Rabbi Jim Prosnit, Senior Rabbi at Congregation B'nai Israel, offered the following thoughts on J Street in the light of his experience at the conference at Shabbat services last week. We share his reflections here. This coming Shabbat the blog moves away from our J Street reflections and back to thoughts on Jewish mindfulness and meditation, introduced last week.
It may come as a surprise to some of you to hear that I had a big problem with President Obama’s speech at Cairo University last June. Now, I did not have a problem that he spoke there, or that he spoke there before he spoke and visited Israel. I think it was important, vital for him to engage the Islamic world the way that he did. The problem that I had was the way he categorized the founding of the state of Israel.
Listen to what he said: “America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.
Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust… Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.”
What’s wrong with that? On one hand nothing. It was good to see him use that forum to take on Holocaust deniers and those who invoke vile stereotypes of Jews. But my problem was that the president explained the existence of the State of Israel and the import and love that Jews have for the land of Israel in the context of a homeland emanating from a tragic history.
Now admittedly many Jews do that too. We even have programs that send our kids from the gas chambers of Europe to the streets of Tel Aviv – conveying to them that Israel’s existence is centered on the Shoah, the Holocaust.
And what’s the danger. First, we come to see Israel only in terms of being a haven for distressed Jews displaced after World War II and in so doing we justify the Palestinian view that they too are victims of the Shoah; In other words Europeans sought atonement for their treatment of the Jews by establishing a Jewish state in Palestine, thus displacing the Arab population and making them the ultimate victims of the Holocaust.
For the essence of a Jewish state, Zionism needs to go well beyond a homeland for suffering Jews and needs to take us back to the beginnings of Judaism – to this week’s Torah portion in fact. God’s call to Abraham is wrapped up and tied to the sacredness of land. Abraham is to leave home not because he and his people are persecuted, and not because enemies threaten to destroy him, but because God has another vision for him and his descendants. Their very identity and sense of peoplehood, their spirituality and faith is tied up in a sense of place. And it has been that way ever since. It did not begin with Herzl in the 1890’s nor with the end of the war in1945. The yearning has been a constant of not just 2 millennia, but closer to 4.
Of course the unfolding story in the Bible and throughout Jewish history are accounts of the glory, challenges and pitfalls of living in the land and what will happen to us if we squander God’s gift. And that leads me to one final point in these brief words this evening.
I believe that the concept of land and the reality of a Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel is crucial to the Jewish experience and the Jewish people and to fulfilling the Divine promise. But I also believe that a precise definition of what that land is to look like, how its dimensions and borders are determined has and needs to be drawn by contemporary political realities. Settlement of all the land the Bible describes at varying points, to me has never been the spiritual mandate.
With that in mind, as some of you are aware Rabbi Gurevitz and seven or eight other members of the congregation participated in the first JStreet conference earlier this week.
An organization that has received a fair amount of criticism, much of it unwarranted I feel, because it seeks to promote a Jewish and democratic Israel and sees a two state solution as the best path to that end. It refuses to believe that credentials for loving Israel belong only to those on the right and to those who imply that the more right wing you are the more pro Israel you are.
With that said, I also feel that JStreet is at a crossroads very early on in its young existence. It was pretty impressive that 1500 people attended a conference run by an organization a year and a half old. It obviously touched a nerve among pro Israel pro peace folks that brought many from across the country together in Washington. But while I believe that most of those who attended share the perspective of the JStreet leaders there were definitely attendees who were peace activists first and only marginally lovers of Israel. If the tent of JStreet is stretched so wide as to allow non- Zionists in, then it will not be the voice that I and I believe many others are looking for in the debate within the American Jewish community and within in Israel.
As the land is varied and rich so is the debate. Loving the land, supporting the people is a constant; determining what that means in the real politick is a subject for pluralistic voices both in Israel and in the debate here at home. No doubt there will be opportunities to speak and to engage you in the conversation.