David Harris is the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, which according to its website has for more than a century been the leading global Jewish advocacy organization. In an August 17 piece in The Times of Israel, “A Sermon for Troubled Times,” Mr. Harris proffers two themes he believes must be stressed at High Holidays this September: the ominous resurgence of anti-Semitism around the world, and the need to redouble our support for Israel.
Both of these are surely worthy subjects for rabbis to explore with their congregations.
But while his premise is promising, Mr. Harris’ follow-through disappoints. He sounds the alarm: “Beware anti-Semitism!” He trumpets the call: “Stand with Israel!” But where’s the content? The Days of Awe are a time for Jewish soul-searching, for honest accounting, for committing to do better. I searched Mr. Harris’ sermon for at least a hint of self-reflection, of self-criticism, of recognition that perhaps we bear at least some responsibility for the predicament in which the State of Israel, and Jews around the world, find themselves. Alas, I found none.
Mr. Harris urges: We, as American Jews, must be vigilant in confronting the chilling increase in anti-Semitic outbursts, from Paris to Berlin to Sweden and beyond. He chides us: We cannot “remain indifferent and complacent.” Fair enough. But what about examining the causes of this harrowing trend? What about considering meaningful ways to address it? On these, not a peep from Mr. Harris.
He might have done well to reference the 2014 Special Report by the Jewish People Policy Institute, called “Jewish and Democratic: Perspectives from World Jewry.” Tellingly, it cautions: “There is clear evidence that periods of tension between Israel and its neighbors raise the frequency and severity of harassment/ attacks on Jews in locations around the world.” It also cites the 2012 Anti-Defamation League report, “Anti-Semitism on the Rise in America,” which found that “[a]nti-Israel feelings are triggering anti-Semitism,” and that “[n]egative attitudes toward Israel and concern that American Jews have too much influence over US Middle East policy are helping to foster anti-Semitic beliefs.” The Forward’s editor-atlarge J.J. Goldberg has also explored this question and its sequel.
Anti-Semitism is ugly and abhorrent, and has been with us for a very long time. But it takes different shapes and forms, and if it’s going to be tackled effectively, understanding those differences is critical. Today, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon or a social psychologist to understand that anger at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians – whether on account of the daunting civilian toll of its bombing campaign in Gaza, the humiliating impact of the occupation, the “price tag” attacks committed by extremist settlers, or the unequal treatment of Arab Israelis – is fanning the flames of anti-Semitism far beyond the borders of the state.
For some – perhaps for many – anger at Israel’s actions morphs into anger at Jews generally, wherever they may be found. This is wrong, but it’s real. Can we afford to close our eyes to it? Shouldn’t we, at a minimum, consider how a different path by Israel’s leadership – for example, a serious commitment to end the occupation, demonstrated by halting settlement expansion during the Kerry peace talks, and following through on the agreement to release prisoners – might have led to a very different scenario than the one Israel and Diaspora Jews face today? Aren’t those questions our rabbis should be examining with us at these High Holidays? Mr. Harris also calls on us to “stand with Israel, affirming our pride, solidarity and support.”
He cites Israel’s great accomplishments, along with the many grave threats it faces, on the military, civilian and global front. All valid points, but at this time of self-examination, isn’t there more to it than that? Is there really only one dimension to this narrative? Of all times of the year, now is when the validity – and righteousness – of our version of things must be subject to scrutiny. This is when we need to see through another lens, from another angle, to be open not only to a single perceived truth. I looked, but I saw no such broadened exploration in Mr. Harris’ sermon.
He would have done well to draw from the introduction to Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. There, Shavit makes two points: (1) Israel is the only nation in the West that is existentially threatened; (2) Israel is the only nation in the West that is occupying another people.
Any analysis that fails to address both “pillars of our condition” is destined to be “flawed and futile.” As Shavit sees it, confronting and internalizing both elements – intimidation and occupation – is the only way to “get the Israel story right.”
Each time we avoid that duality, we diminish our credibility, to ourselves and to others.
We damage our moral standing. And we hobble the chance to make real progress on the mind-bending puzzle that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Surely, the executive director of the leading global Jewish advocacy organization knows all this. Especially as we approach the Days of Awe, why doesn’t he say it?