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In 2012, I met with a dozen Reform and Conservative rabbis. Two of the rabbis, who served different synagogues, mentioned having each recently made the mistake of giving sermons that were somewhat critical of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians. Congregants with hawkish views responded with such outrage, contempt, and ferocity, the rabbis 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.
The fact that not a single rabbi in the room suggested the two rabbis reconsider their decisions didn’t strike me as strange. Truth is, North American Jews no longer know how to have a civil conversation about Israel.
Traveling throughout the continent, I’ve watched differences of opinion about Israel’s policies mushroom into heated exchanges in which reasoned arguments become impossible. Rather than navigate a minefield of divided communal opinion, many rabbis choose silence. A 2013 Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) study of 552 mostly non-Orthodox rabbis found that about one-third said that they repressed their true views about Israel for fear of clashing with leaders in their congregations. About 18% said that they were “closet doves,” while a little over 12% said that they were “closet hawks.” The dovish rabbis expressed higher levels of concern, 43% admitting to being “very fearful” of congregants’ reactions, as compared to just under 25% of their hawkish colleagues.
And the issue isn’t confined to Reform and Conservative congregations. I know of one Orthodox congregation where the unwritten rule is to avoid sermons and lectures on Israeli politics for the sake of communal harmony. On the whole, Orthodox Jews are more hawkish and less divided on Israel than their more liberal counterparts, but diverse views do exist. For example, a 2013 Pew Research Center poll found that 16% of Orthodox Jews oppose Israeli policies on settlement building.
Israel—the very subject that once brought Jews of divergent perspectives together as a community—has now become a catalyst for divisiveness. What can we do to unify us as a people once again?
Understanding Diaspora Perspectives on Israel
First, we need to know whether support for Israel among North American Jews has diminished or whether Jews are simply losing interest in Israel.
The answer is neither. According to the 2013 Pew Research Center poll, support for Israel remains robust: 69% of the 3,475 American Jews sampled say they are very or somewhat attached to Israel; 87% say that caring about Israel is important or essential to their being Jewish; and 43% have visited Israel. Worthy of note, 81% of Jews in the 18–29 age range say that caring about Israel is important or essential to their being Jewish—only 6% lower than their elders.
Nor are rabbis with dovish views out of touch with the American Jewish mainstream. According to the Pew study, American Jewry is much more dovish than hawkish: 44% of American Jews say that continued West Bank settlement construction hurts Israeli security, as opposed to only 17% who say it helps. (The remainder say it makes no difference or they don’t know.) Almost half (48%) say that Israel’s current government is not making a sincere effort to bring about peace with the Palestinians, as compared to 38% who say it is. (Note: While a significant portion of Jews object to Israel’s policies, only 12% think the Palestinian leadership is making a sincere effort to promote peace.)
In short, the majority of American Jews remain strongly devoted to Israel without necessarily agreeing with everything Israel’s leaders do. Dovish rabbis could therefore reasonably claim that their opinions mirror the views of the broader Jewish community, and reflect the much wider public debate in Israel itself. Why, then, do they get so much pushback when voicing concerns from the pulpit?
A variety of factors are probably at work. In the hawkish pro-Israel camp, a certain amount of intolerance and extremism is at play. Beyond that, Israel is a vulnerable country in a very bad neighborhood, and ensuring her survival and well-being engages the deepest emotions of Jews everywhere. The intensity of our arguments reflects the depth of our feelings about the Jewish state—which is a good thing for Israel and us all.
Resolving the Problem
To resolve the problem in a constructive way, I suggest that Reform synagogues follow a five-fold approach already practiced by some Reform communities:
- Reconceive of your community as a place to talk about love of the Jewish state and devotion to her people. Rabbis/leaders: Let your congregants know you care deeply about Israel (don’t assume they know you care), and share the particulars of your devotion. If you believe, as I do, that there must be an Israel because without her we are a truncated, incomplete people, and any distancing from Israel for any reason is fundamentally unacceptable, tell them. And be sure to talk about day-to-day aspects of Israeli life. Make connections with the Reform Movement in Israel and with other institutions that share our progressive values. Discuss the importance of both adults and kids visiting Israel and being exposed to the sounds, the smells, the arguments, the passions, and the language of the Jewish state. Organize a congregational trip to Israel. Ultimately, the best way to share in the miracle of Israel is to go there, because when we do, we do not have to sell Israel—Israel inevitably sells herself.
- Transform your congregational space into a safe place where Reform Jews can engage in conversations to develop their own visions of what the Jewish state should and could be. When congregations are at their best, members hold respectful debates, truly listen to each other, and speak personal truths without reprimanding those with whom they disagree. Rabbis can take the lead, presenting their own perspectives as teachers of Torah and shepherds of the community, as well as inviting speakers with different points of view. Sermons and presentations can be shared on the congregation’s website, and members encouraged to dive into the discussion. If someone thinks that the rabbi might be wrong, or naive, or misguided, he or she can say so respectfully.
- If you identify with Israel’s destiny and wish to advance her welfare, do not hesitate to speak up about aspects you believe have gone profoundly wrong—and don’t apologize for doing so. Those who argue that Diaspora Jews should not publicly criticize Israel’s government, particularly on policies pertaining to peace and security, fundamentally misunderstand the nature of Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people.
Zionism brought Israel into existence and bestowed upon Jews everywhere a role in determining the character of the Jewish state. While final authority rests with Israel’s citizens, whether Jewish or other, Israel is not primarily the state of Israelis; it is the state of the Jewish people. Israel invites Jews of every country in the Diaspora not only to visit frequently, contribute financially, and generate support for its policies, but also to engage in its affairs, participate in its debates, and offer criticism of its actions. Expressing criticism, even harsh criticism, requires no special permission from Israeli or Diaspora leaders; the right to do so is inherent in the Zionist mission.
In short, our role in upholding the Zionist vision is to offer Israel unconditional support—but that is not the same as uncritical support.
- Maintain red lines. While our congregations should welcome diverse points of view, we need not welcome all points of view. Synagogues are not simply open forums; they are Jewish religious institutions that promote Jewish values and work to strengthen the Jewish people and the Jewish state. Just as we would not invite Holocaust deniers or anti-Semites to speak or use our facilities, some people and organizations should not be invited to speak on Israel, and some things should not be said in our synagogues.
Each congregation must define its own red lines, creating its own consistent, principled approach to the issues at hand. When my opinion is sought, I suggest that synagogues never welcome speakers who identify with the international BDS movement (boycotts, divestment, sanctions against Israel), because, in my view, BDS advocates do not simply oppose Israel’s policies; they oppose Israel’s very existence. I also would not welcome anyone who has excused or equivocated about acts of terror, or, for that matter, who has bashed Islam and demonized all Muslims.
Furthermore, I have no desire to hear from those who do not accept Israel as a Jewish state—that is, those who advocate the mass return of Palestinians to Israel as part of a potential peace agreement. I am a fervent advocate of a democratic Palestinian state alongside a democratic Israel because Palestinians are entitled to sovereignty in their own nation just as Jews are entitled to sovereignty in theirs. But Palestinians cannot have it both ways, demanding their own state while simultaneously insisting that all Palestinians who claim descent from 1948 refugees are entitled to live in Israel—which would turn Israel’s Jews into a minority and erase the Jewish sovereignty that Zionism finally succeeded in restoring after 2,000 years of exile and struggle.
- Do not allow a few loud voices, donors included, to intimidate the rabbi, leadership, or congregational community into silence. Doing so may appease the extremists, but at too high a cost. Make inclusivity the community’s predominant value, for doing any less will ultimately discourage members from engagement with Israel and drive away 20s and 30s seeking Jewish community. Young people who care about Israel are dumbfounded when a clueless Jewish establishment invites their enthusiasm for Israel but shushes them when they voice their concerns.
In the hard days that lie ahead, as Israel struggles to assure her security and move toward peace with her neighbors, we honor our commitment to Israel by encouraging our religious leaders to teach us and to speak their minds. We honor it by remembering that even though as Jews we are one people, we are also the most variegated people on earth who do not agree on many things. And we honor diversity of thought by opening our doors and our hearts to insightful, respectful points of view that may be very different than our own.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, the former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, is a lecturer and writer. His writings for Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, the Huffington Post, and Time can be viewed at ericyoffie.com.