June 4, 2021
The story of the spies in this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-L’cha (Numbers 13:1-15:41), ends in a 40-year march through the Wilderness so that the generation of the Exodus will have passed on, and a new generation would be the one that enters into the “Promised Land.” When the People heard the discouraging report of the Spies, they became fearful and began to talk about going back to the security of Egypt. They displayed a blatant distrust of Moses and God, forgetting about all of the miracles that God had performed for them and on their behalf, and losing faith in the Covenant of Sinai. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch was heard to say “When the people lose faith in their leaders, the leaders can no longer lead.” Consequently, God wanted to kill them all and start over with Moses (14:11-12).
Moses was horrified, but “kept his cool”. He reminded God about how the whole world would likely dismiss God as a meaningful, compassionate, understanding God, after leading the people into the desert, only to massacre them. (14:13-19)
People arguing about the truth when they are distrustful of the facts – a concept that is as old as the Torah. As we now know, we are a few weeks removed from the cease-fire of the latest skirmish between Israel and Hamas. Recently, I was asked to address our community for a pro-Israel statement. I paused a beat before answering. I love Israel, and, Israel needs friends, always, and especially now. So why did I pause?
As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one who received the call, and wasn’t the only one who hedged. One colleague, a bit to my political left, questioned whether the statement created would be pro-Israel — or pro-peace? He did not feel that either he personally or his congregation could get behind something that did not speak to the suffering of Palestinians and provide a platform for Palestinian voices. Another colleague, a bit to the right of me, said basically the opposite: There were missiles raining down on Israel’s civilian population; a statement that equivocated on who was to blame, an address at which Palestinian voices were given a platform, he said, was not one that he or his community would attend.
I found myself wondering if there was something deeper going on. What if these reasons were the symptoms, but the underlying reason was yet to be named? What if the real concern were fear that a statement might be organized in support of Israel and nobody would even care?
Maybe it would be better to stay quiet, and brush an awkward and inconvenient truth aside. Maybe our moment of indecision reflected a momentous inflection point that has been a long time in coming. An American Jewry that no longer goes to the mattresses for the Jewish state, a world in which, when the going gets tough for Israel, American Jewry no longer has Israel’s back. Let’s hope the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas holds. But there is a battle raging on another front, one that this latest conflict has brought into relief: the battle for the soul of American Jewry and the disgusting rise of antisemitism.
The fault lines are there for all to see. Just before Shavuot, dozens of rabbinical students from a variety of seminaries signed a letter calling Israel — and by extension, American Jewry — to account for violent suppression of human rights. The letter made no mention of Hamas, terrorism, or — for the historically inclined — decades of Arab rejection of any sovereign Jewish presence in the Middle East. There is nothing fringe about the signatories to this letter; they represent the coming generation of Jewish leadership — leaders who, when given the chance to leverage their moral voice, do so in support of Palestinians, not Israel. A generation of Jewish leaders who didn’t grow up associating the Palestinians with Munich and the murder of Klinghoffer. For them Israel is a privileged power and the plight of the Palestinians yet another example of racial and social justice in need of remedy. Their solidarity rallies mean something totally different than mine. In addition, the major shifts are also evident on Capitol Hill. The fact that 29 Democratic Senators called for a cease-fire, failing to make a distinction between attacker and defender, the fact that leading House members have called to put a pause on the sale of the very aid Israel needs to defend itself from its enemies, signals something.
The fact that historically fierce defenders of Israel in Congress have been silent in the face of anti-Zionism and antisemitism signals that they are more concerned about a political lashing from an energized left than about losing the tepid support of American Jewry for Israel. This isn’t about who started the conflict, or that the ideology of Hamas is the antithesis of every liberal value progressives claim to hold dear, or that flag-bearing Palestinian thugs have beat up Jews on the streets of our country recently. It is about perceived power and about keeping power and the fact that right now a calculated shift is taking place. A whole lot of people are noting that American Jewish support for Israel is not quite the dependable and united front and force it once was.
How did we get here? Much of it has to do with a long-in-the-making divergence between an increasingly universalist American Jewry and an increasingly parochial Israel. The combination of politics and personality that has made progressive support for the policies of a right-wing Israeli government a nonstarter. Whatever finger-pointing can be directed at American Jewry, though, we need only rewind the last decades of Israeli decision-making to realize that what we are seeing today is the chickens coming home to roost. The settlement creep, Israel’s inability to actualize a two-state solution, the nation-state law, the systemic inequities faced by Israel’s Arab population – in other words, Israel’s repeated inability to give expression to its foundational and fundamental aspiration of being both a Jewish and democratic state living side by side with a Palestinian neighbor.
As a Reform rabbi, it goes without saying that it doesn’t help that the same Israel to which I am asked to direct my support has done pretty much everything it can do to make me feel that the Judaism I preach, teach and practice here in America is not even considered valid in Israel. Where do we go from here? It is a daunting challenge. Perhaps at this point, the first step is to ensure that as individuals and as communities we model the kind of change it is we seek to see in this world. A proud and unapologetic Zionism that also insists that we acknowledge and work on behalf of the right of Palestinians for self-determination. A Zionism that teaches our children to love Israel, to learn about Israel, to travel to Israel, to live in Israel and that one does not stop being a Zionist if one disagrees with decisions of this or that Israeli government. We must nurture radical moderates, people who are willing to foster dialogue with people whose opinions differ from our own, communities that rejects the illiberalism of cancel culture, communities that are willing to listen to each other with empathy and curiosity, an earnestness to speak our minds even as we show a willingness to change our minds.
Maybe, just maybe, if we speak into the centrist megaphone loud enough and long enough, the sane center can become the sane majority, and American Jewry can regain its footing towards building a shared future with Israel. Just like the generation of the Torah portion, we will need to walk together towards an uncertain future.