First, a brief review: our theme for this year is “Being There” – being physically connected, being here, being present in both mind and body, and in particular how we need this especially right now as the pandemic is winding down and many of us are reconnecting to Jewish life.
I spoke on the first day of Rosh Hashanah about having your own minyan, that is, joining a ḥavurah, which is a small-group program that we at Beth Shalom will be rolling out in the coming months, and we hope you will participate.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about the fact that Jewish tradition expects you to Be There, to show up. This is a continuum, and the synagogue has always been the primary place of gathering for the Jewish people. We are here for you at the corner of Beacon and Shady all the time, all the days of your life, and the nights as well. Come be here with us.
Tonight the theme is qehillah qedoshah, sacred community. Most of us may not be familiar with this term, but it is the universal Hebrew designation for “congregation.” Not synagogue, mind you (that, of course, is beit kenesset, “house of gathering”), but congregation, which is more a statement about relationship than about a particular building or location. A synagogue is a place. Qehillah qedoshah refers to the people.
While most of us gathered here tonight are members of this qehillah qedoshah, this sacred community of Beit Shalom, we are also part of a sacred community which extends to all Jewish people around the world. You might call that Qehillah Qedoshah Am Yisrael. The Sacred Community of the People of Israel.
That sense of interconnection has been a part of the Jewish people as long as there have been Jews. Sure, we disagree with each other, and we certainly do not all see eye-to-eye about theology or halakhah / Jewish law or even who is a Jew. Our world-wide community is marked by a great palette of variation in practices and customs, foods and unique rituals, music, and stories. But we are all connected within this community of Jews around the world.
What does that mean, exactly? It means that when you meet another Jewish person from somewhere else, that you know that you share certain things: our Torah, our rituals, our Shabbat and holidays, our Jewish values, our mitzvot, our history. There are certain terms and ideas which transcend language and local culture.
Years ago, I was at a Shabbat morning service at the Dohány Street synagogue in Budapest, the largest synagogue building in Europe, and I somehow managed to get an honor: hagbahah, lifting the Torah. So I’m sitting in the front row, and there is an older Hungarian gentleman sitting next to me, and he attempts to greet me. Now, my wife, being the daughter of Hungarian Shoah survivors, speaks reasonably decent Hungarian, but I know a few key words and nothing more.
It became immediately obvious to me and this older gentleman that we had no common language. But there we were, sitting in the front row in this 5,000-seat synagogue. And we shared that moment together, appreciating our mutual membership in the qehillah qedoshah, sacred community of our people.
Some of you know that Rabbi Shugerman and I participated in the Federation’s Mega Mission to Israel in June, along with about 240 other Pittsburghers, including about 25 who are members of Beth Shalom. Among the many things that we did was to visit the organizations and communities which our Federation supports, places like Beit Issie Shapiro in Ra’anana, which provides education and therapy services for people with disabilities of all ages, the United Hatzalah center in Jerusalem, where we dedicated a new motorcycle ambulance, and of course our partnership region in Karmiel and Misgav, all the way up north, where we not only celebrated with new teenage immigrants from the former Soviet Union, but also packed supplies for the hundreds of Ukrainian refugees that the region has taken in.
It is something we might occasionally miss, sitting here in Pittsburgh, far away from such communities: we are part of an extended qehillah qedoshah. Our sacred community reaches around the world.
Last year at this time, I gave an emotional appeal for the State of Israel, about our connections to the people and land of Israel through the lenses of tradition, of culture, and of the issues surrounding Jewish power. I spoke of the philosopher Aḥad HaAm’s concept of the merkaz ruḥani, of Israel as the “spiritual center” of the Jewish world.
This evening, I would like to remind us all about some fundamental truths about the State of Israel, things that we all should know. And I want you all to recall that Being There, that is, being a part of our qehillah qedoshah, our sacred community, includes feeling connected to and supporting our Israeli cousins. And all the more so right now, as American public opinion, and to some extent American Jews, are turning away from the State of Israel.
You may have seen the recent CNN Special Report on anti-Semitism in America, in which the CNN reporter Dana Bash, who is Jewish, covered several stories about the return of Jew hatred here.
One of the segments was about a painful incident which took place within the past year at the State University of New York at New Paltz. A Jewish student at New Paltz, Cassandra Blotner, was a founding member of a support group for survivors of sexual assault, called New Paltz Accountability, or NPA. Last December, she shared the following statement on her personal Instagram account, reposted from another Instagram user:
“Jews are an ethnic group who come from Israel. This is proven by genealogical, historical and archeological evidence. Israel is not a ‘colonial’ state and Israelis aren’t ‘settlers.’ You cannot colonize the land your ancestors are from.”
As a result, other members of the NPA group began to call for her removal from the group, because, in their opinion, anybody who is a Zionist is not welcome in the group, because Zionism is “racist” and “white supremacist” and that Zionists promote “genocide.” Members of the group accused her online of condoning oppression and violence against Palestinians, which she does not.
The NPA’s Instagram account featured a post stating that, “The origins of sexual violence are rooted in colonialism… Colonialism uses sexual violence as a tool to uphold white supremacy and conquer stolen land,” and that any justification of “the occupation of Palestine” is therefore effectively condoning rape.
Blotner and another member of the group, Ofek Preis, who is a Jewish Israeli, soon became victims of online harassment, including anonymous death threats. They filed a civil-rights complaint against SUNY New Paltz, claiming that the university failed to protect them from harassment and threats.
What is especially disturbing about this episode is that Ms. Blotner, a sexual-assault survivor who was seeking to help others like her by creating a support group, was further victimized by others who implied that her pro-Israel views were effectively causing sexual violence. If that is not an example of blaming the victim, I don’t know what is.
Along those lines, if you have not seen the new Ken Burns documentary, The US and the Holocaust, it is certainly worth the 6 hours or so of your time. The series deftly defuses the mistaken belief that the United States did not intervene to stop the Nazi horror because Americans were unaware of what was happening in Nazi-occupied Europe. This is a myth with which many of us were raised here in America.
On the contrary: Burns shows in abundance that the whole world knew, and even though President Franklin Delano Roosevelt personally felt that the US should intervene to save Jews, American public opinion was that our country should not open its doors to Jewish refugees. Sadly, this opinion was even espoused by some American Jews as well.
In one episode, the Holocaust historian Daniel Greene points out that a poll taken in 1938 showed that two-thirds of Americans believed that Jews in Nazi-controlled areas were either partially or completely responsible for their own persecution. Let that sink in for a moment.
Ḥevreh, I cannot stand before you and say with a straight face that all criticism of the State of Israel is rooted in anti-Semitism. I have lived in Israel, and my oldest son is currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces. There is plenty to criticize, with regard to the State’s historical treatment of Mizraḥi Jews, Jews from Arab countries, with regard to recent governments’ poor handling of issues surrounding freedom of Jewish practice for non-Orthodox Jews like us, and of course regarding aspects of the treatment of Palestinians in the territories. Israel is a real nation with real problems, governed by real people; she is also a thriving democracy, with a healthy free press. Citizens of China and Russia and Iran, and really much of the world would be envious of the robust debate and criticism of government policy found in Israel’s public discourse if they were aware of it.
But we as American Jews must also acknowledge that our Israeli cousins are part of our greater qehillah qedoshah, and in doing so we have to call out unfair criticism, particularly when it veers into anti-Semitic territory.
To that end, there are three things that you may hear some critics of Israel say which should make you very, very uncomfortable:
- Calling Israel an “apartheid” state.
- Labeling Israel a “colonial” enterprise, or a “settler-colonial” state.
- Accusing Israel of genocide.
Apartheid, the Afrikaans word for “separateness,” was the legally-enshrined racial categorization system that functioned in South Africa for nearly five decades in the 20th century. Under apartheid, all citizens were categorized into four distinct races: White, Black, Indian, and Coloured, and laws about whom you could marry, where you could live and work, how you could vote and for whom, were all a part of that system. It was a system that was fundamentally unjust, denying non-white people many of the rights that we all agree should be universal.
The application of this term to Israel is not only inaccurate, it also diminishes the suffering of Black South Africans under apartheid, and demeans their struggle and loss of life in defeating that system. In Israel, there are Arab doctors and lawyers and professors and judges, and for the last year even an Israeli Arab party in the governing coalition. While Israeli Arabs certainly face discrimination and inequities, many also thrive within Israel and are loyal citizens.
It is certainly true that the Palestinian Arabs of the West Bank live in much worse circumstances, and the failures and intransigence among multiple parties involved in attempting to resolve these challenges continues to extend their predicament, including high unemployment and other serious social ills. And while Israel is certainly a part of this situation, it is not solely the fault of the Israeli government. And even in the Palestinian territories, applying the term “apartheid” is clearly only an attempt to unfairly characterize the situation to make Israel and Jews look bad.
It has become fashionable in some circles to refer to Israel as a “settler-colonial” state, meaning a place where a foreign power sent settlers to colonize the state and establish an outpost of that foreign power. All of the nations in North and South America, and many other places around the world, would fall into that category. But Israel does not, for a few reasons:
- There has been a continuous Jewish presence in the land of Israel for at least 2500 years.
- The Jews who left other countries in the waves of Zionist migration from the 1860s and onward were not sent by Russia or Poland or Germany or England or Yemen or Iran to establish outposts of those countries; on the contrary, those folks who relocated saw themselves as returning to the historical home of the Jewish people, and in many cases, were of course fleeing the native anti-Semitism in their former lands.
- In doing so, they rejected the cultures of their former countries, reviving the Hebrew language, adopting Middle Eastern foods and cultural norms. No other settler movement has done so.
One can only conclude that the terms “colonial” or “settler-colonial,” when applied to Israel, are meant as a slur to delegitimize her, and deny that Jewish people have a right to live there.
There is no statute of limitations on ancestral land, and we, the Jewish people are entitled to the self-determination that all other nations enjoy.
This is an especially flagrant distortion. We, the Jews, know what genocide is: we still have living witnesses among us to the Shoah.
Genocide, as attempted by the Ottoman Turks against the Armenians, by the Nazis, in Burma and Bosnia and Rwanda and Cambodia, is deliberate and systematic, and the intent is to destroy the targeted group.
After Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, the terrorist group Hamas took control of the territory. Whenever there is fighting between Israel and Hamas, and of course this has continued to happen from time-to-time due to Hamas’ continued attempts to kill Israeli civilians, the number of Palestinians killed is always dramatically higher than the number of Israelis. In May of 2021, in eleven days of Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians, followed by Israeli reprisals to dismantle terrorist infrastructure, 14 Israelis died, and 256 Palestinians.
We should never dismiss the loss of any human life, and the pain of loss on both sides of the Gaza border is truly awful. But the asymmetric body count does not make Israel guilty of genocide. On the Israeli side, this is a fight for defensible borders, so that she can protect her people. But for Hamas, the stated goal is, in fact, Israel’s annihilation.
There are no roving Israeli killing gangs deliberately targeting Palestinians. There are no concentration camps, no transports to death camps, not even attempts to physically relocate the Palestinian population to Jordan or somewhere else.
The accusation of Israeli genocide is outrageously hyperbolic, and we should decry it as such.
OK, Rabbi. Even if those characterizations are inaccurate or unfair, why should we support the State of Israel if we have to constantly defend her actions? And why should we care, here in Diaspora? Should we not focus more energy on our spiritual needs here?
As tempting as it may be, we cannot look away. We cannot stand idly by while fellow members of our qehillah qedoshah, our sacred community, are slandered. It is up to us, the second-largest Jewish community in the world, to stand with Israel.
And I want to reinforce that that does not mean we cannot be critical. But we should do so in a way that does not amplify the voices of those who want to see Israel just go away. We cannot give ammunition to Israel’s enemies, and she has very real enemies, who are armed and dangerous and located very close by. On the contrary, the only way we are going to guarantee a sustainable future for all the people who live on that tiny strip of land, is to be in conversation with all those who are willing to work toward that future together. Coexistence is the only possible solution.
We cannot turn our backs. We cannot disengage. We cannot afford to do so.
On the contrary, we have to work harder to connect with and understand Israel and Israelis.
As for the question of, “Why should we care?” Two generations ago I would not have had any reason to even address the question. But given some of the statistics which I have shared with you in the past about American Jews’ gradual disengagement with Israel, I find myself making this case again and again: Israel is worth defending.
The idea of a Jewish homeland is worth defending, even for those of us who are perfectly happy living here in America. And Israel the country – with all her imperfections – is worth defending.
One of those reasons is that of which we should never lose sight: had Israel existed in the 1930s, it is quite likely that six million souls would not have succumbed to the brutality of the Nazis and their willing collaborators. The Burns documentary makes that abundantly clear, when he reminds us that at the Evian Conference in July, 1938, 32 nations in attendance from around the world all expressed sympathy for the plight of German and Austrian Jews seeking refuge, but only the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica agreed to raise their immigration quotas. Hitler saw that as a green light to dispose of his Jews any way he wanted to; nobody else wanted us.
God forbid we should need Israel for that purpose. But there is a better reason for us to remain firmly connected to Israel: and that is that she is, increasingly, a source of inspiration for contemporary Jews around the world, not only as a tech powerhouse or a proud center of secular Jewish culture, but she is also rethinking Judaism for modern Jews.
In recent years, new batei midrash / houses of study have popped up in Israel, created by and aimed at secular and non-Orthodox Jews, where Israelis from diverse backgrounds are learning Talmud and midrash and other Jewish text. New egalitarian and contemporary congregations have formed, headed by a generation of young, native rabbis, who are re-envisioning what it means to be Jewish. Modern Jewish identity is changing. Rabbi Rinat Safania Schwartz, who leads a congregation in Shoham, recently wrote the following:
I want everyone to feel that the very fact of being Jewish confers both the privilege and the responsibility to take personal and communal ownership of their Judaism – of our language, tradition, culture, literature, and all aspects of Jewish creativity. It’s critical that we move people away from relating to their Judaism as if it were in a museum. People must feel that they can “touch,” feel, renew, and create from within.From “From the Fruit of the Land: Ten Israeli Spiritual Leaders Reflect on the Budding Opportunities for Israeli Judaism Today,” The Honey Foundation for Israel, 2022.
Rabbi Schwartz’s language is quite different than that of most Orthodox Israeli rabbis; she is not alone in finding new ways for Jewish Israelis to express their Judaism.
The members of our extended Qehillah Qedoshah in Israel will help us all build the new Judaism of the 21st century. It is Israel which will be the Diaspora’s partner in maintaining a healthy non-Orthodox Judaism for the future.
So what can you do?
- Get to know our four shinshinim, young Israelis who are between high school and army service, who are with us in Pittsburgh for the year
- Spend some time learning the history of how and why this patch of land passed from one empire to the next. Learn how the modern state of Israel came to be.
- Become familiar with Israeli politics. This is an exciting time – the fifth round of parliamentary elections in three years, coming up in a few weeks.
- Go there! We’ll have another congregational trip, probably in 2024
- Send your kids to Israel! There are so many options now: Ramah, USY, HSI, Nativ, and of course Birthright.
It is up to us to recognize the bonds that tie each and every one of us people together around the world, and to acknowledge that Israel is the gravitational center of our peoplehood, Qehillah Qedoshah Am Yisrael.
Tomorrow, for our fourth and final installment in the Being There series, we will speak about ḥevruta, the essential Jewish concept of partnership.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, evening of Yom Kippur, 10/4/2022.)