B’nai Jeshurun, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, is an unusual place. First, because it is a non-Orthodox synagogue overflowing with young Jews. Second, because its rabbis say publicly about Israel what many other American rabbis only whisper. And rabbis like that often risk losing their jobs.
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The most recent threat began a couple of weeks ago, after New York Mayor Bill de Blasio privately told representatives from AIPAC, “when you need me to stand by you in Washington or anywhere, I will answer the call.” In response, two of the rabbis at BJ (as it is known) signed a letter of protest, which declared, “AIPAC speaks for Israel’s hard-line government and its right-wing supporters, and for them alone; it does not speak for us.” Now those rabbis are under attack from some of their own congregants, who have written a letter of their own.
(Full disclosure: I too signed the letter to de Blasio. I am friendly with the BJ rabbis, and with some of their congregational critics. I frequent BJ on Purim and Simchat Torah, though my children find the candy selection better elsewhere).
The letter chastising Rabbis Roly Matalon and Felicia Sol is illuminating. “AIPAC,” it declares, “works with Congress and leaders in the Executive branch to support the government of Israel” and “as believers in democracy and because the government of Israel is democratically elected by the citizens of Israel, we support its duly elected government.”
"As believers in democracy." That phrase, it’s worth remembering, is not being employed to defend Israel’s policies inside the green line. The key dispute between AIPAC and the BJ rabbis is over whether American Jews should publicly challenge Israeli policy in the West Bank. The incensed congregants say no because “as believers in democracy,” they publicly support the right of Israel’s “democratically elected” government to pursue whatever policies in the West Bank it desires.
Where is George Orwell when you need him? Democracy means government by the people. Every single person in the West Bank lives under the control of the government of Israel. Yes, in the non-contiguous archipelago of Palestinian cities and towns known as Areas A and B, Palestinians receive many of their services from the Palestinian Authority. But the PA is not a government; it is a government’s subcontractor. The Israeli army - and the army of no other government - can enter every square inch of the West Bank. The Israeli government controls the West Bank’s borders. It controls the airspace. It controls the currency. At times over the past decade, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have elected representatives to a parliament. In 2012, the Israeli army placed the speaker of that (now-defunct) parliament under arrest.
My point is not about whether Israel has valid reasons for controlling the West Bank. It is merely that Israeli does control the West Bank. And it can only do so because Palestinians, who comprise more than eighty percent of the West Bank’s residents, cannot vote for the government that controls their lives.
That’s why defending the legitimacy of Israeli policy in the West Bank by citing one’s belief in democracy is so Orwellian. Because Israeli policy in the West Bank is premised on the West Bank not being a democracy. Were the West Bank a democracy, it would cease being under Israeli control.
To use the language of democracy to defend Israeli policy in the West Bank is linguistic fraud. Such fraud is necessary because to honestly defend the denial of democratic rights, for 46 years, to millions of people because they happen to be Palestinians and not Jews, would require language too coarse for the Upper West Side. It’s an old story. “Things like the continuance of British rule in India,” Orwell wrote almost seventy years ago, “can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”
It is this culture of euphemism - a culture which has corrupted Jewish America for decades - that Rabbis Roly Matalon and Felicia Sol are refusing to oblige. That’s why their behavior is so threatening. In the American Jewish world today, honest speech would constitute a revolution. Were all the rabbis and Jewish professionals who privately agree with Matalon and Sol to say so publicly, the communal foundation upon which AIPAC rests would crumble.
“Language has been reduced to labels, talk has become double-talk. We are in the process of losing faith in the reality of words,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel, the rabbi in whose footsteps Matalon and Sol walk. “Renewal of prayer calls for a renewal of language, of cleansing the words, of revival of meanings.” Maybe that’s why so many young Jews come to B’nai Jeshurun. Because they realize that honest prayer, like honest politics, requires facing truths we hide even from ourselves.