Since returning from the 36th Zionist Congress in Jerusalem a week ago, I have struggled with a palpable sense of unease about the state of Zionism and the Jewish future. My first impulse was to rather brutally lay that unease at the feet of the World Zionist Organization, which convened the Congress.
In retrospect, I think that impulse was wrong, and unfair.
The WZO, the umbrella organization for Zionist activities around the world, does vital and important work. My own Conservative movement, along with the Orthodox and Reform movements and an eclectic variety of political Zionist organizations, depends on the WZO for essential funds and organizational support. Convening a Congress every four years to bring together Zionists from outside and inside Israel is, at least in theory, a wholly appropriate and necessary thing to do. The voices of Zionism need to be heard on the major issues of the day, and the common agenda of Zionism needs to be tended to.
So why am I so uneasy, so bothered?
The answer, I’m afraid, was articulated by Pogo long ago. We have met the enemy, and they is us … at least some of us.
As we approach Tisha b’Av, it is worth remembering what the rabbis taught long ago. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE because of sin’at chinam — senseless hatred among the Jews of that time that undermined their ability to effectively combat the Roman threat.
Based on some of the behaviors that I witnessed during the Congress, I have to wonder if the senseless hatred among the Jews of our time will undermine our own ability to deal with the very real threats to Israel and the Zionist cause in the 21st century.
I am a proud, and I dare say partisan Conservative rabbi, but my views do not prevent me from feeling a part of klal Yisrael — the greater Jewish community. If you were to ask me if I hold in contempt the Jews with whom I disagree — actually dislike them — I would most emphatically answer no. The deeper truth is that, because of my Orthodox upbringing and education, I have a more profound appreciation of and respect for the passion and successes of Orthodoxy than many of my colleagues.
That said, it is with the greatest of sadness that I, more than once or twice, actually felt hated by some of my fellow Jews precisely because of the beliefs that I hold. And that, I think, is what has left me so unsettled in the aftermath of the recent Zionist Congress.
In what was, for me, one of the most jarring moments of an already contentious plenary session, a member of the WZO executive from the Shas party was so incensed by the vote which went against his sense of right and wrong that he switched on his microphone and declared loudly (translation mine) “North Tel Aviv and North America have betrayed the State of Israel!”
Immediately, cries rang out from the floor, demanding an apology. The overall chair of the session said that the speaker from Shas had not meant to insult anyone.
Oh, really … well, then, no problem.
Towards the end of the same session, some particularly belligerent members of a right-wing, religious/nationalist block were so perturbed by the non-Orthodox successes in passing resolutions relating to religious pluralism in Israel that they basically stormed the stage, nearly coming to blows with the people running the session and those from the other factions who sought to regain control. They began to sing “Hatikvah,” as if they, alone, were the true patriots, and those who would disagree with them are enemies of Israel. All this while one of the members of the executive, during that rogue singing of Israel’s national anthem, was shouting at them to get off the stage.
I watched this spectacle in growing dismay. A number of my friends asked me what was wrong. Hadn’t I been to a previous Zionist Congress and seen this kind of thing before? Didn’t I know that people in the Knesset talk to each other this way all the time? Why was I so bothered now?
The questions, I think, reflect the severity of the problem. When you have developed the capacity to countenance this kind of behavior without being horrified, something is terribly wrong. These are critical times for the Zionist enterprise. The Zionist ship is listing badly, taking on water, and mighty cannons are firing at it from all directions. We need to be talking about the issues that are facing Israel, not hurling insults at those who raise them.
A lot of people in the religious community pay lip service to the idea of ahavat Yisrael, an over-arching love of the Jewish people. We may disagree with some Jews, but we love all Jews, they would say. I, in return, would say that I remain unconvinced … and very, very worried.
Tisha b’Av is but a few short weeks away. Sin’at chinam, my friends. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We have met the enemy…
Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, whose column, “A Rabbi’s World,” appears regularly on The Jewish Week website (www.thejewishweek.com), is spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center.
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