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Stuart Weinblatt

How to speak about Israel on the High Holidays?

In a few days Jews from around the world will gather to welcome the New Year and to celebrate the holiest days on our calendar.  Rabbis are working on our sermons and refining our messages for the largest crowds of the year.

Many of us will speak about Israel and the challenges facing it.  We are being implored by many respected individuals who we have relied on to help interpret events in Israel to weigh in on the current crisis surrounding the controversy about judicial reform.  Most of the calls for intervention are coming from one side of the debate, telling us that we must support their position and urge American Jews and our government to intervene to prevent Israel from becoming a dictatorship and ceasing to be a democracy.

The critique that Israel’s ideals are disappearing have been levelled so frequently and fervently and by so many that it has become accepted as fact, without being subjected to critical analysis as to whether the charges are true or exaggerated hyperbole.

Typical of what is being reported in the media is the column by a prominent former Israeli diplomat warning of an “antidemocratic constitutional coup.”  One need only look to the mass demonstrations as proof of the viability and vitality of the Israeli democracy and public discourse and debate surrounding the direction of the country to cast doubt upon the apocalyptic predictions.

Tom Friedman who has been wrong more often than right over the years, and who has become a rebbe for many, has been an unrelenting prophet of doom.  While it is important not to ignore the realities of what is transpiring in Israel, he writes as if were it not for the current Israeli government, Oslo and a comatose peace process with an unabashed Jew-hater, Mahmoud Abbas would still be viable.   (He even misattributes a quote to Rabin that was Ben Gurion’s.)

His repeated calls for intervention by outside forces ignores the fact that historically when Jews ask outside authorities to interfere in internal matters, it usually has not turned out well for us.  Fanning the flames of division and disunity has also had disastrous consequences for us.

I do not mean to minimize the very real and legitimate worries about members of the current government.  There is good reason to be concerned about the polarizing statements and actions of extremists in the government.  The country would be much better served if they were marginalized and excluded from making policy.  They must take responsibility for how they contributed to the current crisis.  Some of the government’s initial proposals for judicial reform were overreach and excessive, and thankfully are not currently being put forth.

But the threats to wreak economic havoc and undermine its ability to defend itself are potentially self-fulfilling with disastrous consequences for the very country the protestors wish to preserve.   Calls for the United States president and Congress to punish Israel are irresponsible and will do long-term harm to the relationship that will not be easily restored.

I have faith that Israel will be able to resolve the crisis, just as they have displayed amazing resiliency and adaptability throughout its 75 years.  As a result, rather than urge people to weigh in on one side or the other, the best thing we can do to help at this time is to encourage both sides to come to the table to find a reasonable compromise to the current stalemate.

The path forward is one in which both the government and the anti-government forces must have an “Altalena moment” where they recognize, as Menahem Begin so courageously did in 1948, that the good of the country is more important than victory for one side.  This is the message that will be most helpful.

The two basic questions a rabbi should consider when composing a sermon about Israel are:  Will the message that I deliver to my congregants promote greater understanding of the unique challenges Israel faces?  And will my sermon inspire, uplift and instill a sense of pride in being Jewish and engender a positive feeling and connection to Israel and the Jewish people?

Our goal as rabbis when speaking about Israel should not be to highlight Israel’s faults and foibles, but to strengthen people’s connection and ties to the modern day miracle of a Jewish democratic state working through a difficult and challenging time while living in a sea of authoritarian regimes and facing existential threats to its existence.

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt

About the Author
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is the founding Chairman of the Zionist Rabbinic Coalition, dedicated to promoting Jewish unity, and has served as president of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America. He is the founding rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland, a vibrant Conservative synagogue. In recognition of Rabbi Weinblatt’s leadership role in the community and as an outstanding teacher and speaker, he has received many awards from community organizations such as the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Greater Washington Chapter of ORT. He is the author of, “God, Prayer and Spirituality,” a compilation of his sermons, writings and articles.
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