Liberal Rabbi: BJ Colleagues Gave The Wrong Message

Liberal Rabbi: BJ Colleagues Gave The Wrong Message

Here is my message to my colleagues, the rabbis of B’nai Jeshurun:

I read with dismay your letter about the United Nations vote upgrading the Palestinian status to observer state, and your subsequent letter expressing regret for the feelings of alienation that it caused, but affirming the essence of your original message.

Some of the criticism directed towards you is unfair. We can be critics of Israel and lovers of Israel at the same time; it is often critics who express the greatest love. Furthermore, you are right that the pulpit must be the place where moral issues are discussed.  We have a responsibility to express our views publicly, honestly and forcefully.

However, I do not agree with some of your admirers that your letter demonstrated unusual courage. Nowadays it is not courageous to criticize Israel in the liberal and progressive circles in which we travel. It has become normative to criticize Israel in these circles — sometimes fairly, but often unfairly and immorally. In fact, it takes courage to face down these critics and their increasingly self-righteous moralizing.

You write: “The vote at the UN is a great moment for us as citizens of the world.” You are wrong. It was a bad moment for us. It damaged the cause of peace that we so desperately pursue. It violates every agreement that the Palestinian Authority made with Israel since Oslo. It generated an immediate and predictable (and unwise) Israeli response to build more settlements — the very thing you say you are against. It encouraged the Palestinian community to avoid the hard decisions that are necessary to achieve peace. It did not, in fact, create a state of Palestine. It further deluded many Palestinians, who took to the streets in celebration, thinking that their lives would somehow change the day after the vote.

You couldn’t even bring yourselves in your letter to cast responsibility for the recent conflict where it belongs: on Hamas, an anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Semitic terrorist organization that seeks to inflict indiscriminate death on innocent Israelis. You wrote: “…in the light of the violence this past month in Gaza and Israel…” as if somehow this mysterious violence just appeared, and implying that both parties to the violence were equally at fault.     

The UN vote and your letter encouraged a perception common in our liberal and progressive circles that Israel bears the primary responsibility for the deadlock when, in fact, it is the Palestinians who still refuse to even come to the bargaining table. It is the Palestinians who rejected at least three comprehensive peace offers extended by liberal Israeli governments. There is a reason that they have rejected every Israeli peace initiative: They cannot or will not agree to the concessions that will be necessary to address even the minimal Israeli political and security needs.

But even these critiques are not my main concern. Reasonable people can differ on these points, and in any case, we rabbis are not specialists in diplomacy and international relations.

My primary worry is that we are losing our people: liberal Jews who are so confused and are in such despair about this seemingly never-ending conflict that they are simply walking away as if to say “a plague on all your houses.”

We are not only citizens of the world, as you write. We are also leaders of the Jewish people. And in this respect, the UN vote was a bad moment for us as well. It further isolated Israel and strengthened those who unfairly attack its standing and legitimacy. This is the reason that most Israeli liberals also opposed the UN vote. It is not that they seek peace any less than you or I. It is that they realize this is not the way.

We progressive Jews need to tell the truth to our people: Peace is hard. If it is was easy, this conflict would have been resolved long ago. It will be a long difficult slog. It will require good people not to despair and not to walk away. It will require liberal Jews to engage the world as it is, not only as we would like it to be. It will impose burdens and hard decisions not only on Israelis but also on Palestinians. They too, will need to compromise, far more than any of their leaders have ever acknowledged.

There is nobility — and courage — in not despairing. Some of our greatest moments as a people were connected to simply enduring.  It was Moses’ greatness to tell the people the truth: “We will not arrive soon at the Promised Land; but we will continue on the path, and we will endure, and one day, if not we, than our children, will prevail.”

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch is senior rabbi, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.

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