Later this week, the Jews of America, like Jews throughout the world, will gather in their homes for the Passover Seder. They will tell their children about the exodus from Egypt, perform the rituals prescribed by tradition, and read the prayers that remind our people of the redemption yet to come. And in almost every case, they will do one more thing: argue about Israel.
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While talk of Israel happens at every Seder, not least prompted by the words "next year in Jerusalem," this year, with the Seder coming soon after Israel’s divisive election, family and friends will throw themselves into the subject with particular intensity. Jews on both the right and left will make their case, each arguing with passion, conviction and not a little anger. And, ironically, each will be substantially correct.
The Jews on the right will talk of the chaos in the Middle East and the collapse of established Arab governments. They will point out the danger to Israel and the world of the rogue regime in Iran, which continues rushing toward a nuclear weapon while supporting terror throughout the region. They will note how terribly vulnerable Israel is, with Hamas, Hezbollah and ISIS on — or near — her borders. And they will remind us, yet again, that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has failed to make the tough decisions required to advance peace negotiations with Israel. There will be no real answers to these arguments, because every point is on target.
But those on the left will say that no matter how many times the right-wingers change the subject, the occupation of the territories continues, and, for almost half a century, millions of Palestinians have been deprived of basic rights. They will remind us that, after nine years as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu offers no hint of how the occupation might end, how a binational state might be avoided or where he hopes to take his country. They will point out that Israel’s democratic allies are tired of excuses; threatening boycotts and demanding solutions. And they will note with alarm Israel’s growing de facto alliance with the Republican Party, undermining the bipartisan advocacy that American Jews have always seen as essential to their pro-Israel strategy. Again, there will be no convincing response to these arguments because they, too, are right.
In some cases, passion will turn to extremism. The right-wing extremists, schooled in the vitriol of the Internet, will demonize U.S. President Barack Obama. Obama is the enemy, they will say, a hater of Israel, a virtual anti-Semite, an apologist for Iran, a danger to the West. Israel’s demise could be imminent, they will warn, and the liberals are to blame. But the great majority of American Jews, of course, will not buy this nonsense. Obama has been wrong about many things, and he may be wrong about Iran, but he is a friend of the Jewish people and he cares about the Jewish state. And generally speaking, the Obama-haters have no credibility. They support democracy and human rights in Iran and Saudi Arabia but not in the Palestinian territories, and when far-right lunatics sit in Israel’s government and say outrageous things, they remain silent.
But extremism will be heard from the left, as well. Some group of cousins or uncles will express their hatred of Netanyahu, presenting the prime minister as a devil rather than what he is: an overly cautious politician, hugely inept in his dealings with allies, and lacking in principle and vision. Netanyahu is not popular among American Jews, but most do not see him as a monster. Still, the left-wingers, who minimize the threats that Israel faces and even advocate punitive sanctions, can be as dangerous as those on the right.
What, then, will I say at my own Seder table, to moderates and extremists on both sides of the political spectrum? I will offer three things:
First, I will suggest that there is nothing new about the argument we are having. It is simply another version of the debate that has been raging throughout Jewish history between two value systems that have coexisted. One is fervently and militantly national-religious, emphasizing the national assertiveness that's rooted in power. The other is moral-religious, and attempts to merge national aspirations with universal values. No Jewish generation since the beginning of time has been exempt from this battle, and in an era of renewed Jewish sovereignty, the debate is both inevitable and a sign of our people’s vitality.
Second, I will tell them that there are answers to Israel’s political dilemma. My hero of the recent elections is Michael Oren, Israel's former ambassador to the United States. As he ran for the Knesset with the Kulanu party, Oren was respectful but critical of Netanyahu, skeptical of the Palestinians, and honest about the Obama administration’s failings. Urging Israel to offer a peace plan of her own, he called for two states for two peoples, bipartisan outreach in the United States, and limiting settlement activity to the settlement blocs and the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem. American Jews should support his plan and advocate for it in both Jerusalem and Washington. Netanyahu has told us many times what he is against, but the time has come for him to tell us what he is for — and for American Jews to say plainly what they believe.
And third, I will remind my guests that Passover is a holiday of hope, pointing us in the direction of national redemption. Redemption here does not mean religious salvation or political triumphalism. It means securing Israel’s place in a turbulent Middle East. It means saying to the right: We must be ready for withdrawals, concessions, and saying “no” to settlers. It means saying to the left: We must understand the intentions of our enemies and remember that the road ahead is full of terrible dangers. And it means saying to the Jewish people: A Jewish state living in peace with her neighbors is the heart of the Zionist dream. Even if the dream cannot be realized now, we must not squander this inheritance. We must guard it, nurture it, and grow it into a treasure for future generations.
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 in Westfield, New Jersey.