David-Seth Kirshner
Author of Streams of Shattered Consciousness

Streams of Anxious Consciousness XXIII

Today I am sharing three disparate thoughts which are indeed streams of consciousness that have me quite anxious. I will start with a controversial thought.

Before you judge what you are about to read, please pause. Three short disclaimers.

First, I have no shlep. I’m just venting an opinion to the atmosphere. This is not me making direct suggestions in the ear of the Secretary of State.

Second, I have no idea if what I’m about to suggest is the right thing to do. I feel it in my gut. But I am not positive.

Third, those who disagree with me surely have every reason and historical basis to argue their point. There is no right answer. I certainly understand the other side.

I think Israel should accept Yahya Sinwar’s (Hamas’ second in command) offer to swap all of the hostages for approximately 4400 Hamas felons currently in Israeli prisons.

Yes, many of those felons have bloody hands. Yes, most of those felons are sworn to Israel’s destruction. Yes, most of those felons and Hamas will celebrate their return. Yes, releasing those felons in essence, is rewarding Hamas for their savagery. Yes, most dangerously, it licenses and emboldens Hamas to do it again. Yes, it is wildly disproportionate – an ironic term these days.

I understand all of that. It sickens me to my core.

But I’m also a son, a brother, a husband and a father. And if it were my family member, I would do anything ….and I mean anything… bring them home.

There would be a few conditions of this exchange in my pretend diplomatic world.

The prisoners would go to Gaza and not the West Bank.
There would be no cease fire.
Returning each captive includes bodies of the Israeli dead.

Why am I suggesting such an unequal swap and why such a radical approach of negotiating with sworn enemy terrorists who have done the unthinkable to our people?

Because we need hope and we need it badly.

Hope is like a trick birthday candle. You can blow it, wave at it, whistle its way and it will never go out for long. It will flicker and burn again. We need to add fuel to our hope.

Israel’s fortification right now will come from hope. It is not an accident that HaTikvah- ‘The Hope’ is our anthem.

Judaism is based on choosing life. It is focused on asking God every year to be inscribed in the Book of Life. We are a people that read in Psalms the importance of dreaming about tomorrow. We wake up each morning trying to turn those dreams into reality. We are a people that pine for weddings, births, B’nai Mitzvahs because they reaffirm life. That is core to our canon.

Hostages are deprived the ability to dream. Their hope is like that trick candle being doused in water. It will not flicker any more. It will not burn again. So too, will the flame of the families of the captives burn out. They deserve to have their hope restored.

Israel failed in its most sacred task of keeping its citizens safe. Let it redeem its mistake as best as possible, and make this deal and bring them home.

Hope is the source of our eternal energy. It is what we need. It is why we are in business. It is what we cherish most. We need to see these sons and daughters, husbands and wives, moms and dads, bubbies and zaydies, back home. Those that were killed and brought to Gaza and those who died in captivity, need to be brought back and afforded burial in their homeland with honor at a place where family can sit and bring flowers and say prayers. We need them home.

Hamas dialed in to the most sensitive artery in our bodies; life. I’ll cede that win to them. We must preserve life and fuel hope with them home.

This Shabbat, we celebrated a Bat Mitzvah. That is no big deal. Thank God, our community has a B Mitzvah or two practically every week. But this family originally came from Israel and much of their family that had anticipated coming for this simcha were unable to leave the country for reasons like being drafted to service or they were needed on the home front, or lack of flights going and coming to Israel.

When we have celebrations at the Temple, we share honors in our congregation. A dear family friend of the family was asked to lead the Prayer for the State of Israel.

This man leading the prayer made me look tiny. He was tall, strong and fierce. His presence was intimidating. He began the first words of the prayer and took a long pause. I looked his way and saw he was crying. The moment grabbed his emotions and he could not hold back his tears. The entire service paused for about 120 seconds until he could gather his composure. The pain and power of the moment was palpable for all present. It brought home the centrality of this moment for Israelis who are on the front line of a multi-layered war.

Another fascinating phenomenon happened in that moment. Cantor Singer and I were flanking this man when he started the prayer and broke down. We gave him his space. After two minutes both the Cantor and I encroached the man and put our hands on his back. It was then, that he gained strength.

I am sure there is a name for this psychological occurrence. It was powerful to witness in real-time compassion and touch giving another human strength and hope.

Shortly after that moment, a man walked into the synagogue, not really dressed for the occasion. He said he was watching us on line but needed to be with us in person. I understood exactly what he meant.

We need each other now more than ever. We need to be close and physically present. We need to give hugs and hold hands and be patient with one another. We need to allow tears, anxious laughter and giving the benefit of the doubt where we can. Humans and physical presence are the ingredients that will enable us to persevere this sad and familiar moment in our Jewish history.

I am writing this Stream from Poland. It is my 24th trip, I think, to this country and it had been on the books for months. I regularly lead delegations from our synagogue here to take testimony to our history. When here, we learn about the thickness and prevalence of Jewish life in this region from the 1400s until 1945 with a focus on the events of 1939-1945.

October 7th has added a strange filter to the lens through which I am seeing this familiar place.

In two-dozen visits, I had become somewhat desensitized to the harshness and biting memory of the Holocaust. Of course, the potency of standing on the largest Jewish cemetery is never lost on me, but the shock and awe of physically being in that place has evaporated over time.

Standing under the signs of Arbeit Macht Frei was different today. It would be dishonest and unfair of me to tell you how it felt different. I am still metabolizing this visit. In time, I will share. But it was different. Not better. Not worse. Different.

The first undigested thought to surface comes from Theodore Herzl. In 1894 (or so) he wrote a book called Alt Nue Land, German for ‘Old-New’ Land. Herzl’s angle was that developing Israel and claiming it as our homeland was an old and familiar place and at the same time, it is new and undiscovered. True! Every visit to Israel is a balancing act between trips to the Wall and Masada and learning about a tech start up and how Israelis have engineered growing cucumbers in sand.

Standing in Poland while my family is in America and my heart is in Israel, feels a bit Alt-Nue ish. There are eerily familiar echoes of ancient days, and the rapid and frightening rise of Jewish student hatred on campus feeds those channels of memory. There are different realities of the situation on the ground in both American campuses and Israel that do not make this an even comparison but enough that tickles those dark memories.

Like Alt-Nue, this moment seems known and new at the same time. That is comforting and scary, all at once.

A college professor of mine once taught, the most complicated ideas can be made simple and the simplest ideas, are often complicated. Allow me to take something complicated and pose a simple rhetorical question to all of us to ponder.

On college campuses there have been groups like SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine) and others similar to it, for decades. Their primary focus has been registered as an advocacy group for Palestinian people and statehood. OK. A noble cause, on paper.

Each time a conflict arises in Israel, SJP and like minded organizations get militant and target Jews on their respective campuses. Yesterday, at Cornell University, a group of students connected to SJP or one of its sister organizations or like minded clubs, threatened Jewish students on campus and told them not to visit the Kosher dining hall or the Hillel because they will be tracked and “raped, beheaded and even killed.”
Students in college who identify as Jewish are shaking in their Keds. They have been literally locked in their dorm rooms, afraid to venture to the halls to visit friends, or study in the library out of existential fear.

How in the hell does Jewish existence in upstate New York threaten SJP? Why does a conflict in Israel necessitate physical violence to a sophomore in the dining hall anywhere in the world? Is SJP really about Palestinian Statehood and equality or is it about denying a Jewish state and a Jewish presence outside of the State? Based on these action, there is no debate. It is the latter.

I have strong feelings about how these students that are threatening Jews need to be handled. They need to be made an example of, loudly, that reverberates through every campus in America.

I also think we need to get body guards on campus for our students, at least for now, at the expense of these well-endowed schools so our kids can eat, study and enjoy college like any other student could and should. Being locked in a room for justified fear of being jumped or killed, is insane. What if one Jewish student on campus is seriously hurt or killed? What will we do then? Schools need to get smart quick and nip this in the bud. Right now, the inmates are ruling the asylum. Students must feel safe on campus. College should be a place to explore, have fun, develop thoughts. Not as place to barricade oneself in a room for fear of danger outside.

I know that if threats to women were posted and those who identify as female had a fear of being beaten or raped, we would pay for protection on campus. As we should. Same if Black people or Muslim people were the targets. This is not tolerable and threats against Jews needs to be handled equally.

It is time for every SJP member and all of the “protestors on the streets” swinging poles over the heads of Jewish people and throwing punches on the street, to pause and ask, why the militancy? Why the violence? Why the threats? Is it really about building your future State or erasing our current State?

I know what answer it feels like.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis and the NJ Board of Rabbis and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute and serves on the Executive Committee of the JFNA. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel Commission by Governors Christie and Murphy. Rabbi Kirshner is a National Council member of AIPAC and an adjunct faculty member at the Academy for Jewish Religion, (AJR). He is the author of Streams of Shattered Consciousness, featured in The NY Times Book Review (Feb '24) and has over 11,000 copies in circulation in its first three months since publication. He has spoken on his book and topics connected to Judaism and Zionism across the world.
Related Topics
Related Posts