Word on the American Jewish street is that Israel has become such a divisive topic that some rabbis stopped giving sermons about Israel. A rabbi who avoids talking about Israel is like a presidential candidate who ignores the economy; dodging such a central issue eventually drains credibility regarding all subjects. Any rabbis afraid to talk about Israel to their congregations should quit – and retreat to the university which appreciates tunnel vision.
When a rabbi avoids “Israel” as a topic, the delegitimizing forces who oppose the Jewish state’s existence win. Israel – they rarely say “Israeli politics” – is divisive when it becomes compulsively politicized. Reducing every conversation about Israel to the Palestinian issue is not just a distortion but a perversion. It internalizes the systematic campaign to delegitimize Israel, ignoring the many spiritual, ethical, ideological, intellectual, philosophical, and personal dimensions one can bring to a discussion about Israel without mentioning Bibi Netanyahu or the Palestinians.
The politicization of Israel has become so obsessive, so ubiquitous, that many dismiss conversations about these other dimensions or about Identity Zionism as attempts to evade the “real” issues. Left and right are equally guilty of overly politicizing the Israel conversation. Too many of the Israel-right-or-wrong, love-it-or-leave it crowd seem addicted to crisis, unable to talk about Israel without clamoring about the latest threat to Israel, the Jewish people, and Western civilization itself – we being, of course, the canaries in the coal mine. On the left, too many of the Israel’s-right-is-all-wrong crowd seem equally addicted to crisis, unable to talk about Israel without bemoaning Israel’s latest misstep – and Israel’s alleged original sin in being born. Viewing Israel through a radical Palestinian lens is like only seeing the US in black and white, as one big racial injustice. Decades of disproportionate attacks against Israel and Zionism have caused this damage, as the unreasonable, one-sided charges eclipse everything else.
Rabbis are teachers. They should educate their congregations about the Land of Israel’s centrality in traditional Judaism as well as the State of Israel’s centrality in Jewish life today. This mission does not require stump speeches for Likud or J Street. As one who opposed “Rabbis for Obama” for unnecessarily politicizing their pulpits, I want rabbis who engage Israel, talking knowledgeably and passionately about the Jewish state and its potential without dictating their particular peace plan from their plush suburban podiums.
Rabbis are also leaders. Too many complacent, careerist CEO rabbis forget to lead, fearing – as I heard one rabbi admit at a rabbinic convention – that every interaction they have with a congregant might be that Jew’s last interaction with a rabbi. You cannot lead if you constantly seek applause or fear being fired. The great Mussar moralist, Rabbi Israel Salanter taught: A rabbi who they don’t want to drive out of town deserves no respect; and a rabbi who lets himself be driven out has no self-respect.
Rabbis today must push their congregations toward civility, carving out safe space for fellow Jews to discuss controversial matters, including Israeli politics. The first step toward civility is fostering humility – especially regarding Israel. So many Diaspora Jews are so sure they know what Israel should do. Admitting uncertainty, acknowledging complexity, approaching Israeli politics modestly while being more open to learning other ideas from Israel could cool tempers, nurture civility and educate effectively.
This new year, as Jews gather in synagogues and look to their rabbis for guidance, I hope the rabbis lead, reframing the conversation about Israel. Rabbis should champion Identity Zionism, explaining that Zionism is Jewish nationalism, a unifying peoplehood platform that can serve as a touchstone for a scattered people with diverse beliefs who remain bonded by a common heritage, homeland, and high ideals. They should learn from a recent Wesleyan graduate, Zoe Jick, that “pro-Israel” is a political term more emphasizing Israel’s actions, while “Zionism” – a term many Americans Jews dislike because it has been delegitimized – is the broader term denoting “belief in the Jewish national movement.”
We need a Zionist conversation, unafraid of the topic – or the label – exploring the meaning of our dual religious-national base, appreciating the opportunity Jewish sovereignty gives us to live our ideals and build what we at Hartman’s Engaging Israel project call “Values Nation,” pondering the delights and challenges of living 24/7 Judaism in our old-new land. Let’s discuss the social protests –to learn how Judaism balances communal needs with individual prerogative, then apply that knowledge to every Western country’s socioeconomic dilemmas. Let’s analyze the Jewishness of the Jewish state, asking how we moderns express communal values and find meaning in a soul-crushing age. And let’s articulate that sense of familiarity and family many of us feel when wandering around Jerusalem, asking what existential need that satisfies.
I recently asked some fellow Zionists what Zionist message they wish rabbis would give their congregants this Rosh Hashanah. Yoav Schaefer, an American-born former-IDF soldier studying at Harvard, suggested: “Zionism is not a noun. It is a verb—a living ideal constantly being redefined and re-imagined, an ever-evolving pursuit toward perfection. It symbolizes optimism and potential, a hope for a better and more just society, the dream of a country that exemplifies the values and aspirations of the Jewish people. “ Iri Kassel, an Israeli who directs the Ben Gurion Heritage Institute, emphasized the inspiring Zionist story of rebuilding the land which instills basic values of belonging, mutual responsibility and activism. (For more see www.zionistsforzionism).
Zionism has always been a movement of bold moves and high aspirations. How tragic that Israel, Zionism’s creation, would turn some rabbis into meek Galut Jews, cowering from conflict. This year, let us hope for more daring vision and bolder challenges from our rabbis – on Israel and other important issues.