Not too long ago it would have been unheard of for Jews or Jewish leaders to question and criticize Israel while it was under attack. Yet the now famous (or depending on your perspective, infamous) letter signed last year by 90 rabbinical students critical of Israel defending itself from incoming rockets hurled at it by Hamas did just that. It was a wakeup call for the American Jewish community.
Although surveys reveal consistent support for Israel among American Jews, many Jews are questioning if future rabbinic leaders, and for that matter, current rabbis, are out of step with their congregants and congregations. I have heard personally from many who report feeling uncomfortable with the rising chorus of public critiques of Israel they hear from the pulpit. Israel, like any country or society is obviously not above criticism nor reproach. One thing Israel clearly does not lack is critics, and the last thing Israel needs is for leaders of the American Jewish community to pile on and add their voices to the chorus of detractors.
We believe rabbis, as leaders in our respective communities and in the broader community have an obligation to advocate for the notion of Jewish peoplehood and close ties with the land, people and State of Israel.
When we hear about the estrangement of American Jews from Israel, rabbis must honestly ask themselves if they are contributing to that distancing. While many rabbis express their concerns from a sincere place of love and desire to improve, correct or call out things that they find disturbing and discomforting, all too often those expressions of criticism are louder than their expressions of love and support. The negative messages will not necessarily have an impact on Israel nor cause it to change its policies. They will, however, have an impact on the hearts and minds of those who hear those messages. And the distancing that results is not just from Israel, but ultimately from the Jewish people and Judaism itself.
Another wakeup call was the reaction among some to the announcement that the United States was going to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its Embassy to the capital. Although the U.S. Congress and national Jewish and rabbinic organizations have passed multiple resolutions going back decades encouraging the United States to make just such a move, not all greeted the announcement with support.
In light of these developments, a grass-roots collection of North American rabbis from all denominations has formed a new group – The Zionist Rabbinic Coalition. Our goal is to constructively engage with Israel and to work for the unity of the Jewish people by promoting greater understanding between our two communities. We are committed to Israel being a free and democratic Jewish state, and recognize that ultimately, the people of Israel are the ones who must live with the consequences of the decisions they make – whether it pertains to security or other matters. Yet we also believe that as the state of the Jewish people, Jews around the world have a stake in the outcome of those decisions, for we have a shared history and destiny.
With these goals in mind, we very recently convened the first-ever Zionist Rabbinic Coalition National Conference in Washington D.C. to discuss the need for rabbis to re-commit to the principles of Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. We came together to explore how we can strengthen the crucial ties and close the gap between our two communities and turn the tide away from unhelpful public reprobation of the only democracy in the Middle East and the only homeland of the Jewish people.
The all-star lineup showed the importance of our work. Israel’s President, Isaac Herzog sent a personal message stressing the need for rabbis to engage in activities supportive of Israel in the face of false narratives and factual distortions. His brother, Israel’s Ambassador to Washington Michael Herzog, spoke at our opening session at the Museum of the Bible, where his predecessor, Ron Dermer and I first discussed at the dedication of the Museum the need for an organization of rabbis devoted to constructive engagement with Israel.
As part of the effort by Turkey to improve relations with Israel and the west, the several dozen rabbis were warmly received at the residence of the Turkish Ambassador. And Yousuf al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the US, affirmed the importance of cooperation between Israel and the signers of the Abraham accords for regional security and peace.
In addition to the ambassadors, Pastor Dumisani Washington, head of the Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel, lit into Amnesty International for lobbing the “apartheid” libel at Israel. Others who spoke included Chanan Weissman, the White House director for Jewish outreach, Elisha Wiesel, Jonathan Schanzer, and Rabbi Eric Stark, who addressed in a free-wheeling open discussion of rabbis’ concerns over AIPAC’s new model for politic campaign and financial support of candidates. In an impassioned address, Alyza Lewin, director of the Louis Brandeis Center implored rabbis to help recognize when criticism of Israel can easily bleed into anti-Semitic tropes.
The rabbis emerged from from the packed agenda energized to reaffirm and advance the cause of unity with Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora. Expanding our broad network of rabbis in the US, we are confident that we can raise our voice and grow our efforts to encourage rabbis to strengthen the ties that bind the Jewish people, regardless of the geographic or even ideological distance.