When Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah rebuked the Israeli government during the High Holidays, his words reached beyond his Reform congregation in Washington.
In his Kol Nidre sermon on Sept. 18, Zemel argued that Israel’s government had abandoned the vision of its founders and was undermining the state’s Zionist mission, citing the recently passed “nation-state law” and the government’s rejection of efforts to push for religious pluralism in the Jewish state, Zemel said his “love for Israel has not diminished one iota,” but that his love “remains un-reciprocated.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has cast the idea of Jewish peoplehood “asunder,” Zemel said. “This is, to my way of thinking, Israel’s first anti-Zionist government.”
Three days later, Zemel’s words appeared in The Washington Post. Political columnist Dana Milbank is a congregant at Temple Micah and heard the rabbi’s sermon.
In an opinion piece called “America’s Jews are watching Israel in horror,” Milbank built on Zemel’s theme.
“Similarly anguished sentiments can be heard in synagogues and in Jewish homes throughout America,” Milbank wrote. “For 70 years, Israel survived in no small part because of American Jews’ support. Now we watch in horror as Netanyahu, with President Trump’s encouragement, leads Israel on a path to estrangement and destruction. Both men have gravely miscalculated.”
In his column, Milbank also wrote that a joint declaration between Israel and Poland in June “absolving Poland of Holocaust culpability … amounted to trading Holocaust denial for good relations.”
That got Sean Durns’ attention. A research analyst for the right-wing Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, Durns took issue with Milbank’s characterization of the Israeli government’s actions, including its join statement with Poland. In a blog post on CAMERA’s website, Durns pointed out that the Israeli government was instrumental in lobbying the Polish government to amend a controversial “Holocaust law,” which would have outlawed blaming Poland for the crimes
“Perhaps another explanation for the decreased support [of Israel among young American Jews] is a media that often offers distorted coverage of the Jewish state, as well as commentators like Milbank who substitute superficiality and snark in place of thoughtful analysis,” Durns wrote.
Zemel has been an outspoken critic of Netanyahu and Trump for some time. His rebuke, timed to Yom Kippur’s focus on repentance and correction, is another episode in the argument over whether rabbis should criticize Israel.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac falls into the “no” camp. He said that clergy should be careful about public denunciations of Israel.
“Just as how one would not profess love of his wife and then publicly critique her, rabbis should be conscious of the impact of how those words of criticism are received,” Weinblatt said. “When people talk about the growing gap between the American Jewish community and Israel, I think part of that is that rabbis need to look at themselves as causing some of that gap by giving sermons and speaking out so critically of Israel.”
Weinblatt added that Milbank’s column didn’t help matters. He said the columnist failed to include any of the professions of love for Israel Zemel gave in his sermon, which Weinblatt read after seeing Milbank’s column. American rabbis should present their critiques to Israelis directly, Weinblatt said, as opposed to possibly sowing dissension in America.
But for Zemel, the calculus was fairly simple. He said he felt compelled to talk about the Israeli government’s actions on Kol Nidre, when he knew many congregants would be listening. He said he doesn’t invite publicity, but trusted in Milbank’s professionalism when the columnist asked to write about the sermon. Zemel said he had no problem with what Milbank wrote.
“I’m not looking for a bigger platform, but I also know because I’m in Washington, D.C., there are many many journalists in Temple Micah,” Zemel said. “And I can’t let that stop me from speaking.”
Rabbi Jonathan Maltzman of Kol Shalom in Rockville knows what Zemel is experiencing.
Last year, he announced that the synagogue would suspend its High Holiday Israel Bonds appeal because of the government’s discrimination against non-Orthodox Jews.
Some congregants supported the move, others vocally objected, he said. This year, the appeal was back.
“There was a considerable amount of flack, probably more than I’ve heard at all for Kol Shalom,” Maltzman said. “And we listened and we responded to everybody and we resumed the appeal this year because I think the effect was gone and the number of people who were offended was not insignificant. We’d made our statement. People still bought Bonds and that’s fine, so it didn’t really hurt Israel in any way.”
“Rabbis have to do difficult things,” Zemel said. “I don’t shy away from doing what’s difficult and I gave that sermon because I’m a passionate Zionist. My Zionism is inside of me all the time and my passion for Zionism compelled me to say what I thought about what’s happening in Israel today.”