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On Fear in the Rabbinate to Publicly Support the Kerry Mission

by Rabbi John Rosove

January 30, 2014 | 8:06 am

I am an avid reader of a restricted list-serve called RAVKAV that includes 2500 Reform Rabbis living and working in North America, Israel and around the world. Our conversation covers every possible theme. Most recently, the discussion has focused on the rabbinic and cantorial petition in support of Secretary Kerry’s Middle East Peace mission co-sponsored by the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and Americans for Peace Now. I posted the petition in this space on January 26 (“For Zion’s Sake, We Will Not Be Silent” – Rabbis and Cantors Speak Out.)

A rabbi living Israel posted this comment, "The people aren't buying the J Street solution to the Middle East."

Disturbed by this misinformation, I posted the following:

The facts are otherwise. The recent Pew Research Center survey reveals that fully 61% of US Jews believe that prospects for peace with the Palestinians ending in an independent Palestinian state and peaceful co-existence with Israel is possible while 33% say it is not possible, which the survey says is more optimistic than the US general public (50% yes vs. 41% no) and the Israeli public (50% yes vs 38% no).  

My colleague notes as well that many of our colleagues are afraid for their jobs. I understand the fear, and if it is legitimate I do not judge any other colleague who chooses to keep his/her own counsel.

However, I ask how we congregational rabbis, in particular, can justify our not speaking out on perhaps the most important issue facing the Jewish people in our generation, whether Israel remains Jewish and democratic if it does not settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even PM Netanyahu knows that a two-state solution is the only way to do so. Though reports indicate that he is under enormous pressure from his right-wing coalition to maintain the status quo, surveys of Israelis indicate that a two-state deal with adequate security for Israelis would be accepted by 80 members of the Knesset and by a similar percentage of the Israeli public in a national referendum.

This joint statement by J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights will demonstrate the support of large numbers of the American rabbinate and cantorate for Secretary Kerry's peace efforts, and that will send an important message to the Obama administration and Congress that, in addition to the results of American Jewish opinion as reported in the Pew survey, that American rabbis and cantors also do not agree with the politics of the major American Jewish Organizations that have supported the more right wing position of parts of the Israeli government coalition.

One final thought to our more fearful colleagues - Rabbi Israel Salanter said it best: "A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him[her] is no rabbi. A rabbi who fears his[her] community is no mensch." 

It is one thing to fear losing our jobs and quite another to fear the wrath and criticism of some of our congregants. If it's the latter and my colleagues agree with the essence of the petition, I ask them to transcend their fear and sign on.”

My post, of course, did not pass without comment. The two sharpest critiques are these:

[1] J Street should stay out of making foreign policy.

[2] Rosove ought to cease calling colleagues 'cowards' (or not menschen) if they do not speak out.

In response to critique #1 - J Street is no different than AIPAC in advocating for the security and future of the state of Israel. If J Street has engaged in influencing American foreign policy then certainly AIPAC has done so for much longer. As American citizens, we have the right and duty to speak out, and as Jews we have the moral responsibility to do so.

Saying nothing about policies pursued by the Israeli government that we believe are contrary to Israel’s own security interests and democracy gives a pass to American Jews who advocate strongly that we should support everything the Jewish state does.

In response to critique #2 – Rabbi Israel Salanter was among the most important orthodox ethicists in 19th century European Jewry. In my RAVKAV post I acknowledged the difficulty in speaking out for those rabbis who legitimately fear for their positions and I do not judge them. However, when a rabbi simply fears upsetting some congregants and provoking criticism and remains silent, especially on matters of major Jewish and ethical significance, to me his/her own menschlechkite (per Rabbi Israel Salanter) is compromised.

I did not call any such rabbi a coward. It would be intemperate and unkind for me to do so.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Rabbi John L. Rosove assumed his duties as Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood in November 1988. A native of Los Angeles, he earned a BA in Art History from UC Berkeley...

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