Rabbis Must Go Beyond Cheerleading on Israel

Rabbis are different from pundits and politicians, and it’s their moral voice that must be heard. Too many young U.S. Jews despair of hearing in synagogue a less one-sided view of Israel, one that reflects their discomfort with the occupation.

Jill Jacobs
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A Palestinian woman gestures as she stands beside an olive tree after it was cut down in the West Bank village of Litwane, near the Jewish settlement of Ma'on. Credit: Reuters
Jill Jacobs

The last few days have seen the publication of four articles on the difficulties and pitfalls for rabbis in talking about Israel. In the New York Times, Laurie Goodstein reports now on rabbis afraid of losing congregants or their jobs if they bring up Israel. In Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner observes  much the same phenomenon. And in Haaretz, Peter Beinart advises rabbis not to speak about Israel at all; Eric Yoffie enjoinders rabbis to address the subject of Israel, despite its fractious status amongst their congregants.

It’s true that speaking about Israel is difficult. In the lead up to Rosh Hashanah, I have heard from many anxious rabbis, worried about angering one segment of the community or the other, or wondering whether to address Israel at all.

This situation is especially pronounced for rabbis who move beyond the one-sided pro-Israel cheerleading and offer the experiences and stories of Palestinians along with those of Israelis.

Thankfully, courageous rabbis do engage their communities on this most difficult of issues. Some have shared with me draft sermons that draw on Jewish text and history to promote a relationship with Israel that includes deep commitment, loving critique, and the ability to hold multiple narratives at the same time.

The job of a rabbi is to be a moral leader. And there is nowhere in the Jewish community more in need of moral leadership than the Israel debate.

Our conversations about Israel tend to stick to the political. We wage wars of factoids, lobbing bits of data back and forth: The latest polling on who does and doesn’t support peace; evidence of one side’s bad (or good) behavior during the war; “proof” of whom to blame for the latest flare-up or for a long ago war.

These boxing matches lead nowhere. Each side digs deeper and deeper into its own position, and seeks out more and more data points to support pre-existing beliefs.

Rabbis hold the power to break through this standstill by helping their communities to cultivate deep empathy for all sides. Rabbis can bring the wisdom of Jewish text and tradition to deep questions about the Israel we want to create. We can look to rabbinic laws concerning the establishment of a just society for insight into creating a country that reflects Jewish values. This year, the laws of shemita, including the release of land, might prompt us to consider when and how we would be willing to let go of some land in order to achieve peace. Biblical stories of pacts between our ancestors and foreign rulers offer models for peace agreements even in times of fear.

This January, I spent a few days with participants in T’ruah’s year-long program for rabbinical students spending the academic year in Israel. Together, we planted olive trees on a Palestinian farm in the West Bank, wrestled with legal texts about the possession of land, and reflected on how these students might bring the stories of their year in Israel home to their student pulpits and teaching positions.

One lesson stood out: Rabbis must be different from pundits and political analysts. Instead, rabbis speak with a moral authority, and from the depths of Jewish tradition.

According to an old adage, the job of the clergy is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. This especially rings true when it comes to Israel. Rabbis need to simultaneously address the very real fears of those of us with loved ones in Israel, and to push Israel to be a place that lives up to the best of Jewish text, values, and tradition.

Some fear that speaking honestly about Israel will deter young Jews, or the marginally affiliated from engaging with Israel or with the Jewish community. In fact, the opposite is the case. Too many young Jews complain that they hear nothing in synagogue that speaks to their own experiences with Israel or their discomfort with the occupation. If instead, they hear rabbis moving beyond platitudes and speaking about Israel in a way that takes multiple truths into account, these sporadic synagogue goers may get excited about being part of a tradition that speaks powerfully to today’s moral quandaries.

Over the summer I have witnessed dozens of rabbis listening to and sharing best practices for speaking about Israel honestly and in such a way as to be heard. In listening to these rabbis, I was struck by their courage. Many of these rabbis have taken risks by offering loving critique of Israel, by inviting speakers representing a range of views, and by organizing facilitated conversation among congregants with diverse views.

To be a rabbi is to be a moral leader. Moral leadership requires us to move beyond cheerleading to drawing on our tradition acknowledge fear, address ethical questions, offer loving critique, and inspire the hope that will move our communities toward supporting peace.  

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which mobilizes 1,800 rabbis and cantors and tens of thousands of North American Jews to protect human rights in Israel and North America. Follow T’ruah on Twitter: @TruahRabbis

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