Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Does Elie Wiesel Deserve the Benefit of the Doubt? One Nobel Laureate Speaks to Another

Elie Wiesel is an optimist, and an optimist who survived the Holocaust is someone to whom we must attend. And so it is with sensitivity and care that we must read his recent plea (his full page ad in major newspapers in April 2010) to defer discussions on the future status of Jerusalem.

The ad that appeared in the New York Times is not addressed to any particular party, though many have (correctly, I think!) inferred that it is directed against the Obama administration, and that it refers to its current diplomatic dispute with Israel.

But what if his message was addressed to Israel and its leaders?

This is what Wiesel writes:

“What is the solution? Pressure will not produce a solution. Is there a solution? There must be, there will be. Why tackle the most complex and sensitive problem prematurely? Why not first take steps that will allow the Israeli and Palestinian communities to find ways to live together in an atmosphere of security. Why not leave the most difficult, the most sensitive issue, for such a time?”

Readers should presume that Mr. Wiesel’s reference to “pressure” connects to the insistence of President Obama that Israel halt construction in disputed areas of the West Bank, including parts of east Jerusalem.

But what if Mr. Wiesel’s message was intended not for Mr. Obama but rather for Mr. Netanyahu and his government?! What if we read Mr. Wiesel’s words as a call to Israel to halt their planning, declaring, permitting and constructing, because those are actions that do not “allow the Israeli and Palestinian communities to find ways to live together in an atmosphere of security”? What if Elie Wiesel here criticizes the entirety of Israel’s settlement expansion in Jerusalem as detrimental to an “atmosphere of security?”

We do not know what Mr. Wiesel intends. We must presume, of course, that the totality of his comments were, indeed, aimed at the Obama administration, and that they assert the ancient prejudices, biases, and fears of an Israelite nation relying on the Hebrew bible for their validity and force. But I am a dreamer, and I would hope that a Nobel peace laureate would search for truly peaceful solutions even when it is most difficult. I would hope that one Nobel peace laureate would make the same assumptions about another.

Mr. Wiesel asserts earlier that “Jerusalem is above politics,” and concludes his ad with the hope that Jerusalem “remain the world’s Jewish spiritual capital.” This is certainly my hope as well. But I wonder whether we can ever learn to share this spiritual treasure with those who similarly view Jerusalem with the same love and passion as Mr. Wiesel.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

For Jerusalem's Sake We Should Not Keep Still

This post is a sermon authored by Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, delivered at Temple Beth El, San Antonio, Texas, March 19, 2010; and Rabbi Jonathan Biatch, delivered at Temple Beth El, Madison, Wisconsin, March 26, 2010.

The American Jewish community today confronts a question of true significance, and that is about the nature of the relationship between the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities.

This question arises perennially, and no one ever seems able to solve it. Yet today, the disagreement over the answer to this question has recently engendered vehement and violent reaction from Jews in both the US and in Israel. We disagree about whether there can or should be diverse voices presented to Washington legislators on matters concerning Israel and the Middle East. They have differing opinions about the stake that Diaspora Jews have in affairs in Israel.

But in most cases, I believe all these voices are realistically concerned for Israel as a nation and as a force for good in the world.

(True, there is the voice of the self-hating Jew or the Jew almost exclusively focused on Palestinian issues to the exclusion of Israeli security. I believe that many of these voices set themselves outside of the community, and this piece is not about them.)

The proliferation of American Jewish voices on this topic, heard through the Internet and through a vast array of membership organizations, has caused us great angst. And angst can lead to frustration, and frustration can lead to violence, either overt or, more likely, recriminations and violent invective hurled back and forth in the media.

What should be our stance with regard to speaking out about Israel if we live in the Diaspora?

Many of us are sometimes unsure even if we have a right to react at all. We seriously question whether it is our place to express our opinions to the government in Israel. And as Jews living in the United States, we also question the wisdom of speaking out publicly if we disagree with some of Israel’s actions. We don’t want to be seen airing our dirty laundry in public, nor do we want to do anything to undermine Israel’s relationship with the US or to upset the support most non-Jewish Americans feel toward Israel.

Further, within the American Jewish community, dissent is often fraught with difficulties. It can be frightening to express aloud any criticism or disagreement with anything the Israeli government does. To do so risks being labeled anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, or even a self-hating Jew. Rabbis I know have been publicly vilified or, worse, have had their jobs threatened.

Even though as Americans we understand it is both our privilege and our duty to express any disagreements we might have with our own government – and we celebrate our right as citizens to express our opinions to our elected officials – when it comes to Israel, any dissent is often portrayed as disloyalty.

Is it possible, therefore, to disagree with the policies and actions of the Israeli government, while still loving and supporting the State of Israel?

I believe the answer to all of these questions is “Yes!” There is a saying in Hebrew – kol yisrael mitarev zeh b’zeh – “all of Israel is intertwined, one with the other”. What this means is that each Jew is connected to every other Jew in the world; our destinies are tied to one another. We American Jews may not live in Israel, but we are affected by what happens there, and while we cannot dictate to our Israeli brothers and sisters what they should do, we are and should feel entirely within our rights to express our opinions and offer our advice.

One may ask then, “Is it wise for there to be a multiplicity of voices of American Jews addressing our legislators on these questions?”

Let’s look at one particular new voice in the mix.

The arrival of J Street has been particularly difficult for some AIPAC members to accept. J Street’s founders believed that the previous structure of Jewish organizations that lobbied Congress and the Administration on Israel-related matters did not adequately represent the majority of American Jews. They felt that they were being either disregarded or, worse, misrepresented in the discussions regarding peace in the Middle East.

And since many of them believed that, because of their love for the state of Israel that their voices needed to be heard, they felt it was appropriate to find the funding – and the backing of American Jewish leaders – who would spearhead their efforts.

What about the fear some of us feel about expressing any disagreement with Israel? Is it disloyal, anti-Israel, or self-hating, if there are times when we disagree with some action or policy of the Israeli government?

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, had this to say on the subject:

“Israel needs our help … and this means hearing our criticisms. Unconditional support is not the same as uncritical support. We love the Jewish state, but we must hold firm to our vision of a Jewish, democratic, and pluralistic Israel. We cannot accept settlement in the heart of the West Bank, where a Palestinian state must one day arise … We will always reach for the highest ideals of the Zionist dream, seeking justice for all of Israel’s citizens and for her neighbors as well.”

And it is important to express these viewpoints, simultaneously, if necessary: support for Israel’s very real need for security and the right to defend herself when she is attacked; and disagreement when her actions seem to threaten that security or when she fails to live up to the ideals we all hold dear.

So, to a specific issue:

“Hasn’t the current diplomatic flap about the construction of 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem been exacerbated by the support of progressive Jewish organizations for the position and actions of the Obama administration?”

Each one of us may speculate as to the answer to this question, and we may never have an answer that is completely free from ambiguity.

According to Tom Friedman of the New York Times, the announcement to build those units came from the Israeli Interior Minister who, disregarding the international consequences of his actions, fulfilled – if you will forgive me – a ‘pork barrel’ promise made to ultra-Orthodox Jews in that neighborhood. And instead of clamping down on an uncooperative cabinet minister, the Prime Minister used the occasion to assert the sovereignty of Israel over Jerusalem.

Was Prime Minister Netanyahu legally justified in his pronouncement? Yes. There is no requirement in international law that any nation that has won territory in combat be required to return that territory to a previous owner.

But I think a more subtle question needs to be addressed: Was it wise, given the then-current state of negotiations between Israel, the United States, and the Palestinian Authority on their proximity talks, was it wise for Prime Minister Netanyahu to react in the way he did?

That is a question that we can debate – and we should.

And finally a question particularly germane to those who love Israel and yet have differing views as to the way in which Diaspora Jews should be engaged in these matters: “Is a multiplicity of Jewish voices in Washington, especially when they differ so widely regarding the Middle East peace process, good or bad for the Jews?”

An article I read recently asserts that the activities of J Street have not only confused lawmakers and administration officials. The author, a rabbinic colleague who works in Iowa, asserts that “The J Street perspective on Israel is now driving the Obama Administration's policy toward Israel.”

I believe that this overstates J Street’s, or any organization’s, real influence on these matters. J Street is simply too young and inexperienced to have that kind of power. If J Street’s perspective is the same as the current administration, this is simply because that organization and the administration just happen to understand those issues in similar ways.

In Internet appearances and in written columns, Alan Dershowitz makes impassioned pleas for our American Jewish community to speak with one voice when it comes to lobbying Congress or when speaking to the media. He believes it’s confusing if law- and policy-makers hear diverse views from their Jewish constituents.

But every congressperson knows, if they take the time to read polling data, that the American Jewish community holds varying opinions on these issues. This is a secret to no one. It was not a secret to previous administrations that staunch supporters of Israel supported with dollars and votes; it is not a secret to President Obama and his advisors; it is not a secret to the majority of American Jews. There is no reason to pretend that the American Jewish community is less diverse than it is.

There is a way to bring our opinions about Israel and the situation in the Middle East into the public arena, even when we hear diversity in those views: Our language of criticism needs to be accompanied by unqualified support for the Jewish state even though her actions at any given time may upset us. We need to be unequivocal about our support even when voicing concern.

Also remember this: American support for Israel runs very deep, and is based on many geo-political and religious realities. I believe that stories of the influence of the Jewish lobby are exaggerated and mythic, and any expression of disagreement with Israel’s policies would in no way threaten America’s alliance with Israel.

I believe that discussion is good; transparent debate is healthy; and resolving disagreements help us to struggle with the issues and diverse ideas, and then to hone in on what we ourselves truly believe.

The more we accept and welcome a variety of views, and permit different voices to enter the discussion, the stronger and healthier our community becomes. From the synthesis of ideas there may even come a clearer – and practical – solution.

We have just concluded our observance of Passover, a time when we ended our Seders with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem, next year may all be free!” For next year, let us add, “May all be at peace, in Israel and in all the world."