Thursday, June 10, 2010

The 11th Commandment--Thou Shalt Support Israel

I have been a Jewish Leader for the last 26 years.  This is undisputably true because I have the plaques to prove it. I remember when I first met Thomas Friedman in Israel back then he told me that he never met a Jew in Israel who wasn't a "leader."  He said he had yet to meet a Jewish Follower.

From the very beginning, the organized American Jewish community has been all about supporting Israel.  The United Jewish Appeal and Federations (where I chaired campaigns and will again) have raised hundreds of millions of dollars every year from American Jews who back in the day would often borrow money to give more than they could afford.  Assuring the survival of Israel at a time when that was much more in doubt than it is today was the defining issue and for many it still is.  Israel Bonds (where I chaired the Wisconsin campaign and served on the national board) did and does have the same focus. 

AIPAC (where I served on the Tucson board until I was recently asked to resign) has exploded onto the scene in recent years as an effective booster club and lobbying organization for Israel and is attracting support from Jews and non-Jews alike.

At most Jewish agency gatherings, Hatikva is sung along with the American national anthem.    That custom seems bizarre on its face since virtually all of the audience is American and few know the words to the Israeli national anthem.  I have never understood why EITHER is sung at a fundraiser for a local nursing home or day school but it is yet another sign of how support of Israel is woven into the essence of everything Jewish in this country.

The unwritten commandment to support the Jewish homeland is a good one and, in their own way, most American Jews obey it religiously (or secularly).  That's not the problem.  The challenge is coming up with a shared definition of what it means to support Israel and how to do it.

This is a problem that is common to commandments.  There is a misplaced belief that God gave us a complete guide at Mt. Sinai.  The truth is that most the Ten Commandments are so vague and subject to interpretation that they have raised far more questions than they answered.

The best example is the commandment to honor your father and mother.  It sounds simple.  The commandment is one sentence.  But tens of thousands of pages have been written struggling with how to do it in real life.

This dilemma was clear to the Talmudic rabbis.  In Kiddushin 32a, Rabbi Eliezer deals with the issue of how a son honors a senile father who is about to throw his life savings into the sea in front of the entire community. 

Do you honor your father by not embarrassing him publicly and allowing him to leave himself destitute or do you honor him by grabbing his wallet and lovingly leading him back home--saving his money but causing him to lose face?

Rabbi Eliezer, who was a supporter of Judaism, said you honor your father more by not embarrassing him and letting him throw his money away.  Other rabbis, also supporters of Judaism, disagree strongly.  They felt the father would recover from (and might not even remember) the embarrassment but the consequences of throwing all his money away would cause him physical and emotional distress for the rest of his life. 

Rabbis on both sides of the issue were religious people who wanted to "support" the commandments and do the right thing.  And as with all disputes, there was room in the Talmud for a number of different opinions and approaches. 

There was an understanding back then that seems to be missing today that being part of a religious community or wisdom tradition means finding room at the table for those who seek the same goal but disagree, often strongly, about how to best get there.

I fervently support Israel's right to exist as a Jewish democracy.  I believe Israel has the right to defend itself against its numerous enemies who seek her destruction by any means necessary.  I strongly condemn the fact that Israel is held to a double standard and constantly faces unfair criticism from the UN and foreign countries. 

I also believe that we show our love and support for Israel by pointing out what we believe to be mistakes and bad decisions made by its government in the hope that our voices will lead to clearer thinking and better solutions. 

That's why President Obama was showing support for Israel when he was critical of Prime Minister Netanyayu's decision to cave into that country's worst elements--the political Orthodox and Settler movements--and his decision to expand an Orthodox neighborhood in East Jerusalem with no strategic value at a time where the act could only  be viewed as provocative.

That's why Jeffrey Goldberg was being staunchly pro-Israel when he suggested that the Israeli response to Flotillagate showed a lack of "seichel"--a yiddish term for wisdom.

For going public with this kind of thinking, I was recently asked to resign from our local AIPAC board by a friend and national board member.  He accused me of asking inappropriate questions and writing in a way that made it clear I deserved no respect from the community.  Goldberg and others who care about Israel so much that they air their views regarding how it can be better have suffered from slings and arrows as well.

The American Jewish community is not in crisis but it is facing a number of serious challenges.  Ironically, most of them are the direct result of the successful battles that were fought by our parents to gain us access to every nook and cranny of the American experience, but that's worth its own article.  Israel is facing daunting challenges as well but it too has never been stronger and more accepted as a legitimate country in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

There are obviously people and countries who hate Jews and Israel, but as M.J. Rosenberg points out, the vast majority of the criticism of Flotillagate has not come from those who think Israel shouldn't exist.
It comes from people who support the formation of a Palestinian state in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Israel is often unfairly criticized and is held to an outrageous double standard by the U.N., most of the world media, and the Far Left Wing in the U.S.  As with all injustices, those should be pointed out and criticized by fair-minded people.

But instead of branding those Jews who agree with us as pro-Israel and those who don't as anti-Israel and self-hating Jews, it it time to take a long hard look at what it does and should mean to "support" Israel. 

Are our community organizations and their leaders required to show that support by unquestioningly applauding every action of the current Israeli government?

Does it show support to forward each other hundreds of emails claiming that Israel was 100 percent the victim of Flotillagate and made no bad judgments and did nothing unwise? 

Do we show that support by forwarding emails saying the President of United States has thrown Israel under the bus and has declared was on Israel when he has done neither? 

Do we show that support by sharing videos of Muslim extremists saying hateful things and behaving badly and telling each other that the Israeli government can't be expected to talk with these horrible people?

I don't claim to have those answers but I do know that we need to have a conversation.  The essence of Judaism has always been about having conversations.  We need to return to the Talmudic model outlined by my hero Shimon Ben Zoma who described one who is truly wise as "he who learns from all people."

Jewish leaders may not agree with Peter Beinart's important recent article describing how a persistent move to Right Wing intransigence by many Jewish organizations is causing widespread alientation of younger Jews and leading to the gradual disappearance of liberal Zionism, but they ignore it to the detriment of the organizations they lead and the causes they claim to support.

I became passionate about Judasim more than 20 years ago when I discovered the brilliance and relevance of our wisdom tradition.  To the extent that the American Jewish leadership is throwing out that pluralistic model and stifling the conversations that are essential to meeting our challenges, they are guaranteeing a sad legacy. 

To mean well is not always to do well.  The mark of true leadership is knowing the difference.


Norwegian Shooter said...

I was asked to step down from a HS sports team I coached, and that was traumatic. I can't imagine how being asked to resign from your local AIPAC board would be like. You show great restraint and wisdom in writing here so clearly and without malice.

While I am completely secular myself, I can admire the wisdom tradition - emphasis on tradition - of Judaism. The tradition part automatically incorporates dialogue and constant updating. That's the way it should be.

Just a suggestion, Arizona doesn't have a J Street chapter yet. In any case, thanks for writing.

Larry Gellman said...

Thanks Shooter. My personal concerns about being asked to leave AIPAC relates not so much to my personal angst as it does to what the mindset says about the attitude of many "pro-Israel" American Jews. The strength of Judaism has always been its openness to all ideas and points of view that are offered up in good faith. If we are losing that, in a sense we are losing everything that makes us different and special.

Thanks for your thoughts