Thursday, March 26, 2015

How Do We Talk About Israel

Last Shabbat, following the elections in Israel, Rabbi Michael Swarttz and I gave the following sermon at our joint annual Congregation B'nai Shalom/Beth Tikvah service. The presentation was followed by discussion and comment from the congregation. We are sharing our text to stimulate further conversation - perhaps around Seder tables at the upcoming festival of Pesach.

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz:
Rabbi Melissa Weintraub writes, ‘In rabbinic circles, one increasingly hears sentiments like, “I’m not going to get fired for my politics on gun control or health care, but I could get fired for just about anything I say about Israel.” Rabbi Scott Perlo has coined this, the “Death by Israel Sermon.”

And yet, 4 days after the Israeli elections, bringing together our two congregations, how could we not speak about Israel together? And more than anything, when we speak about Israel together, whether in a formal community gathering or on each other’s Facebook walls, we want to bring care, love, and genuine deep listening to how we speak about Israel with each other.

In his book, ‘Relational Judaism’, Rabbi Ron Wolfson discusses our relationship with Israel as one of the vital aspects of relationship building that needs to be deepened in Jewish communal life. He reports on the impact of ten years of programming in one congregation in St. Louis that sent their 15 year olds on a Summer-long program to live with Israeli youth in a Moshav in the 1970s. At the 30th reunion of those who had participated in the program, they surveyed the more than 300 people who had participated over the years.  This revealed that the experience had created a ‘reference relationship’ with Israel that many respondents claimed was one of the most important influences in their lives, evidenced by many of the now-adult participants maintaining regular contact with their Israeli ‘families’.

For those of us who have been to Israel, for those of us who have Israelis in our families, for those of us that have hosted an Israeli in our homes (such as our wonderful Israeli emissary program)… these are personal ways of engaging with Israel and forming a multi-faceted sense of relationship with the land and her people.

For others, we rely on what we can learn from the media. We rely on various Jewish and Israeli organizations, each with their own set of perspectives, principles, and policies to inform us. They frame the stories of Israel, the peace process, and all we try to grasp from the outside for us. But from where do we learn how to interpret this information and how to critically examine the presentation of a particular set of perspectives? How do we contribute to the conversations about Israel, whether within the Jewish community, in broader communal settings, on college campuses, and on the political stage?

How do we talk about Israel? The answer to that question might depend on what our goal is, and with whom we are speaking.

·         For some, the goal is to make the case for a very specific kind of policy or position with regard to Israel.
Photo: Davos Dorf, Davos, Canton of Graubunden
When Netanyahu spoke to Congress 2.5 weeks ago, there was very little of ‘on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’. He had a very specific hand to deal. If you a politician, you stake out your ground. Whatever you may be feeling about the outcome of these elections, there is no doubt that Netanyahu clearly articulated where he stood.

·         For some, speaking about Israel has become a not-so-subtle hiding ground for anti-semitism. 
I was speaking with a Christian minister who recently returned from a trip to Israel that was designed to educate ministers about both sides of the conflict. She remarked that she now saw and understood how so much of the focus on Israel’s ills in the media and the international stage is so clearly a manifestation of anti-semitism.  Recently on a British TV show, Question Time, a politician was taken to task by some members of the audience and other panelists for his virulent anti-Zionism. He denied that he was responsible in any way for increases in anti-semitic attacks in the UK, parsing the difference between his anti-Zionism and anti-semitism in ways that simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. We have to speak up and hold those who misuse Israel in this way accountable.

·         For some, speaking about Israel is about working to ensure that the US has Israel’s back.
This is an important role for all involved in political action in DC. But sometimes this role is conflated with never publicly criticizing or questioning Israel’s decisions. This is a delicate subject. Some believe that we risk weakening that support if we introduce nuance and complexity into this political forum. Others believe that if we truly wish the US political system to support Israel and help it achieve a lasting peace with the Palestinians that we are obligated to speak when we perceive Israel to be doing something that is not in its long-term best interests.

For most of us, Rabbis included, we speak about Israel because we care about Israel. We speak about Israel because we want to better understand Israel. We speak about Israel because we want to learn more about the people and the land. And we want, we desperately want to find a path forward for peace. And we struggle with how complicated that is.

I have always made it my mission, when visiting in Israel, to find opportunities to speak with Arab Israelis and Palestinians. I spent a year in Israel, arriving there shortly after the 2nd intifada began. The old city was quiet, and the shopkeepers had plenty of time to chat. I spent extended visits over mint tea with some of them, listening to their stories of what was happening in the West Bank, and the conversations taking place in East Jerusalem. I even traveled into the West Bank and two refugee camps, led by one of those who I had befriended over time, to see things for myself. It opened my eyes to another perspective that, when we only do ‘Jewish Israel’ we can never find. And, whatever you may think of that perspective, my understanding of what the conflict is about and what both sides want was enormously deepened by having taken the time to sit down and have those conversations.

Back in the US, it also gave me access to the Arab Muslim population that was involved in interfaith work with my congregation and others in my last community in Bridgeport. They invited me to speak about the Jewish and Israeli perspective on the peace process, because they knew that I had listened to their perspective, and we had a mutual respect and, eventually, love for each other, even though we disagreed when new events in the conflict arose. The bridge building we were able to do locally was built on friendship and trust first.

One cannot help but emerge from these kinds of discursive and relationship-based conversations with a very different kind of personal connection to Israel and the people of Israel.  One gains entry into the diversity of perspective and experience of Israel’s citizens. There can be no two-dimensional analysis or understanding of what is happening or what will happen – it is complex and multi-dimensional, and ever-changing.  And perhaps most of all, when one is tempted to make statements about Israel, the perspectives gained from relationship-based conversations with different people brings about a little more humility – an awareness of what we know and what we don’t.

Rabbi Michael Swarttz
In her remarks Rabbi Gurevitz used the descriptors “nuanced,” “complex,” “multi-dimensional,” and “ever-changing.”  These very appropriately describe virtually everything about the Israeli situation—its people, its politics, its culture, its security.  These aspects of the situation often get lost in the highly charged arena of Jewish communal discussion and debate about the Jewish State.  In their place there is an attitude of “If I am right, then you must be wrong” that characterizes the discussion.  It is a shame that Israel, which at one time united us, and which should continue to do so, is that which so often divides us.  It polarizes us. Why?  So much at stake, we care so deeply.

My reflections this evening come from two contemporary thinkers.  Yossi Klein Halevi is a journalist and author who was American-born and who made Aliyah as a young man.  Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the President of CLAL, a national Jewish organization committed to building bridges across communities to encourage pluralism and openness and to promoting inclusive Jewish communities in which all voices are heard.  Rabbi Gurevitz is a CLAL Associate, by the way.

Tonight we find ourselves mid-way between the holidays of Purim and Pesach.  A few years ago Yossi Klein Halevi wrote a piece that has stayed with me in which he describes the Jewish community as divided between Purim Jews and Pesach Jews.  Each of these groups identifies with a different biblical commandment of Zachor, telling us to remember. 

The first voice commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the message of that command is: “Don’t be brutal.” The second voice commands us to remember how the tribe of Amalek attacked us without provocation while we were wandering in the desert, and the message of that command is: “Don’t be naive.” You may recall that the Shabbat before Purim is Shabbat Zachor, and we read the Torah passage commanding us to remember what Amalek did to our ancestors.

The first Zachor is the voice of Passover, of liberation; the second is the voice of Purim, commemorating our victory over the genocidal threat of Haman, a descendant of Amalek. “Passover Jews” are motivated by empathy with the oppressed; “Purim Jews” are motivated by alertness to threat. Both are essential; one without the other creates an unbalanced Jewish personality, a distortion of Jewish history and values.

Klein Halevi suggests that one reason the Palestinian issue is so wrenching for Jews is that it is the point on which the two commands of our history converge: the stranger in our midst is represented by a national movement that wants to usurp us.

And so a starting point of a healthy North American Jewish conversation on Israel would be acknowledging the agony of our dilemma.

Imagine an Orthodox rabbi, a supporter of the settlers in Hebron (a Purim Jew), delivering this sermon to his congregation: “My friends, our community has sinned against Israel. For all our devotion to the Jewish state and our concern for its survival, we have failed to acknowledge the consequences to Israel’s soul of occupying another people against its will.”

Now imagine a liberal rabbi, a supporter of J Street (a Pesach Jew), telling his or her congregation: “My friends, our community has sinned against Israel. For all our devotion to the Jewish state and our concern for its democratic values, we have failed to acknowledge the urgency of existential threat once again facing our people.”

As Klein Halevi asserts, when North American Jews internalize or at least acknowledge each other’s anxieties, and the legitimacy of the other’s Zachor, the shrillness of much of the North American Jewish debate over Israel will give way to a more nuanced conversation.

I thought of Klein Halevi’s analysis in light of my day yesterday.  In the afternoon I attended via my computer a webinar sponsored by the rabbinic organization T’ruah. T’ruah is the North American wing of Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization focused on the civil rights of minorities in Israel, including, but not limited to, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.  Both groups consist of what most of us would refer to as “left of center” rabbis.

In the evening my wife and I attended a lecture at our local Chabad in Newton by Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby.  Jacoby spoke about U.S.-Israel relations in the aftermath of the Israeli election.  Needless to say, this was a different crowd than I had been with during the webinar, with different views and different assumptions.

Yesterday afternoon I was with Pesach Jews.  In the evening I was with Purim Jews.  My problem is I have commonalities with both groups.  Points of agreement and disagreement with each. Even though I consider myself slightly left of center, I do understand and share many of the concerns of the Purim Jews.

I now turn to Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, the President of CLAL. In his book You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right (this is what this is all about), Hirschfield describes an experience he had in 2006 when he created a television series called Building Bridges: Abrahamic Perspectives on the World Today.  He created the series for Bridges TV, the American Muslim network based in Buffalo, New York.  The show is a weekly roundtable with different imams, priests, ministers, and Hirschfield trying to use the wisdom of their faiths to find spiritual solutions to contemporary problems and demonstrate that disagreement doesn’t always have to be about demonizing the people with whom they disagree.

Hirschfield was asked by the people at Bridges TV to invite an Iranian Imam in Detroit, Mohammed Ali Elahi, to appear on his show.  Elahi had taken numerous positions publicly with which Hirschfield vehemently disagreed, but he met him and spent a good deal of time talking with him.  Neither changed the other’s opinion, but they came to like and respect each other nonetheless.  Hirschfield writes that the fact that they had deep disagreements was “precisely why I was open to having him on the show. It is most important to talk with those people with whom we most disagree.”
He not only agreed to have Elahi on his show, but Elahi invited Hirschfield to come to his mosque, speak from the pulpit, and then view the premiere of the show at the mosque with his congregation.  This generated outrage from both Jewish organizations and general political groups. He was told “You can’t talk to him,” that he would be punished and that his career would be in jeopardy.  People would see to it that he “would be finished in Jewish life.” He was called a traitor.  His love of Israel was questioned, along with his commitment to the Jewish community. He writes, “I was shocked. I began to realize that my ‘sin’ lay in the claim that disagreement was no excuse for not talking. I had touched that raw nerve that says you do have to be wrong for me to be right.”

There are lessons to be learned from Rabbi Hirschfield’s story about how we, internally in the Jewish community, speak to and listen to those with whom we disagree about what Israel does, who it elects, and how it goes about its business. Some of us are Purim Jews; others Pesach Jews. Some, like myself, are a combination of the two. I believe we are a stronger and healthier Jewish community when we can have respectful relationships and civil dialogue with those who differ with us. “Azeh hu chacham? Who is wise?” He who learns from every person, including, and perhaps especially, those with different viewpoints. Given how much is at stake, and how invested most of us are in the Israeli enterprise, it is often easier said than done. But it is a goal well-worth striving for.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

It's All About Those Plagues - the 2015 Passover Parody from Congregation B'nai Shalom

Here's what it takes...
One creative congregant with a penchant for great re-writes of big hit songs (thanks Elyse Heise!), another congregant with professional chops for filming, directing and willing to donate hours of his time to editing (amazing Chuck Green!), some generous friends of the aforementioned with superb vocal skills (Rachel Baril and Ashley Harmon), directing (Daniel Jacobs) and audio recording skills (Ean White at Incendiary Arts LLC) and a lot of willing congregants (aged 6 to 90) to act out, act up and have a lot of fun in the process...
Those are the ingredients that get you this year's CBS Passover Parody - All About Those Plagues.

We hope you have as much fun watching it as we had making it.  Please share widely!
(for those receiving this by email, please click this link if the video does not appear below)