Joshua are coming down the mountain to hear the people reveling after the creation of the Golden Calf we read the following:

Exodus 32:  17-18

When Joshua heard the sound of the people in their celebrations, he said to Moses:  “There is the sound of songs of war in the camp!”  And Moses said:  “This is not the sound of songs of bravery; this is not the sound of songs of weakness, this is the sound of  (just) songs ….. that I hear.”

It’s a strange passage – there seems to be something missing in Moses’ reply.   Joshua hears the sound of the revelers celebrating the Golden Calf – he hears the intensity of their voices – and yet, he can’t quite pinpoint exactly what they are singing about.  Moses seems to be teaching Joshua that it is not the message of the song that they are hearing that is disturbing – rather, the sound of the singers is chilling to his ear because instead of glorifying God, its purpose was to amplify the sin that was being committed.  It was not a song of bravery or weakness – it was merely the people reveling in the sound of their own voices.

As I reflect on the aftermath of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s now famous speech to the joint session of congress, I too – along with all of us – have heard the cries and outbursts in the Jewish community:

I’ve heard…..

  • Cries of heroics and cries of praise of Netanyahu – here is a man who “tells it like it is” – who dares,, like Esther in the story of Purim that we read on Wednesday night – to speak truth to power – no matter what the consequences…
  • Cries of cynicism – those who state that Netanyahu did nothing more than promote his own political agenda – that he will use the images of thundering applause in the sacred Halls of the United States Congress to bolster his own political future and thumb his nose at the Obama administration
  • Cries of appreciation for our own elected officials who saw the danger of trying to negotiate with Iran and had the courage to do what was right and allow Israel to make her case on the world stage
  • Cries of condemnation of our elected officials who chose not to attend the speech
  • Cries of partisan politics – with both sides of the political divide attacking one another over the depth of their support of the State of Israel.

In our text, Moses, when confronted with the sin of the Golden Calf, smashes the sacred Tablets given to him by God.  The damage was done.  They had to be recreated on his second ascent up the mountain.

When we ask ourselves the questions:

  • What happened in Washington this past week?
  • Was it an heroic act of leadership, or was it a cynical power play by Bibi Netanyahu to boost his ratings and  House Speaker Boehner  to humiliate the president?

Most people had their minds made up before Netanyahu walked into the House chamber to thundering applause.

There’s no question about it – the speech was powerful, moving and effective in presenting the Prime Minister’s case.

Whether or not the speech will influence American foreign policy vis-à-vis Israel and Iran is another matter and will be determined in the very near future.

But there is no doubt whatsoever that his presence – and the build-up that preceded it and reaction that followed has certainly impacted the American Jewish and non-Jewish community – and not all for the good, I’m afraid.

My biggest concern is that the sacred bi-partisanship that has surrounded the US-Israel relationship is in danger of being shattered like that first set of tablets that Moses destroyed when he descended from that Mountain top into the chaos of the Golden Calf.  I also fear for the divisions that the speech has stirred up within our own community.

In the follow-up to the speech – in person, in the press and in social media, I have been dismayed at the attacks and counterattacks that we are witnessing – both within the Jewish community and in the general political discourse in our nation – that seem to be using support of Israel and attendance at or reaction to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress as a litmus test one’s pro-Israel Bona Fides.  I have heard politicians being vilified as anti-Israel because of their concerns about the process used in inviting Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak. The fact that senators and representatives with long histories of supporting the State of Israel, of condemning Iranian terror, of being staunch and stalwart friends to the Jewish community, who have visited Israel and witnessed the reality of the Jewish state– who have been unyielding in their belief in a safe and secure middle east – the fact that they are now being labeled as anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel is obscene!

Let me be very clear.  Dialogue and disagreement are key to the creation of a strong and vibrant community.  And yet, when support for the State of Israel becomes a partisan issue, then, my friends, everybody loses.  If this is allowed to continue, I fear for the future of the Jewish State and the support of the United States of America which is essential to her well-being and survival.

It is interesting to note that AIPAC leadership was initially very concerned about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress exactly because of the potential for divisiveness that it represented.  This concern was justified and we are seeing it play out in real time.  Attacking our elected officials for their support or lack of support for Netanyahu’s speech only serves to deflect us from concentrating on the real, existential issues that face the State of Israel with the specter of a Nuclear Iran.

And so, tonight I want to ask all of us to tone down our rhetoric.  The speech is not the issue.  In 18 days, March 24th, the deadline for reaching an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program will arrive.  If a treaty is concluded (and there is no guarantee that one will, by the way) it will need to be evaluated on its own merits. As National Security advisor Susan Rice said to the AIPAC plenary – “A bad deal is worse than no deal – and the United States will not accept a bad deal with Iran.”  Our task is not to anticipate failure or success, but rather to find ways to unite in our mutual love and support of the State of Israel.

Remember – after Moses destroyed the first set of tablets he once again ascended Mt Sinai to create a second set.

My friends, damage has been done within our community.  It is time to rebuild, repair, and, if necessary to once again climb the mountain of repair so that we can re-carve out the fundamental principles of partnership and cooperation that are essential for a strong relationship between Israel and the United States.

May our path towards repair be swift and smooth and may peace prevail in Israel and throughout the world.

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Joe Black serves as Sr. Rabbi of Temple Emanuel, a large Reform synagogue in Denver, Colorado. He also is a husband, a father, a musician, a limericker and a skier. You can follow Rabbi Black's congregational blog at You also can find out more about his music at Rabbi Black's latest book - There Once Was A Man From Canaan: The Five Books Of Limerick - is available at
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