Sharing a Painful Message: Needed – Sane Voices for Israel

In lieu of a regular posting this week, I am sharing with you the message that I delivered in my own congregation in Forest Hills on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

I do so because it speaks to a subject that I think needs to be on our communal agenda, and about which I feel passionately: how and about what we in the Jewish community disagree, and its implications for our relationship with the world as a whole, and particularly with Israel.

I wish you all a g’mar hatimah tovah…

On one of my kaddish journeys to a neighboring synagogue this past summer, a gentleman passed me a printed-out e-mail copy of a joke that was making the rounds on the internet. It went something like this.

A motorcylist happened to be passing by a zoo when he noticed a disturbing sight. A young girl had approached the lion’s cage and grabbed the bars, beckoning the lion to come closer. Sure enough, the lion obliged, grabbed the young girl by her blouse, and the stage was set for a tragedy.

The horrified biker jumped off his Harley, ran to the cage, punched the lion in the nose through the bars, and rescued the young girl. A stupefied bystander approached the biker and said “My God, what possessed you to do that? That took amazing courage!”

The biker replied that really, he was acting on instinct. The girl was in trouble, and he didn’t even think about it- he just acted.

“Well,” said the bystander, “I’m a reporter for the New York Times, and I’ve never seen anything like that. I can assure you that I’ll give it a proper write-up in tomorrow’s paper. But one more thing… I notice that you have a Star of David on the sleeve of your jacket; what’s that about?”

“Oh, said the biker, “I’m Israeli and I ride with an Israeli bike club.”

“Fascinating,” said the journalist.

The next day, on the front page of the New York Times, the article did indeed appear, with the headline “Israeli Assaults African-American Immigrant and Steals His Lunch…”

“Cute,” I said to my fellow davener. The joke effectively tapped into a truth that all of us who know and love Israel are painfully aware of. Israel never seems to get a fair shake in the mainstream media, and the New York Times is one of the prime offenders. True enough. No argument, especially this week, with the release of that awful document by the UN’s Goldstone “fact-finding” commission in Gaza. That really did- of course-get front page coverage in the New York Times, and there’s nothing at all funny about it.

But on some of my other kaddish expeditions, the comments shared with me- unsolicited, I might add, and in full knowledge of who I was- turned from jokes that I could relate to, to xenophobic diatribes that, quite frankly, horrified me. President Barack Hussein Obama is a soneh Yisrael– a hater of Israel who will sell it down the tubes the first chance he gets. That’s been his intention all along. Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod are self-hating Jews who care little if any about Israel, and the only appropriate response from the American Jewish community to their perfidy is to circle the wagons and support Israel by adopting the hardest possible line in negotiations with the United States.

And lest you think that I’m referring only to the Orthodox community, let me assure you that some of my colleagues in the Conservative rabbinate have been no less vitriolic, nor, for that matter, have some of our members here in the synagogue. One only recently asked if he could forward me something written by a rabbi that he had read on the internet- that great bastion of truth and reliable information- to the effect that Barack Obama was the anti-Christ- his words- and that the Jewish community should have learned its lesson with David Dinkins.

And he believed it, and he felt perfectly OK saying this to me!

I have absolutely no desire to speak to you about politics this Rosh Hashanah morning, nor will I. Far be it from me to say that my opinion is more or less correct than anyone else’s, or that any American Jew doesn’t have the right to disagree with our President. That is the greatness of a vibrant democracy like our own, and of course Israel- that you can protest the policies of the government as loudly as you would want to and not be arrested. The issues that Israel is confronting with this new administration are, as they would say in Israel, gorali… they may indeed shape the destiny of Israel’s future security. They deserve to be debated- they need to be debated. A difference of opinions, especially given Israel’s unhappy experience with Gaza, is certainly understandable when the talk is of disbanding or evacuating settlements.

So no, I don’t want to speak to you about politics. Good people will disagree. But I do want to speak to you this morning about how it is that we disagree, and what it is that we disagree over.

Let me deal first with the former.

Over these days of Rosh Hashanah, we are surrounded on all sides by beautiful sounds: the magnificent poetry of the liturgy, the holiday nusach and melodies that wash over us, sung so beautifully by the Cantor, and the lyrical if disturbing majesty of the holiday Torah readings, even the piercing sound of the shofar. The linguistic and musical aesthetics of the High Holidays are stunningly effective. But all around us here in America, in the Jewish community, and in the greater American community as a whole, the language and tone of public discourse has become harsh and careless and hurtful, the imagery apocalyptic and hateful, and quite frankly, it scares me.

We American Jews are not operating in a cultural vacuum. The recent spectacle of town hall meetings with elected officials turning into shouting matches should have raised red flags for us all, and the most unfortunate scene of a congressman loudly accusing the American president of lying on the floor of Congress during a presidential address to a joint session was just another jarring example of the degree to which we have descended into the pit, with little pretense left of common courtesy. Of course, compared to what goes on in the House of Commons, or the Knesset, the Congressman’s intemperate outburst seemed mild. But that is not our way here in America, and the anger that fueled his outburst was not mild. It was more akin to rage, fueled by a constituency that decides what it thinks from the gods of talk radio- along with the internet, yet another source of unvarnished truth.

Add Serena Williams and Kanye West, and you get an even unhappier picture of our culture.

When we Jews resort to the same kind of anger and unleash it against each other, and against the outside world that we fear is arrayed against us, we sound not only shrill, but downright hysterical. In his Cairo address, President Obama told the citizens of the Arab world that, when they deny the Holocaust, they just sound silly, and ignorant. I would say to you that when elements of the Jewish community rush to label an American president a soneh Yisrael because he actually has the temerity to challenge an Israeli policy on settlements with which many Israelis and Israeli politicians disagree- even as he declares to Israel’s enemies, speaking in an Arab capital, that the bond between Israel and America is strong and unbreakable- those Jewish voices also sound shrill if not hysterical, and certainly not helpful to Israel’s cause. Holocaust imagery is utilized far too loosely and liberally, as if anyone outside the Jewish community who would disagree with a right-of-center policy is a Nazi, and Jews who would disagree are rejected as weak-kneed and cowardly.

I will say this again and again to make sure that you hear it-this is not to disallow the real differences of opinion that exist in the Jewish community about the challenges that Israel faces. Only a fool who has learned nothing from history could fail to be concerned- deeply concerned- about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And if all diplomacy fails, and Israel’s government, right, left or center, feels constrained to proactively attack Iran’s nuclear facility, I will be at the front of the line at any rally to support her right to self-defense. After the Gaza debacle, no Israeli government, left, right, or center, should be running to give back land.

But what is going on now in large swaths of the Jewish community borders on lunacy and mass hysteria. And too many people in positions of authority- rabbis and religious leaders very much among them- are fanning the fires among masses of Jews who are all too willing to believe the worst, no matter what the truth might be.

And then there is the matter of what we are fighting about…

We spend a tremendous amount of time here in the American Jewish community worrying about Israel’s security, for all the right reasons. No one needs reminding that Israel has few friends in the international community, none more important than America. Our intercession on her behalf, via AIPAC and other agencies, is crucial to her obtaining the aid and support that she needs. Amen. There is nothing to argue with there.

But here’s the thing… if we define Israel’s long-term security and viability solely in terms of armaments and external threats, we are ignoring issues that threaten her stability and viability every bit as much as hostile neighbors.

Yesterday I referenced the special-needs bar/bat mitzvah program of the Masorti movement, our sister movement in Israel. Its long-term struggle to gain traction in Israel, not to mention equal access to government funding and resources, reflects the religious fault lines of Israeli society as a whole. Israel is a country deeply and dangerously divided along religious/secular lines. Every day that nothing is done to ease those tensions enhances the possibility of a cataclysm- a social earthquake, if you will- that could engulf the country from within.

People like me- rabbis like me, who are unshakably committed to Israel and are more or less centrist in their politics- have long sought to address Israel’s issue of… pick the way you want to refer to it: religious pluralism or the lack thereof, the noxious and toxic relationship between religion and state there, the way religion is used as a cudgel to exclude non-Orthodox Jews from what rightfully should be theirs, the terrifying and debilitating alienation of so many Israelis of all ages from traditional Judaism or anything that smacks of it… We have long wanted to put these issues on the public agenda, and some of us have. But with Israel, reality tends to get in the way. When missiles are falling on northern or southern Israel, or Gilad Shalit (from a Masorti congregation, by the way) is languishing in captivity, or Iran is playing a terrifying nuclear card and talking about wiping Israel off the face of the earth, our focus both understandably and appropriately is primarily on supporting Israel in her physical struggle. That tends to be when we coalesce as a community, and also what we argue about when the immediate threat subsides.

But I am completely convinced that the social and religious fault lines in Israeli society are no less an existential threat to Israel’s long-term existence than katyushas, Hamas and Hizbollah. It takes the smallest spark to fire up a storm in Israel on these issues… parking lots in Jerusalem open on Shabbat, Masorti rabbis seeking representation on local religious councils, Masorti kehillot trying to access government funding to build a synagogue for a growing community, people having to prove to the Ministry of Religion that they’re Jewish in order to be married, necessitating all kinds of gymnastics to find a grandmother’s Ketubah, or a picture of a parent’s grave…. Do you think it might be enough to bring in a parent or grandparent with a number tattooed on his or her forearm?

It has long been said, I think as a wistful attempt at humor, that if the Arabs were smart enough to just leave Israel alone for a while, these internal divisions would accomplish what Arab armies have not been capable of.

Well- I’m not laughing. Too many people in the Jewish community, leaders and followers, are busy indulging their neurotic, paranoid fantasies about the American government- particularly President Obama- being out to harm Israel, while saying nothing at all- no, make that actively aiding and abetting- government policies there that systematically deprive Jews like you and me of our rights. Yes, yes, yes- when there’s an intifada, or, God forbid, a war, or Israel’s citizens are under incessant attack and harassment, of course we know what we must do.

No matter where we stand, we stand with Israel! We’ve always done it, and we always will. But if we don’t raise these issues now, who will, and when? When Jews are killing each other in the streets, like armed fighters for Hamas and the Palestinian Authority do?

I don’t think I need to prove my bona fides when it comes to love of and support of Israel. But I will let no one tell me that I love Israel less if I give public expression to opinions and frustrations with some of her policies, opinions that are not going to be passed around at some of the minyanim in our area, except maybe to accuse me of being weak-kneed.

I don’t agree with President Obama on everything, and there were parts of his Cairo speech that I strongly disagreed with. But he is the President of the United States, and it is a sorry day indeed for the Jewish community when large numbers of Jews see fit to vilify him for having a brain, and ideas, that are not those of a frum passionate Jewish Zionist. It’s time to wake up and reclaim our voice- a sane voice for Israel.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.