Sunday, September 20, 2009


This weekend, for the first time, I experienced a thrill that few Jewish men ever get to experience – I saw a member of my family co-lead High Holiday services. Traditionally, the job of co-leader would be assigned to a rabbi or a cantor. And that would be filled by a man. Today, though, it wasn’t filled by a man … or for that matter a woman (if you’re not old enough to buy alcohol, can you really be called a woman?). The family member I’m referring to is my 19 year-old daughter, Hannah, and the venue was the University of Maryland Hillel’s Reform Jewish services. If you want to know what it means to “kvell,” think about what it would feel like to watch your daughter conduct a Rosh Hashanah service in front of dozens of adults and college students. Do you really need to look that word up? I was kvelling so much, in fact, that it was hard to pray. Under the circumstances, I’ll take the tradeoff.

Anyway, after Rosh Hashanah services were over today, I walked up to Hannah, and like a typical meddlesome father, offered some advice before she and her friend return to lead Yom Kippur services next weekend. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year. Known as the Day of Atonement, it is a time when Jews spend the day in shul taking stock of their sins from the previous year and praying for forgiveness. Notably, while Yom Kippur prayer books include a litany of sins for which we must atone, the prayers are written in the first person plural. We come to God not so much as individuals, but as a community. For example, we pray “for the wrong WE did before You under coercion or of our own free will … for the wrong WE did before You by hardening our hearts … for the wrong WE did before You unintentionally … for the wrong WE did before You through idle talk and meaningless resolutions, ” etc.

A synagogue isn’t supposed to be a place where self-centered individuals have a moment with their “best friend” (themselves) and their God. Rather, it is designed to provide a communal setting where we remind each other that, metaphorically, we were all present at Sinai, not merely our ancestors. And we all take with us the full set of responsibilities and privileges that arise from witnessing such a transcendent event.

My advice today to Hannah was inspired in part by the room at the U of MD Hillel where her services were held. On the wall at the front of the room were a series of sayings from various Jewish luminaries on a range of topics, including freedom of thought, love, friendship, and human frailty. On the wall at the back of the room were another series of additional sayings from various Jewish luminaries …. but these sayings all involved a single topic. It may well be the topic that, during recent decades, has best united both “religious” and “cultural” Jews, as well as Jews from all branches of the faith. I am referring to the State of Israel.

While I don’t remember my exact words, they went something like this. “So Hannah, obviously this would have to be very delicately handled. But it might be nice if you could say something on Yom Kippur about the situation in Gaza. We’re supposed to be atoning in the first person plural, and I don’t remember anything the Jewish community has done in my lifetime that is more atonement-worthy than the way we’ve treated the Palestinians in Gaza.”

Hannah said that she’d think about the advice, and I left it at that. Frankly, though, no sooner did I finish my thought than I started wondering if the advice was even sound. The words rang true to me; that wasn’t the problem. Some might point out that we in America are not responsible for what the Jews of Israel have done to Palestinians, but I beg to differ – the politically-powerful American Jewish lobby has played a vital role in solidifying and emboldening Israel since its inception. We can’t claim part of the credit for Israel’s power without taking some of the blame for its transgressions.

Still, it wasn’t the truth of what I told Hannah that bothered me. It was the lack of judgment underlying my words. Stated simply, there has been so much Israel-bashing within the American Jewish community lately – or at least among my fellow progressive Jews -- that I’m not sure anyone needs to hear more during the High Holidays. In other words, rather than feeling even more guilty about what Israel has done and continues to do to its neighbors, it might be best to table all the Israel-talk for another day … a day not of atonement but of celebration. Rather than atoning for Israel’s past (and present) “sins,” I choose to celebrate its reason for existing and its prospects for forging a lasting Middle East peace as long as we work with our Palestinian cousins to make that happen. Am I being idealistic? Perhaps. But then again, idealism has always been very Jewish.

To a degree, of course, Israel-bashing is nothing new among American Jewish progressives. Ever since Israel started building settlements beyond its pre-67 borders, progressive Jews have castigated the Israeli leadership, referring to their settlements as “obstructions to peace.” This past several months, however, the criticism has taken an even more fundamental turn. Now, American Jews have begun to question not only the conduct of the Zionist state, but Zionism itself. Increasingly, Zionism has come to be associated with the way it has been implemented in practice, rather than with the hard-to-argue-with theory that the Jews deserve autonomy and self-determination like everyone else. It has become more and more common for Jews to suggest that it might be inherent in the principle of Zionism that the Jewish people seek to consolidate and even expand their power, and if any other tribe should get in their way, they will just have to suffer the same consequences that, for example, the American Indians suffered when the European colonists consolidated their own power in North America.

You could almost compare what is happening with the situation several decades back when Stalin’s tyranny was finally internationally exposed. Before that point, socialism was commonly viewed among progressive Jews as a theoretical ideal – an attempt to realize the beautiful, egalitarian principle, “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” Once Stalin’s abuses became accepted as fact, however, progressive Jews could no longer view socialism as a mere theory. It became de rigueur to view socialism as it has existed IN PRACTICE – and that became associated with totalitarianism, which is every Jew’s worst nightmare.

If, however, totalitarianism is our worst nightmare, imperialism is a close second. In the past, with a few exceptions (such as the empire of Napoleon), the Hebrew people haven’t fared too well at the hands of imperialists. Now, perhaps for the first time, progressive American Jews are beginning to wonder if Zionism isn’t merely another name for Jewish imperialism, in practice if not in theory. We see so many of our more conservative tribesmen speak as if they accept that Israel’s fate is to be perpetually at war, and what’s worse, we hear in their voices that they are not totally devastated by such a prospect, since our people have the upper hand.

Militarily, we might indeed have the upper hand. But morally, whether or not we can claim a superior position now, we won’t be able to for long. At some point soon, unless the Israeli Government reaches out to support a viable Palestinian state, we’ll be forced to recognize that the primary function of the Israeli Defense Forces is not to defend a nation but to oppress its neighbors. Some enjoy debating whether we’ve reached that point already. For me, I’d rather ignore that question and focus instead on what can be done going forward to bring about peace.

As a Jew, I am a natural questioner, or if you prefer, a “person of doubt.” I’ll admit that maybe, just maybe, the cynics are right. Maybe there is something inherently untenable about one tribe grabbing a foothold in a highly-populated and diverse area and claiming hegemony for themselves. Maybe, in the case of the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel, my people had its chance to make this work before we started building the controversial settlements, but the last four decades have ruined that chance, as Zionism has increasingly come to be associated among Israel’s neighbors with racism, imperialism and oppression. Maybe those of my progressive Jewish friends who have given up their support of Zionism are correct, and the “two-state” solution we should be supporting is one in which, in a few decades, we might have no primarily-Jewish state in the Middle East, and what is known as “Israel” would become the kind of melting pot that we have here in the good old US of A.

Maybe, but I’m not buying it. I still stand squarely behind the idea of Zionism. I stand for the notion that the Jews are a nation as deserving of their homeland as any other. I stand for recognizing that one of the overarching lessons of history is that whenever Jews have been in the minority, we have ultimately been denied equal rights (including, if less dramatically than in other places, here in America). I stand for the position that, but for imperialism and tyranny, the Jewish people would still be in control of the Land of Israel; we never voluntarily gave up that land or our claim to at least a share of it. And I stand for the proposition that whenever Jews have been granted some measure of autonomy, many have been able to accomplish great humanitarian feats. All of these principles suggest that we must continue passionately to support the existence of a Jewish state in the one and only one region where that state is feasible; namely, in the land of Zion. Besides, whether we do so or not, enough Jews will demand it that the anti-Zionists might as well deal with the “realities on the ground.”

I am happy to entertain arguments about the appropriate size of the Jewish state. I am happy to discuss the notion of sharing Jerusalem, even the holiest areas of Jerusalem. But when it comes to questioning the principle of Zionism itself … that, to me, is when I become like Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevya when he was asked to bless the marriage of his third daughter. Previously, we would see Tevya act like Hamlet. “On the one hand …” he used to say, “but on the other hand …” Yet when it came to the request of Chava to marry a gentile, Tevya thought about it and then shook his head, defiantly, before yelling “There is no other hand!”

If Hannah wants to marry a gentile, I will give her my blessing. But if she (or any other community leader) wants to stand up in front of scores of Jews and decry the principle of Zionism or the need for a Jewish state … I would credit her for courage, just not for judgment or wisdom.

So, this Jewish New Year, as you reflect on the Gaza War and its aftermath, please remember the cyclical nature of political changes within every democracy. This past year has been one where Israel has moved sharply to the right. But there will be a time when Israel is ripe for peace and compromise. And maybe that time could even come when a diplomatic genius like Obama is in the White House. I certainly haven’t given up on a Middle East Peace plan that would allow a viable Jewish state to exist alongside a viable Palestinian state. Don’t you give up either. In upcoming blog-posts, I’ll let you in on ways that we all can work together to make this holiest of dreams a reality.

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