Jerusalem — Sitting at the dedication ceremonies for the American embassy here last Monday, I was reminded of the Talmudic account of ancient Israel’s liberation from Egypt’s bondage. Having crossed the sea to dry shore as the Egyptian army drowned in the sea behind, the angelic retinue began to sing God’s praise. God rebuked the angels saying, “My children [the Egyptians] are drowning, and you would dare utter a song?!”
The message is clear. Even at the hour of our redemption, the sufferings of our common humanity, even those of our enemies, insist that we subdue our outpourings of joy.
As a proud American and lifelong Zionist, I found the redemptive aspects of the embassy dedication to be profound. Seventy years to the day since President Truman led the United States to be the first country to recognize the newly founded State of Israel, 51 years since the reunification of Jerusalem following the Six-Day War and over two decades since the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, this American administration was finally recognizing a fundamental truth for most American Jews — that Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish state. Nearly 400 years since the pilgrims arrived in America as “God’s New Israel” to establish a “city on a hill,” an American flag was now being planted on a hill in Jerusalem in a sovereign Jewish state. As Prime Minister Netanyahu stated: “By recognizing history, you have made history,” thus capturing the palpable excitement of the occasion.
And yet, in the midst of all the speeches and songs, I closely followed the developments just 40 miles away as members of God’s creation were dying. After weeks of build-up, the Palestinian “March of Return” had reached a boiling point, their border incursions into Israel met with force by Israel’s army — dozens of Palestinian lives lost, hundreds more injured … the casualties growing with every passing moment. How could I sing the Lord’s song in the face of such loss of life? Am I bearing witness to the death of a basic building block of my American-Zionism, the two-state solution? Was my very presence at the dedication ceremony somehow tacit support for a right-wing Israeli government emboldened by its support from the Trump administration? How can I square the circle of being supportive of President Trump’s Jerusalem decision with an administration with whose policies I often disagree?
To a certain degree, my questions reflect the toxic identity politics of our age. Religious leaders are increasingly called on to choose between “liberal” and “conservative” positions as if our Torah is a party platform giving sanction only to one set of views or another. The dysfunction was on full display at the embassy opening. Not only was the assembled congressional leadership wholly Republican, but the clergy representation came almost entirely from the Orthodox Jewish (and evangelical Christian) community. The absence of liberal rabbinic leadership on a day celebrating Jerusalem was stark. The ongoing silence of Orthodox Jewish voices on any issue that would put it at odds with the present American or Israeli administrations is deafening. The embassy dedication made official what we had all feared — Israel has become a partisan issue — politically and religiously.
Both sides are in need of a moral inventory.
As the author Yossi Klein Halevi recently reflected, we would do well to remember that the same Bible that commands us in Exodus to “Remember that you were once strangers in a strange land,” also contains the injunction to “Remember what [our enemies] the Amalekites did to you as you came of Egypt…” Our obligations to attend to the stranger in our midst and be attentive to our national well-being and self-interest are not at odds with each other — they emerge from the same tradition. It is not an either/or proposition.
What a lost opportunity for Israel that the Jerusalem dedication did not receive the blessing of a representative cross section of American rabbinic leadership. What a lost opportunity for American Jewry that its leadership did not extend a more robust embrace of the Jerusalem dedication. Did it reflect invitations not issued or invitations declined? I have no idea, but it is a sad state of affairs that the very thing that should bring the Jewish world together — Israel — has become ground zero for our most divisive partisan rifts.
Religious leadership does itself a great disservice in aligning itself too closely to any one political party. Beginning with the biblical courts of Kings Saul and David, the power of the prophetic voice has been situated on its willingness to speak truth to power. When the religion of liberal Jews becomes interchangeable with progressive politics, or the Orthodox community’s support of the political right is never tested, our tradition ceases to serve as a guide and check to the politics of our day. From Abraham onwards, the litmus test for moral leadership has never been popularity or political expediency — just the opposite. It is in our willingness to defy conventional wisdom that the voice of our tradition is most resonant.
One can be vigilant against the existential threat of a nuclear Iran and work doggedly towards a two-state solution. One can celebrate Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state, defend Israel’s right to protect its borders and mourn the loss of Palestinian life. And yes, one can support a particular policy of Trump, Obama or otherwise without fearing that one is giving blanket approval to every policy utterance of this or that administration. In refusing to be typecast, the Jewish community both bolsters our moral standing and serves to keep those who would seek our support on their heels. Be it Israel or any issue, our positions must be based on principle, not party, and we must be always be willing to reach across the political or denominational divide. We are a small enough people as it is; the Jewish community must always retain its ability to maintain a respectful dialogue within — especially on those issue upon which disagreement exists.
For better and for worse, these dramatic days have revealed the divisions within the Jewish people. In its ideal, Jerusalem represents the possibility of a diverse people united under one banner. May we seek out the peace of Jerusalem, heal its fissures, champion its moral standing and work together to strengthen our people’s physical and spiritual capital.
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove is spiritual leader of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.