This Year, Any Rabbis Afraid to Talk About Israel to their Congregations – Should Quit

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-27-11

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.com).

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.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”giltroy@gmail.com

Advertisements

September Backgrounder: Zionism, Racism and Durban

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Prof. Gil Troy (updated version of an article published March 29, 2009)

Among the many casualties of the continuing Mideast violence is the term “Zionism.” Whereas it once epitomized idealism, romanticism, and the best of nationalism to millions of Jews and non-Jews, Zionism today is politically incorrect. In a depressing retreat to the harshest days of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Zionism is again being demonized. Critics regularly twin the term with a grab-bag of reprehensible “isms”: expansionism, colonialism, imperialism, racism, and, most perversely, Nazism.

The renewed attack on Zionism overshadowed the United Nations conference held in Durban, South Africa which began on August 31, 2001 and ended on September 7.  The “World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance,” wanted to condemn “the racist practices of Zionism,” call Zionism a movement based on racial superiority, and condemn Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “a new kind of apartheid.” Some delegates distributed a booklet of vile and ancient anti-Semitic caricatures showing Jews with hook noses and fangs dripping blood. It was hard to take such overt racism at a supposed anti-racism conference seriously — but also hard to ignore it. The United States — and even the (at the time) compulsively “evenhanded” Canadian government — mobilized against it. The U.S. Secretary of State at the time, Colin Powell, the first African-American Secretary of State, desperately wanted to attend the conference, seeing it as a critical moment in South Africa’s transition from enduring a racist Apartheid regime to being purged of such ugliness. Yet, ultimately, frustrated, Powell boycotted the event, sending a mid-level U,S, representative instead, because he realized that focusing on Zionism at an anti-racism conference hurt the cause of racism – and allowed truly racist regimes to dodge responsibility as the world piled on Israel, and Zionism.

To attack Zionism, rather than Israeli policies or the Israeli government, is to repudiate the State of Israel and the idea of a Jewish state. For Zionism at its simplest is Jewish nationalism, the understanding that Jews are a people, that Judaism is not just a religion, and that Israel is the Jewish homeland. Singling out Jewish nationalism as racist, in a forum of the 192-member United Nations, is itself bigoted anti-Semitic behavior.

In targeting Jewish nationalism in its broadest, murkiest, and most abstract incarnation, critics betray their true colors. Anti-Zionism goes way beyond the question of the settlements or Ariel Sharon or Avigdor Lieberman or any particular Israeli actions. Anti-Zionism attacks the very rights of the Jews to their homeland. This sweeping assault then naturally metastasizes into the anti-Semitic caricatures in so many Arab newspapers and into the epidemic of violence against Jews throughout the world that so many supposed humanists rationalize.

This anti-Zionist vitriol ratchets the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians from the realm of the negotiable up to an arena of mutually exclusive absolutes. Those who negate Zionism are declaring war on Israel and the Jewish people. This broad-based assault, combined with the wider-ranging campaign of terror launched in 2000 against all Israelis, explains why the Israeli left has all but collapsed, and the region is so polarized.

Trying to turn the Palestinian-Israeli conflict into a racial conflict, caricatures Israelis as colonialist, imperialist, racist whites, and Palestinians as noble, victimized, oppressed, people of color. But the facts collide with this simplistic propagandistic scenario. The conflict is a national conflict, with some religious overtones. But there are dark-skinned Israelis and light-skinned Palestinians. Moreover, there are no racial or racist laws on Israeli books – unlike the despicable South African apartheid regime with all its racial classifications among blacks, whites and coloreds. Whereas Israel has made heroic efforts to rescue tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews from Africa, all too often, too many Arabs are behind some of the worst racist conflicts in the world, notably Darfur today.

Proof that Zionism is most definitely not racism comes from America’s first African-America president, Barack Obama. During his campaign, Obama explained that when he was in sixth grade he attended a summer camp and learned about Zionism, Israel and the Holocaust from a Jewish counselor. Obama recalled how the counselor “shared with me the idea of retuning to a homeland and what that meant for a people who had suffered from the Holocaust, and he talked about the idea of preserving a culture when a people had been uprooted with the view of eventually returning home. For a young man like Obama, searching for his roots, for his identity, this message resonated. And so, he proclaimed, “my starting point when I think about the Middle East is this enormous emotional attachment and sympathy for Israel, mindful of the hardship and pain and suffering that the Jewish people have undergone, but also mindful of the incredible opportunity that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best tradition and their best selves. And obviously it’s something that has great resonance with the African-American experience.”

President Obama understands that not only is Zionism not racism, not only can the Zionist story inspire African-Americans and displaced people everywhere, but that we all should strive to do what he understand Zionism has done: excavate our best traditions and our best selves.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. giltroy@gmail.com