Saturday, June 12, 2010

Qorah 5770 - Standing with Israel Now

(Originally delivered on June 12, 2010.)

A story is told of the Texan who visits Israel, and is underwhelmed by the size of a kibbutz. "Let me tell you something, my friend," he says to his Israeli host. "On my ranch back in Texas, I can get in my car at dawn, start driving west, and not reach the end of the property before sundown."

"Oh," says the Israeli. "I used to have a car like that."

This is a perspective on the Israeli character that is best appreciated if you have been to Israel and are familiar with the land and its people. There are plenty of other perspectives regarding Israel, and some that have come to the fore in the past few weeks are especially troubling.

I confess to being a zealous Israel-phile and supporter of the Jewish state. Many of you know that I travel there about twice yearly (more if I can get away with it), and not just because my older son lives there. I love the state of Israel - the land, the people, the culture, the cities, the food, the climate; I love hiking the varied terrain of Israel; I love resonating with the holy sites and the archaeological wonders; I admire the entrepreneurial spirit; I embrace the prickly outside and the sweet inside of the Israeli persona. If I were an engineer and not a Conservative rabbi, I might be living there now. (One irony of the Jewish state: no work for Conservative rabbis or cantors.)

But more than all of that, I know that we need Israel - not the land, mind you, but the political entity. There are good, solid reasons for there to be a place that the Jewish people can call home, good reasons why Brooklyn is not the Promised Land. Some of these reasons are theological, but some have more to do with the words of Hatikva, Israel's national anthem: Lihyot am hofshi be-artzeinu - to be a free people in our own land.

Occasionally, it helps to remember that we live in diaspora, in somebody else's land. The events of the past couple of weeks have reminded me that threats are looming. Some of my colleagues and others in the pro-Israel camp tend to highlight threats, and I am often suspicious of their motives, and therefore suspect the validity of the threats. After all, fear is a strong motivator; it causes people to, among other things, write checks and call their representatives.

And yet, I am surely beginning to see a confluence of existential threats, and a kind of alarm has begun to sound in my head. I have watched these events unfold in horror and disappointment and frustration.

So you can probably guess at least two of the three items that I am about to mention:

1. Mavi Marmara
2. Helen Thomas
3. Peter Beinart

1. I am certain that do not need to describe the first item to you - this has been widely reported for the past two weeks. I must say that when I first heard the news headline (Israeli commandos shot and killed 9 "peace activists"), I was shocked; as more information filtered out, the case appeared far more complex than the initial headlines let on. No matter, of course; the damage was done. Just as the world still associates the name of the northern West Bank city Jenin with "massacre," and the name Mohammed al-Dura with the photograph of the Palestinian boy cowering with his father in the line of Israeli fire, even though both of these stories have been debunked, "Mavi Marmara" will heretofore always suggest, "Israel killed innocent civilians."

Never mind that this was clearly an attempt to provoke Israel to violence and more bad PR. Never mind that the activists were members of a Turkish fringe Islamist group that has been linked to Al Qaeda. Never mind that one of them radioed the provocative statement, "Shut up! Go back to Auschwitz" to Israeli naval authorities. In the court of world opinion, Israel loses again.

There will surely be more of these flotilla operations, and Israel will most likely respond in the same way. So that is the first item.

2. Ms. Helen Thomas, the so-called "Dean of the White House Press Corps," self-destructed this week when video footage surfaced of her saying that the Jews should "Get the hell out of Palestine," and furthermore that they should "go back to Poland and Germany." (If you have not seen this, you really should. It's truly, incomprehensibly awful.) Ms. Thomas is 89, and was (until this week) still working for the Hearst news corporation in the White House; she has been doing that since the Kennedy administration, and was the only member of the White House Press Corps who had a chair with her name on it (rather than the name of her news organization).

As painful as it was to watch her destroy her remarkable life (she was a groundbreaking reporter for a number of reasons, known for her red dress and incisive tongue), the real pain is the evidence that she brought to light regarding the relationship between some journalists and Israel. While there are many in the pro-Israel camp who have accused some media outlets of anti-Israel bias, that was not something that I was ready to embrace until this week. To be sure, there are many folks out there right now, smugly reciting, "I told you so."

It is, of course, unfair to paint journalists with one brush, and I am not cancelling my subscription to the New York Times. However, there were only a few news organizations, that had picked up this story late last week, and it did not appear in the Times, generally recognized as the American paper of record, until Tuesday, the day after she resigned. It makes one wonder about the following possibilities:
(a) Did the Times (which has a significant Jewish readership) not deem this story newsworthy? or
(b) Were they trying to downplay anti-Israel bias among journalists?

How many other Helen Thomases are there out there, among the ranks of journalists, authors, teachers, TV producers, and so forth? How many others might, when they let down their guard, say such hateful things? Maybe I'd rather not know the answer to that. So that's the second item.

3. The third item is the article that appeared a couple of weeks ago in the New York Review of Books by Jewish-American author Peter Beinart, which Rabbi Stecker mentioned in this space last week. In the article, entitled, "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment," Beinart argues that major Jewish organizations in America are losing touch with the majority of younger American Jews over their Israel stance. Liberal Zionism, he claims, is slowly dying, while the children of secular zionists find it outrageous that their parents' generation does not see Israel's faults.

Perhaps more troubling, says Beinart, is the phenomenon of non-Orthodox Jews gradually disengaging from Israel. A physical manifestation of this is the observation that some have made in the Jewish Week regarding the Salute to Israel parade, which many of us attended three weeks ago. He says,

"[A study by the American Jewish Committee] found that while only 16 percent of non-Orthodox adult Jews under the age of forty feel “very close to Israel,” among the Orthodox the figure is 79 percent. As secular Jews drift away from America’s Zionist institutions, their Orthodox counterparts will likely step into the breach." The result may be, says Beinart, that soon enough, the only ones supporting Israel are the Orthodox. While one of our congregants has written a letter to the editor of the Jewish Week to point out that Temple Israel sent 170 members to the parade (look for it in next week's issue), the prevailing sentiment is that the majority of parade marchers were Orthodox, and I must confess that this has been my impression for a number of years.

Beinart also points out that this is part of a wider phenomenon - it is not merely disengagement from Israel but a general withdrawal from Jewish communal issues that plagues the non-Orthodox majority. We just do not seem to care as much about anything.

There have been no shortage of eloquent responses to Beinart's accusations. But I can tell you that from my perspective, he is right on. My siblings and peers are far less committed to Israel than our parents; their children will, most likely be even less so. So there is item three.

I am going to add one more to this list of threats, not because it is something that happened recently, but because I am hearing this organization's name pop up more and more frequently:

4. The Global BDS Movement

Boycott, divestment, sanctions.

This group seems to be the most successful in broadcasting a message that makes me squirm - that of isolation of and delegitimization of Israel.
Among other things, they say Israel's occupation of the West Bank meets the very definition of apartheid - that the law applies differently to different people.
They say the residents of Gaza are suffering.
They say the blockade against Gaza has accomplished nothing.

I do not have the time to argue these points individually, but there is always another side, and you get the picture.

Now it might be tempting to paint this group as a bunch of anti-Semites. In actuality, there are many Jews who support this idea. (Maybe some of you heard about the octogenarian Jewish Holocaust survivor Greta Berlin, founder of the Free Gaza movement and coordinator of the recent flotilla.) Their goal, however, is to continually hammer home the idea that Israel is illegitimate and deserves to be isolated from the rest of the world. And that message is now being broadcast far and wide.

These four threats call to mind the experience of Qorah in today's parashah. Qorah is a threat to the stability of Benei Yisrael; he accuses Moses and Aaron of taken advantage of their positions. (Num. 16:3) "Umadua titnase-u al qehal adonai" - Why do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?" says Qorah.

Sometimes, threats are real, says the Torah. God evidently sees Qorah and his 250 followers as a true threat to the Mosaic hegemony; Ibn Ezra explains that the followers are piling on grievance - they are an assortment of grumblers and malcontents. The end of the episode seems, to our modern sensibilities, cruel - Qorah and his faction are swallowed up by the Earth, they go down to Sheol, and all is well and good again.

These existential threats to Israel, the external and the internal (i.e. within the Jewish community), seem to be multiplying, something like the Qorah rebellion. Unlike Moses, however, we cannot expect the earth to open up and swallow those advocating delegitimization. (And frankly, if that happened, I would be pretty freaked out.)

So how do we respond?

These threats must be countered. We at Temple Israel (and throughout American Jewry) need to work harder to promote Israel in our community and elsewhere. We need to go there.

To that end, one of the things that I will be doing in the coming year as the interim Director of the Youth House is leading a trip there with our teenagers during the February vacation. My intent is to raise enough money to subsidize Youth House members such that the price comes down from about $2700 to about $1500 for a nine-day trip. If we participate as a community, we can easily do this, and it will be a fantastic community-building and consciousness-raising experience for all involved.

Also, Rabbi Stecker and Cantor Frieder and I will soon be unveiling plans for a congregational trip to Israel, probably in August of 2011. This will be an opportunity for families to travel together and learn about and understand Israel as the multigenerational community that we are. Watch for that, and join us.

In addition to going there, we also need to invest our time and our money in pro-Israel activism here. Seek out organizations that suit you, and support them however you can (e.g. State of Israel Bonds dinner on Tuesday night; we will have a congregational trip to the AIPAC Policy Conference next May; then there's the Parade as well). But the worst thing that we can all do is to be silent, to be apathetic. You all understand the need for the continued existence of the State of Israel. Now is the time to stand up for her.


  1. Hedy Epstein is the octogenarian Holocaust survivor, not Greta Berlin.

    No, I don't get the picture. You should take the time to argue the points, or why even mention it? While you're at it, feel free to argue (or answer) these 81 questions: (Who is afraid of a real flotilla inquiry? - Uri Avnery)

    Perhaps your money would be better spent taking YH members to the Gaza Strip so the can see the truth for themselves.

  2. The "questions" in the link posted above are mostly not questions at all, but reckless editorial statements. For example, nobody with credibility is calling the flotilla activists "terrorists." And the "Go back to Auschwitz" recording is available on the IDF website.

    Meanwhile, here is a question for you: Why has Hamas prevented the humanitarian aid brought by the flotilla from entering Gaza for two weeks now?