Rabbi Kahn’s March 22nd Sermon on Israel

Speak Up

This week we celebrated the festive holiday of Purim. With costumes and ear-shaped cookies, we celebrate the story we’re supposed to remember. With noisemakers and drinks, we blot out that which we’re supposed to forget. And while our fun ended yesterday, it was only now, as Shabbat rolled in earlier today, that they said goodbye to Purim in Jerusalem, a day later than the rest of us.  Though this moment of disconnection is old and rabbinic, a rule for ancient walled cities, it feels particularly fitting these days that even our holiday celebrations are not synchronized across the Jewish world.

Why do I say such a thing? Well, in many ways we are not a united ‘we’ right now, but a segmented and divergent Jewish community with rifts the size of canyons growing between us.

The deteriorating bonds between Israel and the diaspora have been discussed by many as of late, but none have captured it as clearly as a recent op-ed in Haaretz by Baruch Bina, titled, “Israel is losing the Jewish people.” Rabbi Uri Regev of Hiddush, a progressive Israeli organization that fights for religious freedom and equality, translated and quoted Bina as writing:

“The Jews, the most progressive population in the United States, will find it difficult to maintain their automatic support of Israel, insofar as

the Orthodox stranglehold deepens,

women are excluded,

the inflammatory degradation of the judicial system continues,

the settlements are expanded at the expense of welfare budgets,

prospects of a political [peace] process are undermined,

and close relationships with non-liberal regimes are tightening….”(1)

I believe Bina is correct at every point. The separation he’s speaking of is real and tangible. It’s challenging and heartbreaking for lovers of Israel and yet it is imperative we continue to question and challenge the policies of our Jewish nation as the Israeli government moves farther and farther away from liberal and Jewish values of equality and democracy for all.

And Bina’s observation of our growing rift was written before Prime Minister Netanyahu orchestrated a political alliance that legitimized ideological heirs of a party previously banned from Israeli elections for their incitement to racism.  An act that was so disappointing and horrifying for lovers of Israeli democracy that condemnation came forth not simply from the American left but from mainstream pro-Israel organizations as well. When AJC and AIPAC speak up and say the prime minister of Israel’s actions are reprehensible and the party he is helping is despicable and racist – you know without a doubt that being a pro-Israel American Jew means questioning and challenging the current Israeli government’s choices.

THANKFULLY, this week the Israeli Courts ruled once again that a racist ethno-nationalist that incites hate may NOT run for the Knesset. And with HOPE, we were all reminded that we must not turn our backs on this precious country that is slowly breaking our hearts. We must help the nation prioritize democratic and ethical principles when they show up to the polls in April.We must work and pray for a change, we must demand Israel live up to both its promise and its Jewish values.

Israel isn’t trying to let us down, on the contrary – she is an innovator, constantly working towards progress. Jewish power is not easy though. In fact, it goes against much of our internal narrative. Just look at the holiday of joy and merriment we celebrated this week. Jewish scholar Peter Beinhart views the Purim story as a perfect example of the way we, as a community, fumble a bit with our power and rather amplify our historical narrative of powerlessness and silence our stories of strength. He notes that most Jews celebrate Purim thinking the story ends when we are saved, blissfully unaware that, “It ends with the king giving Persia’s Jews license to do to Haman’s people what Haman wanted to do with them — and the Jews slaughtering seventy-five thousand souls. We don’t talk about that,” he says, “because we begin our stories with victimhood and end them with survival.”

It’s true. Modern Jewry avoids dealing with the hardships that have come with influence in our past, but there is more to our story then victimhood and survival. There is also thriving joyful, success and life. But we need to write different stories of Jewish power than those history and tradition have told before. If we want continued sovereignty, we must not only be innovative but ethically diligent. We need to heed the calls of our prophets and learn to govern and rule justly. We must listen to one another, and welcome all forms of Judaism to the table.

We must not let Israel’s singular focus be survival at the expense of all other Jewish values. We must continue to push Israel, as so many of her citizens do, to embody kindness, justice, and equity in all her endeavors – with her neighbors, her citizens of different faiths, her resident aliens, and yes – also with us her Jewish brothers and sisters that live an ocean apart.

We must not let our voices be ignored or delegitimized.

Let me be clear, I am a Zionist. A pro-Israel advocate, deeply committed to Israel’s progress and future as a Jewish State, within secure and defensible borders.

When I criticize Israel my critique is not of the Jewish people or our right to have a sovereign nation of our own, rather it is of certain policies and political maneuverings of the current Israeli government.

And I don’t criticize simply to complain, but rather because I believe deep in my heart that both as a Jew and as an American I have the ability to affect policy choices that change the reality on the ground. American lobbyist can demand that our leaders work towards true recognition and peaceful resolutions that address the legitimate needs of everyone involved.

And we do this not simply because we care about Israel, but because we care about Judaism. Without the vibrancy, art, language, and struggles of the Jewish state, Judaism might once again find itself minimized, stale and left sitting on the sidelines of history theorizing instead of impacting the world. When I say I’m a Zionist, I mean it. Our relationship with Israel is not simply for Israel’s benefit, it’s for Judaism’s as well.

Israel is applied Judaism –  it takes Jewish values and puts them into practice in a complex world.  As Jews, it is our obligation and privilege to participate in and take pride in this application of Jewish values and to hold Israel accountable to the best of what Judaism has to teach because we remember what Israel is really all about – applying Judaism’s unique voice and gifts to the world. Israel exists to be a platform for Jewish people to bring our 3,500-year-old tradition into conversation with modernity. That conversation is one we must all take part in.   Loudly. Bravely. We must speak up.

It is up to us to deeply engage in this relationship and demand more of our Jewish nation.

Even if it feels like we’re shouting into the wind, we must scream until there is no voice or breath left. For kindness, justice and equity cannot be negotiated away – not for any reason – not by any person – no matter his or her political position. Though heartbreaking it might be, we must work to bridge the divide between American Jewry and Israel and work to help Israel find her moral center.

We can do this by supporting Israeli organizations like Hiddush,or the Israel Religious Action Center. Progressive Israeli organizations that fight for religious freedom and equality for all.

We can stand by Women of the Walland support their right to gather and pray safely.

We can read and give voice to those in Israelwho share our painand hopesfor who Israel is and who she can yet be.

We can support organizations like the New Israel Fund and the Shalom Hartman Institute, brave enough to work on sustaining Israel’s soul, not solely her security.

We can stay informed and speak up, demanding that our Jewish state not ignore the rest of world Jewry. For as my Uncle would say to me, ‘All Jews are Israeli citizens in the making.’ Meaning that, as a result of the Law of Return, Diaspora Jew *do* have a stake in Israel’s policy decisions.

We can speak with our Israeli friends and family, on the phone, in tweets, through Facebook posts, and any method we may have at our disposal.  We can remind them that this election is no longer about whether or not they like specific people, but rather whether or not they want to see Israel continue as a strong democracy.

Israeli political norms are being tested. We need to fight to make sure human rights, care for the refugee, pluralism and other liberal democratic Jewish values are given weight and attention in Israeli politics. We must fight to make sure racism and prejudice have no place in Israeli policy. We need to lobby American leaders about the importance of Israel remaining a trusted partner with shared values.

We may not have a vote in Israel this April, but we have a voice in our Jewish future nonetheless. Let your voice be heard.

Lean in.

Speak up.

Help Israel stand on the right side of history.