The Trouble With Talking About AIPAC

Rabbis are under pressure from the left and right when they speak up, as leaders should, on Israel; but just as legitimate is the pushback from dissenting congregants.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

Rabbis who have controversial things to say should not hesitate to say them in public, even if their congregants don’t like it.

When they do this, of course, the possibility exists that what they say might be wrong, or naïve, or misguided—and in that case, there will be plenty of people to point this out.

This is my response to the latest contretemps at B’nai Jeshurun, the upper west side congregation known for its social activism and spirited worship.

Rabbis Rolando Matalon and Felicia Sol, respected colleagues who have done so much to make B’nai Jeshurun a vibrant center of Jewish life, signed a letter criticizing Mayor Bill de Blasio for his strong statement vowing to stand by AIPAC “in Washington and everywhere.” The letter was signed by approximately 50 liberal Jewish activists and affirmed that “AIPAC speaks for Israel’s hard-line government and its right-wing supporters, and for them alone; it does not speak for us.” (I was also critical of de Blasio, although for a different reason; I thought that it was silly and contrary to his own guidelines on governance to insist that a large meeting in midtown Manhattan be seen as “off-the-record.”)

When the letter to de Blasio was made public, 48 members of B’nei Jeshurun wrote an open letter of their own. Addressed to Rabbis Matalon and Sol, it rebuked the rabbis for the content of their communication to de Blasio. “You should have stood by Israel and urged its authors not to send it because it ran counter to the truth…,” they wrote. Subsequently, Jonathan Tobin in Commentary praised the congregants for speaking up, and also denied that rabbis are intimidated by wealthy members from criticizing Israel; in his view, rabbis are far too quick to “use their pulpits to undermine the pro-Israel community.” And Shmuel Rosner expressed dismay at what he sees as an organized campaign against AIPAC and joined Tobin in applauding those at B’nei Jeshurun and elsewhere who are fighting back.

I admit that I am somewhat puzzled by all of this. The passionate pluralism of the American Jewish community is a blessing, and so too is the diversity of views in the American rabbinate on every topic imaginable, including Israel. Still, even recognizing the differences that exist on settlements and other hot-button issues, I see no evidence of any significant defections from any part of the rabbinate from pro-Israel positions. All of American Jewry’s major rabbinical organizations have remained resolutely and emphatically pro-Israel.

I am also a bit bewildered by the suggestion that rabbis are not pressured to rein in their opinions on Israel. Of course they are; it happens all the time. Given that ours is a contentious community and that Israeli is a profoundly visceral issue, it could not be otherwise. In the Reform movement, I have seen rabbis with rightwing views who are criticized by members for their sermons and public statements; but more frequently, it is rabbis on the left who are pressured into silence.

In virtually all cases, I urge rabbis and members alike to dive right in and engage in the debate, with civility as the only condition. In fact, I suggest that controversial sermons and statement be shared on the congregation’s website, and that members be invited to respond. Rabbis are not functionaries or bureaucrats; they are teachers of Torah and shepherds of the community. And members of their congregations are hungry for religious leadership on all matters, including Israel, the central Jewish issue of our time. Surely the task of rabbis is to fearlessly provide it.
Are there limits beyond which rabbis should not go? There are, and I have written elsewhere about where the red lines are. But Rabbis Matalon and Sol have crossed no lines; they have expressed a legitimate point of view, to which members of their synagogue have taken legitimate exception.

Having said all this, I have one more not-so-minor point to add: On the issue in question, I side mostly with the critics and not with the rabbis. I don’t agree with AIPAC on everything, but I agree with them most of the time; and the harsh dismissal of AIPAC by the signatories to the letter troubles me greatly. A Washington without AIPAC would not mean an Israel at peace; it would mean an Israel isolated and vulnerable, lacking the anchor that AIPAC has long provided and without which peace would be impossible.

So let’s not worry about outspoken rabbis, and let’s encourage dissenting congregants to say their piece. There are some risks involved in the debate, but so be it; the great majority of rabbis that I know are serious about the Jewish tradition that rests on their shoulders and work hard not to compromise the moral standards to which they adhere. But at the same time, with America beset by turmoil and the course of her foreign policy often uncertain, it would be wise to keep in mind one simple fact: AIPAC is Israel’s safety net, and it is now more important than ever.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.

The B'nai Jeshurun Synagogue in New York City (illustrative).Credit: Google Street View

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