So my rabbi wants me to be “for” Israel. That was the clear point of his sermon on Rosh Hashanah.
I had recently read an article entitled “Muzzled by the Minority,” in which Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, the former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, recounted conversations with “rabbis [who] vowed that, going forward, they would simply remain silent on the subject in public, rather than subject themselves to arbitrary litmus tests of loyalty to Israel,” so I was not expecting my rabbi to touch—much less, dwell—in his sermon on the subject of support for Israel, but there it was, the message passionately delivered, too, and to more than polite applause from a large number of congregants.
The ostensible “theme” at our temple for this year’s high holiday services is “If not now, when?,” which, the rabbi explained, comes from a famous quotation from the religious scholar Hillel. The full saying translates as something like this: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Starting with a discussion of rising anti-Semitism throughout the world (the topic of a recent, widely circulated story in the New York Times), the rabbi stressed the need for Jews to be for themselves (ourselves?), because, let’s face it, who else is going to be for them (us)? Then he argued that, as far as the world is concerned, there is no difference between “Israel” and “Jews, basing this assertion largely on the fact that, in anti-Semitic protests in Europe and elsewhere , the signs of the protesters say things like “Death to Jews,” not “Death to Israel.” Perhaps using the sentiments of the most rabid anti-Semites as a touchstone is not the best foundation for judging world public opinion; it’s a little bit like arguing that all Americans are fundamentally racist based on the comments of people like Donald Sterling. Nevertheless, building on this equation of Israel and Jews, the rabbi concluded that being for ourselves as Jews has to mean being for Israel.
But what exactly does it mean to be “for” Israel?
The rabbi offered very few specifics. As close as he came was to suggest that, as worthy as many charitable causes may be, perhaps it was time for American Jews to take money that they might otherwise donate to non-Jewish philanthropies and direct it instead to a charity that is specifically directed in some way to helping Israel and Israelis. And, although he did not press on us the traditional appeal to buy Israel bonds, he did point out that Israel has the highest number of start-ups in the world and that Israel has the third highest number of companies listed on NASDAQ, many of which, he urged, would make excellent additions to our investment portfolios.
There is more than a little irony to be found in the rabbi’s simultaneous expression of concern over growing anti-Semitism and advocacy of investments in, and donations to, Israeli profits and non-profits. In response to The New York Times story on the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of The Anti-Defamation League, wrote a letter to the Times, in which he cited a poll conducted by The ADL “to get a better read on the level of anti-Semitic attitudes among the adult population” in Europe. “In Belgium, France, Germany and Italy,” he wrote, “the poll found that some of the most common anti-Semitic stereotypes are surprisingly resilient.” Foxman then cited exactly one poll question to prove his point: “When asked if they agreed with the statement ‘Jews don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind,’ 33 percent of the population in Belgium agreed. The responses varied little from country to country. In France, it was 31 percent of the population; in Germany, 28; and in Italy, 28.” If this is a rational test for anti-Semitism, it’s a good thing that the rabbi’s sermon—advocating, in essence, less giving to Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles and more to The Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center Dana-Dwek Children’s Hospital—didn’t make it onto You Tube.
Although he never went beyond the specifics of giving to Israeli charities and investing in Israeli companies, it’s hard not to believe that, when the rabbi passionately urged us to be “for” Israel, he had something more in mind.
Was the rabbi suggesting that to be “for” Israel you can not criticize positions taken by the Netanyahu government?
Was the rabbi suggesting that to be “for” Israel you must support AIPAC?
Was the rabbi suggesting that to be “for” Israel you can not believe that Israel should aggressively pursue a “two-state solution” and the creation of an independent Palestinian state?
Was the rabbi suggesting that to be “for” Israel you can not believe that Israel should stop the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza?
Was the rabbi suggesting that to be “for” Israel you can not be offended when the Israeli government seems to go out of its way to embarrass American officials, as it did when Israel’s Interior Minister timed the announcement of 1600 new housing units in East Jerusalem to coincide with a visit by Vice President Biden?
Was the rabbi suggesting that to be “for” Israel you can not disapprove of the outsized influence the ultra-Orthodox have in Israel over such life events as marriage, divorce and religious conversion?
Was the rabbi suggesting that to be “for” Israel you can not be concerned about demographic trends (particularly the growth of Israel’s Arab population) that seem to undermine Israel’s ability to remain both a “Jewish state” and a democratic state?
Unfortunately, the rabbi couldn’t explain what he meant by being “for” Israel without, as Rabbi Yoffie predicted, risking offense to a sizeable part of the congregation. And so the rabbi was “for”—and urged the congregation to be “for”–Israel in the same way that many American politicians are “for” America, which is either (when the term is used by left-wing politicians) a meaningless sop to patriotic sentimentality or code (when used by right-wing politicians) for suggesting that those who disagree with them are, as Michele Bachmann once described President Obama, “anti-American.”
But just as our moderately liberal president is no more “anti-American” than the very conservative Ms. Bachmann, American Jews who ardently support a “two state solution” or who express concerns about Israel becoming an “apartheid state” are no more “anti-Israel” than Tzipi Livni, Israel’s Justice Minister and former Foreign Minister, who has repeatedly expressed such support and such concerns.
“Ask two Jews, you get three opinions” is an old saying. That goes, as it happens, for what it means to be “for” Israel as much as it does for any other controversial issue, and it would have been nice if the rabbi had acknowledged as much when he admonished us to be “for” Israel in his Rosh Hashanah sermon. Perhaps he thought it went without saying—but since when does anything go without saying among a group of Jews?