September 25, 1997
Is There Nothing Good
Is There Nothing Good
<to Say About Israel?
By Rabbi AbnerWeiss, Ph.D.
The sermon seminar organized by the Board of Rabbis of SouthernCalifornia is the group's biggest event of the year. Rabbis from allover the Southland get together to share sermon ideas for the HighHoly Days. It is an opportunity for spiritual enrichment and sharing.Colleagues present their best materials. Congregations throughoutSouthern California benefit from this annual exchange of ideas andinspiration.
Customarily, some of the presenters include the State of Israel intheir homiletic agenda. The anticipated throngs of worshipers overthe High Holy Days provide an important audience for thereinforcement of community commitment to the State of Israel. It isfor this reason that the annual synagogue State of Israel Bond Appealis made during the High Holy Days.
The Israel sermon materials usually reflect the passionatecommitment of rabbinic leaders to the development of the State ofIsrael, the absorption of immigrants, the creation of infrastructuresfor their absorption (such as schools and vocational retrainingfacilities), and the development of the economic potential of newIsraelis. This part of the sermon seminar is usuallynoncontroversial. It is the apple pie of rabbinic leaders.
Rabbinic Silence on Israel
Not so this year. There was not a single presentation on the Stateof Israel. Presenter after presenter introduced his or her remarkswith the question: "What good can be said about Israel this year?"Indeed, one of the presenters, who was invited to come from the EastCoast because of his reputation as a preacher's preacher, actuallysaid: "I shall say nothing about Israel this year. Were I to say whatI really feel, I may be guilty of the sin of dibat ha'aretz [slanderagainst the land]."
I was stunned by these remarks and by the inability of rabbinicleaders to find it in their hearts to speak positively about Israel.Of course, I understand their pain. My non-Orthodox colleagues seekvalidation from the State of Israel for their conversions and theirmarriages. Their pain is manifest. However, does their grievanceabout the politics of a particular government negate everything goodabout the State of Israel? Is there really nothing good to be saidabout the Jewish state?
As I sat and absorbed the negative energy around me, I foundmyself wondering how a single issue could make my colleagues blind toall the remarkable wonders of the contemporary Jewish Commonwealth.Does the absorption of immigrants at a greater pace than any othercountry in the world no longer merit praise? Is research at Israel'smajor universities to be discounted? How is it possible that themeteoric rise of Israeli high tech not be considered good by Americanrabbis? Is the fact that more Jews are studying Torah in one smallcountry than have studied Torah in all the great centers of theDiaspora throughout our history, not deserving of rabbinic acclaim?Is the fulfillment, in our lifetime, of the prophecy, "For out ofZion shall the Torah go forth," not worthy of enthusiastic rabbinicendorsement?
Rabbinic Negativity: A National Phenomenon
The mood of rabbinic negativity is not confined to the Southland.It is a national phenomenon. I have just returned from a meeting ofthe National Rabbinic Cabinet of State of Israel Bonds New York. Itsmembers are national rabbinic leaders. One would expect theirpassionate embrace of the Jewish state to persist even in the face ofwhat they consider to be disagreeable Israeli governmental policies.This has been a consistent pattern. When there was Orthodoxdiscomfort with the policies of the previous government, seriousreservations were put aside for the sake of a unified expression ofsupport for the Jewish state, and for the celebration of the goodthat it does. This year is different. We were urged to "understand"the grass-roots discontent.
Effects of Rabbinic Pressure
Rabbinic disaffection with Israel reflects the extraordinarysuccess of the leadership of the Conservative and Reform movements inbringing pressure on the Israeli government to validate the authorityof their rabbis. But the genie they have let out of the bottle iscreating havoc. Jews whose support for Israel in the past has beenless than passionate, and whose commitment to the State of Israel hasnever been unconditional, have been provided with an excuse to reducetheir support. The Israel lobby on Capitol Hill has been paralyzed.The Clinton administration, in its second term, is not the pro-Israeladministration of the first term. It no longer need fear alienatingthe Jewish vote by its "even handed" Middle East policies. After all,the Jewish community is not positive about the State of Israel. Whyshould the president and his State Department be more Jewish than theJews? Is it surprising that the secretary of state assigns equalblame to terrorists and builders of Jewish neighborhoods inJerusalem?
Israel's intelligence on the ground is severely compromised onaccount of its adherence to its Oslo obligations. Yasser Arafatpublicly embraces Hamas terrorists in flagrant violation of the Osloaccords. Hamas operates openly in the United States. A radicallymilitant Islam encourages suicide bombings in Israel as an act ofmartyrdom. These calls for terror are now made openly, not only insuch "moderate" Arab states as Egypt and Jordan but also at anational Moslem Convention in Chicago. But the United States refusesto remove its blindfold. Why should it exercise economic sanctions onthe Palestinian Authority, and even on Egypt, if American rabbis donot appear to care?
Israel is facing a life-and-death struggle. Binyamin Netanyahu hasmade mistakes. However, to blame him for the deliberate campaign ofterror is nearly as obscene as the acts of terror themselves. All hispolicies have been lumped together. His actions or inactions on thereligious front have automatically invalidated all of his otherpolicies in the eyes of American rabbinic leaders. And this is wrong.
The genie must be put back in to the bottle. Support for Israelmust be reasserted. The unimaginable good that the Jewish staterepresents to the Jewish people must be affirmed even if some thingsare bad. For the sake of Israel and the G-d of Israel, rabbis shouldnot throw out the baby with the bath water.
Photo from "Jerusalem In the Shadow of Heaven," 1996.