09 Oct Yom Kippur morning 5780 Israel: The way it was meant to be
Poet Yehuda Amichai writes in his poem
“The Place Where We Are Right”:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
From the place where we are right—we cannot have the hard conversations.
Today is not a day for speaking from the place where we are right: Yom Kippur is a day for speaking from our guts: from saying the things that are hard, for admitting where we aren’t sure. A day to allow our doubts and our love to dig up the world like a plow, so that we might begin to hear that whisper, that still small voice, in the place where our old ideas, the ruined house, once stood.
As Rabbi Hirsch mentioned on Rosh Hashanah morning, these holy days have called upon us both, to dig up the world with both our doubt, and our love, and to face the issue of anti-Semitism head on.
On Rosh Hashanah morning, Rabbi Hirsch addressed the experience of anti-Semitism here in America as it is experienced “from the right”— the scourge of white nationalism, the emboldened hatred of Jews, we who are “other”.
Our work this morning is this: to uncover and untangle the complexities of what we mean by “anti-semitism on the left”, and to forge an understanding of what that means for us as keepers of the American Jewish conversation.
This may feel like an impossible task. For our purposes this morning, let’s be more specific:, the notion of “anti-semitism from the left” names a marked shift in anti-Israel and anti-Zionist sentiment, here and around the world.
I want to talk to you about the entirely possible balancing act of being an American Jew, and of what it means to embrace an expansive and modern understanding of our identity in relationship to Israel.
Two agreements I hope you will sign on to with me this morning:
1. The conversation is going to be messy. The terms aren’t always so black and white. Let’s be generous and not get too stuck on semantics.
2. The conversation might feel emotional. We are going to talk about a place that represents hope and aspiration for some of us, and is a place of oppression and hopelessness to others. I would ask that you remain curious, and not certain.
For starters, a working definition:
Anti-Semitism, as described by expert Deborah Lipstadt “is not the hatred of people who happen to be Jews. It is hatred of them because they are Jews.”
When we talk about anti-semitism “from the right”, it feels easier to define our parameters: here in the US, it looks like homegrown hatred of, and violence toward Jews, propagated by White Nationalists, supported by every day, casual anti-semites at dinner parties or in the line at the bank.
If we are being frank, this is type of anti-semitism worries me far more than the other, more nebulous problem; this “thing” we have colloquially described as “Anti-semitism from the left”
This is murkier territory. Somehow, anti-semitism on the right feels more definitive: the face of evil is more sharply outlined.
But here, in this conversation about this other tension that we are feeling as American Jews, we find ourselves juggling some harder truths.
I imagine that when Rabbi Hirsch mentioned that I would address this idea of “Anti-semitism from the left” over Rosh Hashanah, many of you might have had some ideas of what I would talk about—
Perhaps you assumed I would talk about the complexities around Jewish identity and Zionism on college campuses.
Or maybe you figured I would talk about BDS.
Or Corbynism. Or the rise of anti-semitism in Western Europe.
Or about Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.
Or about former leaders of the Women’s March, and their alignment with Louis Farrakhan, and their suggestion that Zionism and feminism are incompatible.
We could talk about the ways in which many academic and activist circles, zionism and fascism and Judaism have all been boiled together in a cauldron that we fear bubbling over.
Certainly, I could address the incidents that some of your own children and grandchildren have experienced on campuses across the country, or the recent incidents here in our own backyard; last week at Simon’s Rock, last spring at William’s College.
I could go on.
But you all read the NY Times, or the Washington Post, or Ha’aretz, or the New Republic.
And I believe that while these issues are real and ought to be given careful consideration, I am not a pundit, a diplomat, or a prophet.
Rather, as a rabbi, I feel called today to speak from the place where we aren’t always right; the place where it’s difficult to know what to say.
I want to speak today from the heart of our tradition.
From the places where we derive our very names as a people.
Yisrael, we are the ones who wrestle with God.
Ivrim— we, Hebrews, the ones who crossover.
The ones who cross borders and boundaries seeking peace and wholeness.
I have spoken often from this bima about Israel: about my love for the land and her people. For the past two years, I have stood here with groups of 8th grade students and their parents on the Shabbat before their post-B’nai Mitzvah trip to Israel.
I have wrestled alongside them with the beauty of Jerusalem juxtaposed with the ugliness of a wall.
I have felt deep joy and satisfaction at the youthful ease with which they have made friends with their peers on an Arab-Israeli basketball team.
I have seen their awe blossom, as they hear the story of a woman named Shalom, at the Beit Alfa Absorption Center, listening intently as she describes her journey on foot from Ethiopia, to the Israeli airlift in 1983.
I have beamed with pride when we return home and they speak articulately from this very bima about their own encounters and experiences
I have also spoken from this bima with critique: speaking from a place of love about the places where Israel stumbles; about the place where she is not right.
I have wrestled with how to teach our students to think critically about the realities of Israel, and of occupation, and what it means to be a Jewish State.
I have worried along with you about what the rise of a more virulent, exclusive kind of nationalism means; calling out the injustices of racial inequality toward Sudanese refugees in Tel Aviv, the religious inequality toward our own movement in Israel, the abominable hechsher of Otzma Yehudit, the political party of Meir Kahane in the first of the last two elections this year.
Over these last seven years, I have been able to comfortably situate myself as a staunch but critical lover of Israel. I have been able to call out the injustices I see committed in the name of our Jewish state, while joyfully traveling there multiple times each year.
About ten years ago, with only a hint of irony, my friend and I created a playlist that we called “Israel: The Way It was Meant to Be”. The playlist was filled with songs that hearkened back to a different time.
The music felt sweet, and sometimes a little hokey-
The title we gave that playlist “Israel: The Way It Was Meant to Be” felt like it acknowledged the dual reality: we too felt that love for Israel. But there was an “Israel that was meant to be some other way” than the way we experienced it, as young adults in the late 90s and early 2000s.
Still, I could sing along with Arik Einstein and Uzi Hitman and Ofra Haza, right after reading my emails and taking the suggested actions from organizations like New Israel Fund, or Rabbis for Human Rights.
It used to feel possible to hold both truths in my hands— at least, it felt easier than it does now.
Much has changed.
I need to admit to you that at this moment, I am feeling a little stuck; I don’t know the way forward.
At this precarious moment in history, my fears and worries for the US and for Israel are much the same: What does it mean to love a country, even when you cannot abide by the machinations of its government?
Even where I am stuck, there is one thing of which I am sure of:
I can’t give up on Israel anymore than I can give up on America.
They are the two greatest projects in modern Jewish history and I’m not willing to cede my seat at the table. We have seen already that our absence from the table does us no good; there will always be someone else ready to fill the void.
So let’s be sophisticated in our response.
It is possible to hold multiple truths at once and it is crucial that we do so.
We can support our young people on college campuses. We can acknowledge that they face real challenges, but not impossible ones. For some of them, the challenge is being asked to answer for the actions of a country they have never been to. For others, it is reconciling childhood understandings of Israel with learning about the devastating reality of life for the 5 million human beings who live in the West Bank and Gaza.
We can do all of these things, and still, not give in to impulse for generalizations or indifference.
We can be unequivocal both in our strong opposition to the Global BDS Movement and in our support for Americans’ constitutional right to engage in boycott activities.
We can hear critique of Israel, and we can assess for ourselves if it is true and fair, before we call it out as anti-semitic.
For me, the crucial difference is this: there is critique which aims to make Israel better, and there is critique that aims to erase Israel’s existence.
We can make this differentiation, just because we are sophisticated enough to do so, but because it is the most deeply Jewish response; one that traces back in our history to the very beginning.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes:
In one of the world-changing moments of history, social criticism was born in Israel simultaneously with institutionalization of power. No sooner were there kings in Israel, then there were prophets mandated by God to criticize them when they abused their power.
We can remember that the Jewish people, are also called Ivrim; that like our ancestors before us, we can cross boundaries, and cross boundaries and we can change.
As Rabbi Rachel Timoner writes, “Jacob brought us into Egypt. Joshua brought us into Israel. Ever since we’ve been a wandering people crossing from nation to nation, linking cultures, languages, goods, ideas, civilizations. We know how to build connections. We know how to build trust. We know how to traverse differences. We know how to make allies. This is a good time for allies.”
And we can be reminded that like Jacob and the angel who forever transforms him, calling him Yisrael, that this is sacred wrestling. We will surely be transformed by this wrestling; like Jacob who forever limps after his tumble with the angel, we will not come out of this struggle exactly as we went in. And that may prove to be the biggest blessing of all.
A few summers ago, a friend of mine and fellow educator asked a question as he guided a small group of us on a walking tour of South Tel Aviv:
“What is Zionism?”
Between us, we were, at the time, two rabbinical students, an Orthodox rabbi, and my husband Josh. We offered answers that ranged from the cynical to the ideal: “an outdated political belief” answered one person, “the vision of a Jewish state in the Jewish ancestral homeland” answered another.
My answer? “Aspirational thinking”.
My friend handed out a piece of paper, with an excerpt from Theodore Herzls’ utopian novel “Altneuland”, or, “The Old New Land”.
In it, Herzl describes a vision of a Jewish state and then, he writes:
“I believe that Zionism will not cease to be our ideal even after we come to settle in the land of our forefathers in Eretz Israel, for within the Zionist idea is contained the aspiration to moral and spiritual perfection.”
For me, Zionism continues to be a container for my greatest aspirations for the Jewish people as a political entity: it is an expression of our highest ideals for living in peace together. Zionism is an act of aspiration: toward moral and spiritual perfection. There are Zionists who stand by Israel wherever Israel stands— and there are Zionists, like me, and like many of you, who believe that to truly be Ohavei Zion— lovers of Zion— is to engage in the mitzvah of tochecha, of loving rebuke. There are Zionists who believe that to aspire to the moral and spiritual perfection that Israel is capable of, is to lovingly criticize her— to speak out against the practices, policies and procedures which threaten the humanity of anyone who dwells within her borders.
As that friend and educator in Tel Aviv said to me that day so many summers ago: “The worst thing that could happen to Zionism would be for it to become the sole domain of Israeli patriotism.” Those words sit heavily on my heart today.
Today, I would add: the worst thing that could happen to our Judaism would be for it to become solely defined by the external forces of anti-semitism, in all forms, that seek to call us “other”.
And that is why I believe that Zionism is as much a political ideal as it is a spiritual practice. My zionism requires me to see my freedom as inextricably linked to the freedom of all; and to push for justice when Israel falls short of moral perfection. My zionism is what brings me there, each year. My zionism is what keeps me committed to the vision of a peaceable, two-state solution, though so many would declare that dead. My zionism believes that both American Judaism and Israel are too great, too big, and too deep to be solely defined by this moment in history. My zionism believes that we can evolve, and change, and realign ourselves toward a goal of moral and spiritual perfection.
After all, isn’t that exactly what we say we are here to do today, on Yom Kippur?
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
The path forward is not so well paved. We ignore the threats and the vitriol that we will face along the way at our own peril. And yet, we are the inheritors of a tradition of being God-wrestlers and boundary crossers.
I believe that each one of us has the deep capacity for digging up this world with our doubts and our love; the ability to hold multiple and even competing truths in our hands at the same time; and the possibility to transform.
Or chadash al Tzion ta’ir, v’nizcheh kulanu m’heira l’oro.
May a new light– shine forth out of Zion—
A light that aspires to change, and grow and transform
May we merit to shine and share that light with others.