Israel: Our Loyalty and Love Undiminished
by Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen
Israel is again in the headlines.
I have begun many articles about
Judaism and the Jewish world with
those words over the past four decades.
If only Israel could vanish from the
front pages for a while. If only it could enjoy
some peace, routine, calm, cooperation –
all realities that are not newsworthy. Instead,
Jews throughout the world had to face the
Days of Awe again this year with fear and
trembling caused not only by the privilege
and task of standing before God, asking forgiveness
and looking honestly at ourselves.
Other fears, too, cause sleepless nights: Will
peace ever come to Israel’s borders? Will the
Iranian nuclear program be halted? Can hope
survive blow after blow of disappointment?
By the time this issue of CJ: Voices of
Conservative/Masorti Judaism is published,
the crisis of the moment may have sorted
itself out (or, more likely, not), but if so,
it will probably have been replaced by other
crises. To be a Jew who cares about Israel
in 5772 is to worry a lot about its future. To
be a Conservative Jew, for whom intimate
relationship to the state and the people of
Israel stands at the very core of your being,
is to reckon with the grim possibility that
peace may elude us for many years to come.
That prospect is awful to contemplate. It
does not help that fewer and fewer nations
are prepared to stand by Israel, or that a
diminishing number of Israelis seem to share
the dreams of what an Israel-at-peace should
look like – dreams on which I, like most
North American Jews, was raised. Even as
Israel advances on many fronts and provides
Jews everywhere with numerous reasons for
pride, leading Israeli rabbis declare with disturbing
regularity that Conservative and
Reform Judaism both are heresy, and some
of Israel’s politicians express disdain for
democracy. Jews outside of Israel seem
increasingly incapable of disagreeing about
Israel with civility and respect. Some (especially
younger) Jews do not talk or think
about Israel at all.
That is why I’ve been urging Jews who do
care to savor the blessing of being alive at
this unique moment in Jewish history and
experience. Jewish life and the practice of
Judaism have become infinitely richer in
our generation, thanks to Israel’s existence
and achievements. I’d like us all to affirm
clearly and without equivocation – no matter
what our opinions about Israeli policy –
that our connection to the State of Israel
and its citizens is fundamental, nonnegotiable,
Israel is the single greatest project the Jewish
people has going right now, and the most
important arena that has been available to
Jews in two millennia in which to put our
values to the test and our teachings into practice.
We need it. And it needs us.
That is the heart of the matter for me.
I am a religiousZionist, convinced that Jews
are heirs to a unique story that we are responsible
for carrying forward, and because of
history, tradition, and faith we are partners
in a covenant aimed at bringing more
justice and compassion to the world. The
sovereign, democratic State of Israel affords
unprecedented scope and responsibility for
the fulfillment of the covenant. It presents
us with the chance to do what Conservative
Judaism has always urged: adapt the teachings
of Jewish tradition to unprecedented
circumstances and join Torah with the very
best of modern thought and expertise. In
Israel, Jews can and must bring the Torah
to bear on every aspect of society: health
care and education, foreign policy and the
welfare system, treatment of non-Jewish
minorities and diverse streams of Judaism,
relations of war and peace, and proper stewardship
of the planet’s resources.
Just before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish
Theological Seminary released a report by
sociologist Steven M. Cohen showing that
Conservative rabbis and rabbinical students
have a continuing, strong, and passionate
engagement with Israel. Some younger
North American Jews have distanced themselves from the state in recent years, but not
JTS’s rabbis-in-training. Their politics may
have moved left as the Israeli government
and rabbinate have moved right, but their
loyalty and their love are undiminished.
Given those findings, and the diversity of
opinion about Israel that exists within the
consensus of our movement’s strong connection
to Israel, I think that Conservative/
Masorti Jews are well-positioned to take
the lead in undertaking three steps that will
strengthen Israel and the relationship of
Diaspora Jews to it.
First, Conservative Jews in North America
can do a better job of learning about Israel
and talking with Israelis. Both sides have a
share of responsibility in the inadequacy
of communication. Diverging histories (and
ignorance of history) is one problem. The
gap is exacerbated by differences of language,
ethos, political systems, and religious patterns.
Conservative Jews are well-positioned
to overcome these divides. We are disproportionately
represented in the lay and professional
leadership of Jewish communal
organizations in North America. We routinely
reach across boundaries to our left and
to our right. Masorti Jews in Israel are natural
allies and conversation partners for those
of us who live outside the land. Together
we can make Israel a state that palpably
belongs to all Jews everywhere.
Second, let’s do a better job of talking with
one another about Israel. Civil discourse
about Israel has broken down in many synagogues,
including many Conservative synagogues.
I suspect the reason for our growing
intolerance of each other’s dissent is a combination
of hopelessness about the prospects
for peace and fear that any criticism of
government policy gives aid and comfort to
Israel’s enemies. I do not minimize that danger,
but we have to engage in honest discussion
about the single greatest Jewish
concern of our times. No Jews – particularly
no younger Jews – should be banished
from Jewish tables, or made to feel
they have no place in our community,
because their views on Israel seem heretical
or their criticism untempered. We need
to cut ourselves a little slack where Israel
is concerned. Let’s trust Jewish leaders to
use community agencies and forums responsibly
and help individual Jews – including
college students – to develop their own
reasons for standing with Israel.
Third, let’s make sure that the future lay
and professional leaders of our movement
have every chance to know the wonderful,
bewildering, changing-by-the-day reality
of Israel, and so come to love it, each
in his or her own way. JTS now sends its
rabbinical students not so much to study in
Israel for the year as to study Israel in Israel,
and to learn how to transmit the knowledge
and love they have acquired or deepened
to others. We have launched a new program
aimed at doing the same for educators.
On the home campus, we have placed Israel
front and center.
This year, as every year, Israel provides
opportunities for Jewish fulfillment, individual
and collective, that are as yet unexplored.
The state’s existence and
achievements carry hope to Jews and to
humanity that we dare not consign to cynicism
Let’s embrace that with hope – and get to work.
Dr. Arnold M. Eisen is chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.