On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Posts Tagged ‘West Bank’

High Holiday Message from Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen

This has been a momentous and disturbing year for Jews who care about the future of their people and their tradition. 5774 began with news of prestigious research that cast doubt on the vitality and viability of the Jewish community in America. As the year draws to a close, that concern for the state of American Judaism has long since been eclipsed by fear for the ability of Israel (indeed, of any state) to defend its citizens from terrorist aggression. ISIS’s brutal march across Iraq and Syria has demonstrated that the threat posed to Israel’s borders by Hamas missiles and tunnels is part of a far larger threat from which no one, no nation, is immune. These events will weigh heavily on many Jewish minds as we sit in synagogue on the High Holy Days. I know they will be on my mind, crowding out a host of other concerns, both personal and communal, and eroding the hope we all need in order to accomplish repentance and renewal.

How shall we think about these matters during the High Holy Days? In what ways shall we act differently in 5775, as individuals and as a people? And, perhaps most crucially of all, what wisdom do the Days of Awe offer, in the face of truly awful events, that can help to restore hope and point the way toward life and blessing?

As if in response to these questions, I was suddenly reminded one day of the opening passage of the haftarah chanted on Shabbat Shuvah—the Sabbath of Repentance that falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—by the Prophets Hosea, Micah, and Joel: “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God.” Rereading the prophetic selections this year, I was struck by two themes in particular.

The first is that Israel should return to our God in recognition that we have “stumbled” or “fallen.” All is not right with us or the world. We can’t just proceed as usual, down the same roads as usual. Our course must be altered, or we will get nowhere. That lesson holds for many aspects of our lives, individual and collective. It is true with regard to Israel’s security situation in the wake of this summer’s war; Israelis from across the political and religious spectrum, embracing “left” and “right,” “religious” and “secular,” seem agreed that the New Year must bring new directions, new options, ways of moving forward not yet attempted, on paths as yet untried.

Hosea emphasizes one aspect in particular of the required change: new language.

Take words with you and return to God. Say to Him: Forgive all guilt, and accept what is good. Instead of bulls we will offer our lips. Assyria shall not save us, no more will we ride our steeds, or say that our handiwork is our god. In You alone orphans find pity. (14:3–4)

What we say to one another and the world, the way we use language to reinforce current belief and limit consideration of other options, or by contrast, open the door to new thought and new partnerships—all these matter. Our words have the power to persuade God to forgive us, the Prophet maintains. Do they not have the power as well to persuade one another that things we ourselves have fashioned—objects, ideas, policies—are not God? We can and should turn away from those things. That’s what the New Year is for.

One of the most remarkable and hopeful moments of the summer was the coming together of Israelis of every opinion, joined by American Jews of almost every opinion, first in response to the June kidnapping and murder of the three teens in the West Bank and then in support of the war to defend Israel against the rockets and tunnels that put its citizens in jeopardy. Jews are not good at unity much of the time, and not much better at listening to words with which we strenuously disagree. We are highly skilled at using words to categorize one another—secular, religious, settler, leftist—and flinging the words about with a contempt that declares dialogue useless. Two other low points of the summer were the murder of an innocent Palestinian boy in response to the murder of the three teens and the censure or ridicule of Jews who expressed sadness at the death of innocent Palestinians. Anger and fear took their toll on compassion. Our words were brought low.

We know—and should we forget, Hosea reminds us—that the God before Whom we stand in judgment on the Days of Awe is one in Whom “orphans find pity” (14:4). This same God sent Jonah, an unwilling prophet, to secure the repentance of Nineveh, capital of Israel’s sworn enemy Assyria. Nineveh, apparently powerful, is helpless in the face of God’s judgment. Widows and orphans, seemingly powerless, find safety in God’s compassion, which circulates in the world through human beings like you and me. Normal operating procedure for individuals and states is to look to force (“steeds”) and alliances for strength and salvation. I am not ready to abandon either force or alliances in the face of Israel’s enemies, and do not believe Hosea wants us to. His point is rather that we should not rely exclusively on those sources of strength. The ironclad security we seek is unattainable; such security as we can attain will require words of healing among ourselves and with our enemies. This is a hard truth in any time, for any country, and all the harder for Jews in this time, in our precious homeland.

The long history of the Jewish people gives hope that, having survived so many tragedies and overcome so much adversity, we will be able to work through present difficulties, hard as they are, and take full advantage of the enormous blessings that come with renewal of Jewish sovereignty and participation in the greatest Diaspora we have ever known, the United States of America. The study of Jewish tradition offers confidence that our Torah is profound enough, complex enough, and compassionate enough to point a way through moral quandaries like those imposed upon us by the enemies of the moment. I wonder if the Rabbis directed us to read three different Prophets on Shabbat Shuvah—unparalleled in the annual haftarah cycle—to stress the need for a multiplicity of differing voices in the quest for turning and return.

Hosea calls us to recognize the fact of stumbling and embark on the search for new words. Joel assures us (2:19–20) that Israel’s enemies will be overcome, and life safeguarded: “I will grant you the new grain, the new wine and the new oil and you shall have them in abundance.” And the haftarah concludes with Micah (7:19–20), who promises—lest we doubt this going into Yom Kippur—that God will continue to “keep faith with Jacob,” and will “return to us in compassion” or, as the Etz Hayim translates the Hebrew, “take us back in love.” The love is put into the world by God, but is made effective here by us, manifest in better words and wiser paths.

My very best wishes, on behalf of everyone at JTS, for a year that is both sweet and good.

Response to the Presbyterian Divestment from Israel

Lovers of irony might savor the fact that the vote by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from three US companies doing business in Israel came exactly a week after news broke of the kidnapping—apparently by Hamas terrorists pledged to the destruction of Israel—of three teenage yeshiva students on the West Bank. It came at the very same time that a rival Islamic terrorist faction, likewise pledged to the destruction of Israel, was sweeping through Iraq in the wake of its capture of Mosul, leaving death, destruction, and untold cruelty in its path. Some might savor such irony, but irony requires distance, dispassion, the equanimity of a club chair by a fireplace. And that is not what most of us—Jew or Gentile—are feeling these days, as the sacrifice of countless Americans in Iraq seems for naught, the latest chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has ended with no progress toward peace, and the lives of three kids who could have been ours hang in the balance. I’d love a little irony now. Instead, eyes open to the world, nerves on edge, heart open to those teenagers and the suffering on so many sides this week, my feelings are a mixture of sadness, pain, and acute worry for Israel, for the Middle East, for the world.

The Presbyterian vote is a minor rather than a major addition to that mix. In the larger scheme of things, I doubt it will have much effect, but it certainly did not help matters. I can understand why people who care about peace between Israelis and Palestinians are frustrated right now, after years of a peace process that seems to go nowhere. I get why they feel driven to drastic action intended to accomplish what John Kerry and numerous negotiators before him could not. However, I believe that we must not let hope die: not now, not ever. That’s why I am prepared to assume that the majority of the Presbyterians who voted for divestment did so without malice. It is worth noting that the decision to divest was made by a narrow margin of 310–303 after what the New York Times called a “passionate debate”; the Presbyterian community is clearly divided on this issue.

Most, and even the best-intentioned, individuals sometimes do things that justly prompt reproach, because they should have done better. In a noteworthy sin of omission, the Presbyterian Assembly chose not to withdraw from their website the study guide issued by a Presbyterian advocacy group earlier this year, one-sided in the extreme, which is cleverly entitled Zionism Unsettled. Failure to disavow the study guide leads one reasonably to infer that some of those who voted for divestment would probably be just as happy to see the Jewish State disappear, in the hope of “un-settling” Jews not only from the West Bank but from Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem. Zionism includes the entire enterprise of Israel. Regardless, delegates supporting the divestment resolution—perhaps the majority—fell victim to two mistakes that, to my mind, are glaring and reprehensible.

First, they apparently believed that their vote to divest was fully compatible with the other principles affirmed in that very same resolution: Israel’s right to exist, “positive investment” in endeavors that advance the cause of peace, and careful distinction between their action and the global boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement. That distinction is not credible, and cannot be maintained; witness press coverage of the event and the glee of opponents of Israel who feel their cause has been boosted by the Presbyterian decision. All of us, at times, particularly when faced with difficult choices, want to have things both ways. We try to separate acts from consequences, or use the same words others use, but want them to mean something different. In this case, divestment is not supposed to mean divestment. Sanctions against Israel—and only against Israel—are not meant to signal particular animus against Israel, despite the fact that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has not proposed, let alone adopted, sanctions against China, say, or Russia, or Iran—all nations widely accused of human rights abuses that far exceed those leveled against Israel.

The second problem I have with the resolution is its accompanying declaration of love for the Jewish people. “In no way is this a reflection of our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers.” This despite the pleadings of rabbis and organizations who have long worked closely with the Presbyterian Church; despite awareness by the delegates that many thoughtful Jews of their acquaintance—including many who, like me, are not proponents of West Bank settlement—firmly opposed their resolution; despite knowledge by the assembly that it is condescending in the extreme to act against the stated wishes of people you profess to love, claiming to serve their best interests better than they can, and then dress up your behavior in the language of love. I certainly don’t feel loved by this resolution, any more than Jews felt loved when Christians over the centuries forcibly converted them, or when any group tells Jews, or the only sovereign Jewish State we have—one set up because our people believed that homecoming to Zion was needed not just for our fulfillment but for our very survival—that they know better than we do what is right for us, and are prepared to help us see the light by causing us suffering.

I imagine that the “us” in that sentence causes the Presbyterian Church (USA), and others too, a good deal of consternation. As I’ve just declared, I have issues with West Bank settlement, and certainly expanded West Bank settlement that has the effect and perhaps the intention of precluding a two-state solution. Many other Jews, in Israel and America, share my concerns. What is more, for religious Jews like me, the meaning of life is bound up in commitment to God’s commandments, pursuit of justice, and the increase of compassion in the world. We cannot deny that Israel is causing suffering to Palestinians right now (as Palestinians continue to inflict suffering on Israel). So why do I group “us” Jews together collectively? Why is it important not to separate Jews like me, of whom the divestors apparently approve, from Israel’s government and settlers, of whom they do not?

This is where Jews need to remind the Presbyterian Church (USA) that our covenant established and requires not only a faith but a people, a people called to follow God’s direction not only in the private sphere of home and sanctuary but in the public sphere of business, policymaking, and the court system. Zionism marks a return to a Land—and a State—to which Jewish hopes and obligations have been attached since our very beginnings. Modern life has in many cases driven a wedge between Jewish faith (always a complex matter, not given to easy dogmatic formulation) and Jewish life. But even the most “secular” of Israelis know they are caught up in forces too large for comprehension inside conventional empirical categories. History and transcendence intrude whether we like it or not, one reason that many who call themselves “secular” are now exploring new and vibrant connections to the traditions of their ancestors. Whether personally “religious” or not, Israeli Jews—and many of us here in America—know there cannot be Judaism in our day without Jews—and no Jews without some form of Judaism. We know too that there can be no survival or flourishing for Jews in our day without Israel. The Jewish people requires Israel. Judaism requires Israel.

Does that mean it requires the retention of the entire West Bank? I hope not. The commitment to democracy that is enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence means that I will always strive for a just settlement with Palestinians that allows them to have a homeland alongside mine, and allows Israeli Jews to preserve the democratic character of the State of Israel. Has the Israeli government in my view made mistakes, including serious ones, in its pursuit of peace? I think it has, following in the footsteps of previous Israeli governments that have made mistakes on this score, not to mention US governments no less culpable of error. I hope that Israeli voters will use the ballot box to pressure their elected leaders to move more decisively toward peace and be more resolute in the defense of democracy. But I doubt the worldwide BDS movement, singling out Jews once again with the stigma of sin, and now joined by the Presbyterian Church (USA), will do anything to advance the cause of peace. It strikes a blow against mutual respect among religious communities in America, not a blow for mutual respect among national communities in Israel or Palestine.