Editor’s Note: This essay is based on the keynote address delivered at the virtual graduation program of the Write On For Israel Class of 2020 last month. Write On, an educational project of The Jewish Week, is a two-year program for a select group of high school juniors and seniors, preparing them for the Mideast conflict on campus. The deadline for applications to the program for incoming juniors (the Class of 2022) has been extended to Aug. 21. Go here for details.
In the Haftorah portion for Va’etchanan, the prophet Isaiah gives us a strong charge that feels entirely relevant for your launch and for the optimism you inspire in all of us.
In verse 1:11, Isaiah recounts God giving the people Israel some tough love, saying essentially: I don’t need your intricate rituals of worship —all the rules about animal sacrifice, proper slaughter, incense and fire. What I want from you is compassion. Action. God is saying, in a way that’s bracing in its bluntness: devotion without deeds is empty. How you pray matters less than what you do. Enough with words; show me results.
The verse reads: “What need have I of all your sacrifices?” Says the LORD. “I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, and blood of bulls; And I have no delight in lambs and he-goats…Bringing oblations [offerings to God] is futile. Incense is offensive to Me.”
And then God makes clear the real benchmarks of a pious, worthy Jewish life: “Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.”
The orphan and the widow are obviously symbols of the vulnerable; Isaiah reminds us that the measure of our character is how we help the person in trouble. I’m sure your parents, rabbis and teachers have expected and modeled that kind of empathy: our people must not stand idly by while those whom we could possibly rescue are suffering.
The Jewish state today, thank heavens, is not in need of rescue. But it is buffeted by attacks from all sides — by rhetoric, not rockets — and it’s sometimes difficult to separate loving criticism from insidious calumny. Which is where you all come in. Choosing to learn and write deeply about Israel, to become its translators and storytellers, can feel like volunteering to face the firing squad. But we need your courage now.
And that is why these verses in Isaiah feel so apt for all of you who have committed your time to this wonderful program, Write On For Israel. Because Isaiah’s words mirror exactly what you’ve already demonstrated: the difference between professing to care about Israel’s history and actually taking the time to study it. The difference between holding up the Jewish state as miraculous, thriving, and innovative, while holding it accountable to its democratic and Zionist ideals. The difference between recognizing the continued need for a refuge and the fact there is another people with deep connections to the same land. It’s the difference that the Prophet’s verse delineates: between worship and action.
You all are doing the work, and I will never tell you that it’s easy. In fact, it is so high-stakes, so politicized that though I’ve been a journalist writing about Jewish topics for over two decades, I’ve never had the mettle to try.
The quality I so love in my Jewish family — both biological and communal — is the same quality that makes your task challenging: Jews argue because we care. But we don’t always listen respectfully when it comes to Israel. It’s dispiriting to watch the ways in which some debate with intolerance and excommunication; you’re either with us or against us.
Write On insists not just upon civility, but responsibility: Its program asks students to look at the true blessings and blights of this unlikely, tiny powerhouse of a nation which we fiercely cherish. It exhorts young people like you to be just as fair and clear-eyed about Israel as you are when asked to digest and defend America. Don’t let the shouters on either side cloud your judgment. What do you see?
You’re already doing the work that Isaiah demands — by taking a deep dive into Israel’s lifetime of adversity, ingenuity, disunity, controversy and resilience. You’re learning not just to understand the country, but to become its newest writers — without whitewashing its complexities or minimizing its contributions to the world.
When I consider the commitment you’ve made — first choosing to apply to this competitive program, then being willing to engage the hardest questions around homeland, history, democracy, peoplehood, persecution, pride and peace — I honestly feel hopeful in a way I haven’t been in a long time.
You are already finding ways to make the stakes real and the fault lines instructive; you are already grasping that Israeli identity is not monolithic, that Jews can be multicultural— Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Russian, Ethiopian, secular and ultra-Orthodox, gay and straight, white and black, liberal and conservative. How does our perspective deepen and change when we take the time to hear myriad opinions, when we consult primary sources — for the Peel Commission, the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars, both intifadas, Camp David, The Oslo Accords, Operation Protective Edge — you know the list. How much wiser and braver are your pens when you refuse and refute political purity tests and make up your own minds?
The world doesn’t need any more extremists or uninformed pontificators. We do need you: measured, thoughtful, patient, passionate, new voices, who don’t shy away from nuance or dueling narratives, who don’t fold when simplistic summations are leveled —from any direction — against a nation many still want to see disappear.
It’s not a cliche when adults say that you are our future. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s your turn, that this tricky, rich territory is yours to reinvent, re-chart, and report for so many others who don’t understand Israel’s story or why it matters. When you get to college — either on campus or virtually — you will truly have the capability, thanks, in large part, to your Write On experience, to strengthen and deepen the Israel conversation in ways that are sorely overdue.
A later Isaiah verse offers words that resonate:
“And a child shall lead them.” (11:6)
I realize you are not children any more, but I also know you’re prepared to see isaiah’s prophecy as a call to action— not a burden, but a badge. We’re counting on you to speak for us. Write for us. Fight for us. And we could not be in better hands.
Mazal tov, Class of 2020.
Abigail Pogrebin is a journalist and author, whose most recent book is “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew.”