Framing the right path, tone and content in their sermons about Israel (should they choose it as a topic) during the High Holidays was on many of their minds. There was a session devoted to “Politics and the Pulpit.”
Controversial matters littered plenary and breakout sessions. Among others:
- Prayer access to the Western Wall.
- Another nasty conversion controversy.
- The breach-of-ethics cloud hovering over the Netanyahu family.
- No movement with the Palestinians.
- Israeli intervention to prevent an Iranian proxy presence on Israel’s northern border.
- Millennials distancing themselves from Israel.
- BDS on campus and internationally.
Then, what about Charlottesville, Trump and an inept Congress?
A rabbi shared with me that “anything that one wants to address from the pulpit can be toxic and likely anger-inducing.”
“Maybe,” he continued, “it is just better not to do politics or Israel; stick with the holiday texts. Besides, many might be coming to shul to get away from political controversies of the moment.”
Confessions are in order. Before the symposium, an organizer suggested that I show up with two ideas that might be considered by the rabbis. I argue that Jews should end the occupation and insist that they are pro-choice.
Before you stop reading because you disagree with my titled phrases, please hear me out. My meanings for the titles are different from what you might believe.
For more than four decades in teaching about Israel and the Middle East, it has been my contention that Jews are occupied by what others say about us.
We have as individuals and as a collective often adopted a notion that we are guilty for succeeding in creating a state and that we as a community are solely responsible for what happened to the Palestinians in 1948.
A former Israeli consul general in New York, Ido Aharoni, several years ago said this about the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement: “We engage our detractors based on their claims against us, rather than telling our story.”
My football field analogy is that many times when discussions evolve about Israel or Zionism, we allow others to start the conversation on our 10-yard line rather than on their 10-yard line.
Arab leaders, and Palestinian Arab leaders particularly, made some terribly dreadful choices about managing their relationships with Zionists and Israel all these years. They need to be held accountable for the consequences of those political decisions. They cannot be excused by telling only the story that they want heard and leaving out their culpabilities.
My comment to the rabbis was that if we know our own story, we do not need to get locked into an unending, defensive verbal war against our detractors, arguing every point slung at Jews or Israelis. It is perfectly valid to say that Zionism won. It succeeded in building a state.
Did Zionists or Israelis make mistakes along the way and since? Of course they did. Like any person or country, wrong choices were made.
We should not feel guilty or apologetic for earlier generations that did it the old-fashioned way through perseverance, sacrifice, commitment and even guile.
The only way to feel positive about who we are and what we have accomplished vis-a-vis Zionism is to know how we did it.
BDS should not be boycott, divestment and sanctions; it should be belong, digest and spread.
Why are Jews pro-choice? We chose to believe in one G-d, and we chose to sustain our families and our traditions when confronted by duress. We chose to convert challenges into opportunities. We chose to take destiny into our own hands.
My parents chose to leave Germany to overcome the creeping crud of anti-Semitism before it overwhelmed them. Penniless, they chose to build a new life in America, to raise their kids Jewish, to sustain their identity.
My father wrote in my mahzor a phrase I am sure he did not invent: “Know where you came from, so you know where you are, so you know where you are going.”
We need to teach our story diligently to our children. We need to belong proudly to it because it belongs to us. Happy new year.
Ken Stein is the president of the Center for Israel Education (www.israeled.org), dedicated to teaching Israel’s story.