By Saul Golubcow
A recent article on the Kol Nidre remarks of Temple Micah’s Rabbi Daniel Zemel rebuking the Israeli government, among other similar High Holidays sermons in congregations across our country, should send waves of sadness through the American Jewish community. Zemel’s remarks have troubling implications not only for the current debate as to the appropriate role for American Jews in relating to Israel, but in a broader sense for the wellbeing of our youth in feeling comfortable and proud to be Jewish.
Someone college age, call him Isaac, listening to his own rabbi’s denunciation of Israel, is hearing the words, “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.” Isaac’s rabbi also strongly maintains that his “love for Israel has not diminished one iota,” but then comes the sigh of lamentation that resonates with Isaac’s young psyche, “My love remains unreciprocated.”
How does Isaac digest this breast-beating declaration? For much of his life, Israel has been governed by the Likud, a “right wing” government. Isaac has heard its leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, called a warmonger, a racist and a misogynist. Israel is constantly being pictured as run by alien black hats and religious entities antithetical to the Jewish practices of his own temple. Bereft of any positives about Israel, what will promote Isaac’s becoming a proud Jew, let alone a proud Zionist? Perhaps that Israel is an innovation nation like India? Or that Israel has the hora, a fun national dance, like Ireland?
Isaac’s rabbi might express reverence for memories of a Jewish spiritual homeland, recalling the pioneering bravery of the Halutzim, the 1948 War of Independence, Israel as the haven for the Shoah’s remnants of the Jewish people, or the miracle of the Six Day War. But as for the Israel of today, his rabbi draws a dark picture of a Knesset passing a nation-state law that gives quasi-constitutional authority to what the Zionists of old gave us, namely a Jewish state. His rabbi is peeved that a democratically elected government is not working well enough to install the religious pluralism that he, not necessarily the majority of Israelis, desires. Those settlers, occupiers, they are the obstacles to peace, not the Palestinians. Created in his own mind’s image, for Isaac’s rabbi Israel just doesn’t conform to the way he’d like it to be. So his love is unreciprocated.
Might Isaac be experiencing a dissonance listening to the sermon that leaves him with a compromised understanding of his rabbi’s purported love for Israel? Even someone as young as Isaac may know intuitively that aside from the dissembling words spoken amidst a stumbling relationship, love is as love does. So also, despite easy words of affection, true Zionism is as Zionism does.
A few days later, Isaac comes across fellow congregant Dana Milbank of The Washington Post carrying his rabbi’s cudgel into a vitriolic and defamatory column titled “America’s Jews are watching Israel in horror.” Impressionable, brought up to revere his hometown newspaper as deserving entry in the Tanach somewhere between Nevi’im and Ketuvim, despite its biased Israel coverage that included the delegitimizing series in the summer of 2017 called “50 Years of Occupation,” Isaac ingests Milbank’s words that tell him all American Jews feel the “horror,” a word that should be reserved for the vilest of governments, “as Netanyahu, with President Trump’s encouragement, leads Israel on a path to estrangement and destruction.”
Who will help Isaac frame perspective on the column beginning with Milbank’s arrogant assertion that all Jewish Americans feel as he does? Who will point out the speciousness of Milbank’s ad hominem logic in yoking Trump and Netanyahu as promulgators of “horror?” Who will question Milbank, asking how is it that someone who doesn’t live in Israel, who isn’t staring down thousands of missiles from Hamas and Hezbollah, who doesn’t participate in Israel’s unbridled democratic election process, who doesn’t experience daily the roiling, culturally pluralistic Israeli society, has the chutzpah to tell Israelis how they should think, vote or feel religiously? In exposing Milbank’s pretense of being someone who cares about Israel, who will indicate to Isaac that governments come and go, but the Israel of a true Zionist is eternal, to be treated as a precious gift and protected? Certainly not Isaac’s rabbi, who stated that he took no issue with what Milbank wrote, as “the current government in Israel has, like Esau, sold its birthright.” Does not a statement of this sort make BDS proponents beam?
And then Isaac is back on his campus, let’s say the University of Michigan, where, as part of a mandatory lecture for art students, a slide is shown depicting Netanyahu and Hitler with “Guilty of Genocide” written across their faces. Does Isaac look at the slide with “horror” or, based on what he has been taught about Israel, does this grotesquerie make sense to him? When he is harassed with the incessant assaults on Israel as an apartheid, colonial, oppressive regime, does he have the facts — better yet, the emotional indignation, conviction and fortitude — to lead or at least join other Jewish students in fighting back? Or does he slink away, perhaps even joining the accusers? When he hears “Hatikvah,” does he stand with his head high or does he take a knee?
Isaac’s rabbi may agree with the sentiments expressed by World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder in an August op-ed in The New York Times, in which Lauder fairly identifies the crisis of non-Orthodox, North American Jewish millennials being alienated from Israel. Lauder, like Isaac’s rabbi, looks to Israel as the problem, suggesting the need for some arbitrary or dictatorial measures to override democratically enacted policy and magically to make peace with some unwilling Palestinian entity so that the political and ideological bents taught to our young people by their elders are satisfied. What is cause and what is effect? Is Isaac’s alienation from Israel due to differences in what could be issues respectfully debated among all world-wide Jewish “chaverim” or is he impressionably reacting to the polemical rhetoric of “sinat” Israel delivered by those entrusted to build a love of Zion
Just imagine if Isaac’s rabbi had delivered a Kol Nidre sermon that reviewed his or his movement’s position on peace, religious pluralism and the nation-state law within the context of the challenges facing Israel. What if he called on congregants to set up learning sessions to understand the history of the Israeli rabbinate, to study how democracy operates in Israel, to comb through the attempts to make peace, and actually to read and discuss the implications of the nation-state law? What if he asked youths like Isaac to join him on a trip to Israel to discuss their perspectives and concerns with government officials and Knesset members from the different parties?
What if at the end of the sermon, Isaac’s rabbi gave a full throated statement of love for Zionism without any qualifiers? Would he then not be showing Isaac that his emotions, words and actions are one in defending Israel, giving Isaac the tools and confidence to be an open and proud Zionist? And with a full and unabashed love of Israel a core component of Isaac’s Jewish education, might not Isaac and others like him lead us into a vibrant Jewish future?
Saul Golubcow lives in Potomac.