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published, the crisis of the moment may have sorted itself out (or, more likely, not), but if so, it will probably have been replaced by other crises.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, and unbreakable.

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 or despair.

Let’s embrace that with hope – and get to work.

Dr. Arnold M. Eisen is chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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