We must talk about Israel


Last spring the Jewish Council for Public Affairs unveiled some deeply disturbing study findings: Nearly 40 percent of American rabbis are reluctant to share their views about Israel with their congregations.

This was before the events of the summer, before the kidnapping and murder of Naftali, Gilad, Eyal and Mohammed, before rockets on Sderot and Tel Aviv, before a war which reduced Gaza to ruins. If we were hesitant at Pesach, imagine how rabbis felt during the High Holidays.

I admit to having felt this reluctance myself. A pulpit rabbi blessed to have been with same congregation for 25 years, I know how my words are sometimes received. I’ve never withheld my true beliefs, but I have on occasion been reluctant to share them – and if rabbis can’t speak openly about Israel, it’s pretty likely that most of our communities can’t either.

That’s not acceptable. We need to talk. We need to talk because Israel needs us to; we need to talk because Judaism demands it. Yet many American Jews can hear themselves in what a friend once told me: “I’m afraid to disagree. There’s no room for me at the table.”


For most of Jewish history, any table at which questioning is discouraged has not been a Jewish table. Dialogue and debate are core values of our tradition; Abraham and Moses both argued with the Almighty. Yet, when it comes to Israel, we often leave little room for respectful discussion and

Most American Jews can also hear themselves in the words of 12th century poet Yehuda HaLevi: “My heart is in the east while I am in the utmost edge of the west.” We love Israel, we long to see her prosper in security and peace.

But long-distance relationships are always complex, especially in times of turmoil. In this summer’s rare moments of calm, when I had time to reflect, I realized that there are things I know, things I don’t know, and things I believe to be true.

I know I stand with Israel and its citizens. No country should have to live under constant attack.  I know that the self-stated purpose of Hamas is to eliminate the state of Israel.

I don’t know, however, how Israel can limit the harm done to noncombatants when Hamas fighters embed themselves among civilians. I don’t know how it feels to live in the open-air prison that Gaza now is, 1.8 million people struggling for a basic existence.

I don’t know if Hamas wants a Palestinian state more than it wants the destruction of Israel, but I believe it wants to force Israel to remain trapped in a disproportional war that spreads anti-Israel hatred on the world stage.

I also don’t know if Benjamin Netanyahu truly wants a two-state solution. He recently proclaimed that any Palestinian state contiguous to Israel would require indefinite military occupation; I know this mentality will not bring peace.

I also know that it’s not as simple as these few statements. At the end of the day, I believe the only way to rid Gaza of Hamas is for the Palestinian people to drive them out, and that Israel must embrace its role in achieving that goal by courageously changing the trajectory it’s currently on.
By now most of us realize there’s no military solution to this conflict. As David Grossman recently wrote, as long as the suffocation felt in Gaza isn’t alleviated, Israel won’t be able to breathe freely either. I don’t know exactly what this might look like, but I imagine it will include ending settlement, military withdrawal from the West Bank, and a newly empowered Palestinian Authority that helps put a lid on Hamas violence.

Finally, I believe we must do all this without losing our humanity or diminishing the Jewish values that define our Jewish state. Israel is after all not only our physical homeland; it is our permanent moral commitment. As we navigate negotiations and concessions, we must never stop asking if our actions or policies make peace more or less likely.

I understand why people can be reluctant to jump into this conversation. Perhaps they’re afraid they’ll be judged, or that their knowledge is lacking. Many of us think that love and loyalty are the same thing as agreeing.

The result, however, is that many American Jews, especially young adults, don’t consider themselves in relationship with Israel at all. They cannot see themselves, nor hear their views, in the discussions and debates. They have not been welcomed at the table.

This has to change, and we are the only ones who can change it. If we love Israel, if we love our Jewish community, we need to welcome every generation, every denomination and every opinion to our table. Let’s send out invitations to all, cook a great meal and plan to talk long into the night.

Amy Schwartzman is the senior rabbi at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia.

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