[JStreet] What Does It Mean to be Pro-Israel?
[JStreet] Plenary session: Why Two States? Why Now?

[JStreet] Dancing on the head of a pin: the role of rabbis

I'm blogging this week from Driving Change, Securing Peace, the first JStreet conference in Washington, DC. You can follow my conference posts via the JStreet category

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy -- please read it, especially if this is your first time here. Enjoy the conference posts! And regular readers, have no fear: I'll return to my more usual balance of blogging fare in a few days.

The next session I opted to attend was BRIT TZEDEK RABBINIC CABINET PRESENTS: Dancing on the Head of a Pin: The Role of Rabbis in the Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace Movement. (It's a pretty natural fit for me, given that I'm in my fifth year of rabbinic school.) The session features Rabbi David J. Cooper, Kehilla Community Congregation, Piedmont, CA; Rabbi Joshua Levine-Grater, Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, Pasadena, CA; Rabbi Toba Spitzer, Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, Newton, MA; and Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller, Congregation Sherith Israel, San Francisco, CA; Our moderator is Rabbi John Friedman, Judea Reform Congregation, Durham, North Carolina, chair of the Brit Tzedek v'Shalom rabbinic cabbinet.

"The only metaphor I know about dancing on the head of a pin is about angels," says R' Friedman, "so there may be some identity confusion here about what rabbis and cantors are!" There's laughter. "The Brit Tzedek rabbinic cabinet is made up both of rabbis and cantors, rabbinical students and cantorial students, and we number over 1000 nationwide."

"Why is a rabbinic cabinet necessary? What an rabbis do that others perhaps can't do from the same vantage point?" he asks. Rabbis and cantors represent Judaism, our faith, more than any other group can do; "we speak with knowledge of and understanding of Torah and a certain amount of access to our tradition." So when we go to lobby a congressman, "we come with a certain standing," and may garner a greater listening ear as a result. Ditto when we sign a letter that runs in a local or Jewish newspaper, taking a stand together with other rabbis or with our congregants. "And when we speak together in numbers, the power of our voice can't be underestimated."

We can support one another -- and we need to, because speaking our opinions can be risky. It can be dangerous "to speak what's in our hearts, what's in our minds, what's in our Torah about this conflictual and divisive subject." Three rabbis inspired him greatly when he was young: Steve, Sam, and William. "Steve gave a sermon about labor unions to a congregation filled with factory owners, and was almost fired for it. Sam took on the local corrupt political machine and almost got himself killed. And William became a civil rights advocate in the south and got his temple blown up. Their last names were Wise, Mayerberg, and Rothschild." We know who they are, he points out. We remember them for the risk they took took against their congregations' fears, the risk they took for what they believed was the right way." Brit Tzedek rabbis do this today.

Our first speaker is Rabbi David Cooper. He doesn't have time to give us personal background about his Zionist family or his experiences in Israel in 1967, how they rushed to see the West Bank before it was returned to the Palestinians as "a bargaining chip for peace." How the settlements troubled him even then. "Since the early 70s I've been at the center of the covnersation about the conduct of Israeli Arabs. For a short time I lost my faith in the Zionist dream, but as I contemplated what optios were open to us as Jews, I knew that Israel was a necessity and that its spirit pervaded my consciousness."

"My love of Israel and my prayers for its peace were joined by my concern for the Palestinian people and my prayers for the realization of their national aspirations," as long as those aspirations are consonant also with the existence of Israel. He's supported the two-state solution since before that solution had a name. For 40 years he's seen how any dissenting group on Israeli policy has been pilloried as anti-semitic or as furthering the destruction of Israel. "This morning I responded to an email on the Jewish Renewal rabbis' list serv that implied that JStreet should just admit that it's anti-Israel," he says, and the room makes distressed noises. "Even more insidious have been the efforts to contract the Jewish tent, to exclude those who have offered alternatives for Israel's peace and security. The extreme right is often included in the tent while the near left has often been excluded."

But we're at a turning point. Over the last year or two, increasing segments of Jewish leadership have begun to see how this narrowing of the tent is damaging Jewish identity. "Perhaps the reason for this change is that more and more people feel that we serve as better friends of Israel when we take independent positions." People who feel this way are becoming the majority of the national Jewish chevre. "At this point, too many people would have to be excluded from the tent if we were to maintain the old definitions of who is inside or outside of it."

Many of us have long maintained that the Jewish left, right, and center must be in dialogue. The right was for a long time not interested in dialogue because having the dialogue at all "was seen as tantamount to accepting our viewpoint as a Jewishly-valid position." So the broadening of this tent of dialogue is a victory for Jewish inclusiveness, and opens the doors for those who have been "silent or afraid." Those can come out of the political closet and speak up without fear of ostracism.

The stifling of alternative points of view is no longer a strategy that can promote harmony or cohesiveness. Despite this, those who fear expanding the tent have good reasons to fear increased rancor, so what to do? He tells us about Project Reconnections; there's an article about it called "How to Argue" in The Jerusalem Report. The approach is partially based on the compassionate listening process, designed for Jewish-Palestinian dialogue; "there was some doubt about whether this process could be used for rancor between Jew and Jew!" The point is to hear one another, not to assert that I am right and you are wrong. The purpose "is to be able to hear and see the other in their full complexity." And for the one who is speaking, the purpose is to have the experience of knowing that you have been heard in your full humanity.

Through this process, fundamental disagreements can be exposed without turning into the demonizing of others, which is foreign to the culture of listening. Participants reported that the process of being part of Project Reconnections changed their relationships with each other. As a result of a friendship between two people, a self-defined Israel advocate decided to visit the West Bank and came away transformed; and the friend on the left of the spectrum came to realize the ways in which her rhetoric was alienating to other Jews. It was transformational for both of them.

"The effect of expanding the tent is just beginning to be felt." The question is, how do we take this process or eqivalent ones and make them available locally and nationally across community lines?

The Project Reconnections literature often quotes from a sermon that R' Cooper gave, talking about prophets and guardians. Prophets are those who ask "if we are only for ourselves, who are we," and guardians ask "if we are not for ourselves, who will be?" (Both of these questions come from Hillel.) "If we rabbis are going to take a role in trying to harmonize the prophetic side of our congregations and the guardian side of our congregations, it's going to be up to us to do it, and I recommend that we do that first, before we begin to share our own individual positions about Israel/Palestine." Once we've created space for dialogue, then we also have a space to speak, as long as we do so with humility. And if we rabbis will not promote a culture of dialogue, who will; "and of course, if not now, then when?"

Next up is Rabbi Tova Spitzer. "In 1980 I was 18 years old and went to Israel for the first time," she tells us. That's when she got engaged. "I wrote in my journal, nationalism has created an unsolvable problem in the Middle East." She's been wrestling with it ever since.

In the late 1980s she became the executive director of the Jewish Peace lobby. 400 rabbis in 1988 signed a letter advocating the trade of land for peace, which was radical at that point in time. She realized that her dreams of working for peace could be best served by becoming a rabbi, so that's what she did.

"I don't think it takes the courage of putting your life or job on the line in order to become active in this work," she says. She wants to talk about things that don't take all that much courage -- "the fears are in our minds, not so much in reality." She wholeheartedly agrees with R' Cooper that the shutting down of dialogue on Israel has done more damage to Israel than anything else -- "we've all met people who've never joined a congregation because of this issue, because they were being told 'you're not a good Jew, you're not a real Jew, your opinions are not acceptable.'" She knows what it's like to receive that message.

She's been involved in Boston with The Jewish Congregational Network, bringing people together from various conversations in safe space to have conversations about the conflict. The response was mostly from folks on the left who didn't feel able to have these conversations in their own communities. She brought rabbis whose congregations had been involved to meet with the Jewish Community Relations Council's leadership. "You've taken your role of doing hasbara out into the community; hasbara is intended for out there, but it's having an impact in here, and you're giving the message that this is the only viewpoint we're allowed to have on Israel."

Her own congregation runs from center to left, but there's a lot of apathy and disconnection from the Israel issue, which is a real challenge. "I plan programs and no one shows up," she explains -- "no one attacks me, they're just voting with their feet." One question is how to get folks engaged. The model she's tried to hold up is to say that it's okay that we have multiple views. "It's very damaging to pretend that there's consensus when there's not." (This is really useful for me to hear, especially in the wake of the What does it mean to be pro-Israel panel where I felt like there was a distressing call for us to move too hastily to consensus, thereby ensuring that some opinions don't remain beneath the JStreet tent.)

"The Talmud is a wonderful model: vigorous open debate where no question cannot be asked, and minority opinion is always stated." Can our movements adopt that as a policy? We need to crack the illusion of consensus.

Relatedly, she doesn't believe there's no non-political way to speak about Israel. "Anything we put forward that we say is pareve or neutral is generally read as support of the status quo." Which is fine; just do it knowingly! "Always remember how folks in the community will be looking at it.

"We have an urgent task as rabbis to reframe the discourse around Israel -- not the tenor of the discourse, but actually how it's talked about. David, you used 'prophetic' and 'guardian;' the two narratives I see in conflict are 1) the existential narrative, which sees everything having to do with Israel through the lens of survival; this is more of an American narrative than an Israeli one, and every attack, whether military or verbal, on Israel is seen as an attack on Israel's very existence." It's a distorted narrative and a fear-drive one, which leads to the kind of demonization we've all seen. "The other side I find problematic is 2) the justice narrative, which views Israel primarily through the prism of European colonialism and its sins." This narrative obscures real voices, and is likewise very us vs. them, "you're either with the oppressed or the oppressor." This narrative is a barrier to understanding Jewish fears and realities.

"I wish I had the alternative narrative, but I don't." We need to be able to affirm all people's connections to the land, not to need to undermine anyone else's narrative, emphasis on the sanctity of human life as above any otehr value (nationalism, land, anything); and "I think that as rabbis we need to start deconstructing all mythological language around this issue and this conflict." We need to encourage people to see Israel as it is, as a real country that's flawed. It may not be helpful anymore to talk about Israel as "the first flowering of our redeption." What would it mean to talk about Jews as human beings who do bad things when we're in power just like every other group of people in the world? There's a difference, she says, between holding deeply to our values and holding deeply to this mythological language which is damaging.

Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller is our next speaker. She begins by reflecting back on her own story. 1988: the beginning of the intifada, she was on her junior year abroad at Hebrew University. "We were assigned ony American room-mates, because no Israeli wanted to room with an American who was on some party year." She got frustrated by that, so unofficially swapped with someone else, and ended up with an Israeli room-mate; they spent the year speaking each others' languages. "Across the hall from us were two Arab Israeli sisters; I wanted so much to become friends with them, as much as I wanted to with my room-mate," she says. And she did. She went up north to Afula to their home. "It was so disturbing and upsetting to spend the year living with the silence between my room-mate and these two young women," she recalls. "Their discomfort around each other, their smiles and hellos -- it wasn't hostile, it was just so complicated and fearful."

As a rabbi, she wants to share a few things. First, "the chance as a rabbi to speak by not speaking." During this Gaza war she was asked to give the opening prayer at the local JCRC gathering. The Project Reconnections project that R' Cooper spoke about, she says, is beginning to have an impact; but outside of that, the JCRC during the Gaza war held its "gathering" accidentally but correctly called a "rally", and she was asked to give the opening prayer for that program. And when she learned that the program's content was going to be a rally, she said she couldn't offer the opening prayer. "And that got around." In choosing not to speak at this program, she was able to make a quiet statement about her feelings on the Gaza war.

That was when a group of local rabbis started talking and strategizing. They had a list of 70 rabbis from the Bay Area, and asked whether they would come to a meeting to talk about their work on Israel and Palestine and peace, and would they sign a letter inviting the head of Federation and the JCRC to come to this conversation to listen to these rabbis talking about changing the way we talk about Israel. They made personal phone calls, worked hard to be non-confrontational. In the end, 20+ rabbis showed up, and there was a diversity of views, rabbis who weren't usually in the room together. Since then, 13 of those rabbis have continued working together in a group.

"We've grappled with...how to open up the Jewish community's dialogue on this, including those who feel silenced by voices on the right." The rabbis realized that their goals were both to speak up with their own opinions, and also to advocate for greater dialogue. They're working through their board of rabbis to promote respectful dialogue, providing texts, teachings, and info on running a dialogue group to anyone who wants that material. Meanwhile, their own group will continue advocating for their positions.

"In thinking about organizing it, the numbers were very exciting -- but it was almost all men," she observes. "I felt I'd do a better job leading off that meeting if I had some women colleagues in the room." Making that call was a good thing, she says; it allowed her to articulate the need for women's voices. "It's a great group of people. I don't feel like I'm dancing on the head of a pin; I feel like I'm doing what I want to do, and I'm finally not doing it alone."

The last speaker on the panel is Rabbi Joshua Levine-Grater. "In 1995, I was a rabbinical student living in Jerusalem," he says; it was his first time being in Israel. "On the second day of our being there, my wife and I saw a flier for a free tour of Hebron." They had no idea what they were doing; they were students and they were free; so they went. "It was a horrible day," he says, "and it was my introduction to this issue of being trapped with this rabbi who was armed with two rifles and a pistol, taking us into Hebron, for 12 hours!" The rabbi who was leading the tour screamed, in the marketplace, at the top of his lungs, about what animals these Arabs are "and how I should shoot them if I could."

The rabbi leading the tour took them to a statue of Baruch Goldstein and went on about what a hero was. "I would have walked home if I knew where I was," says Rabbi Levine-Grater. And this was his introduction to the situation in Israel. (Wow. Pretty different from the day trip to Bethlehem and Hebron that I took last summer.)

It was a hard year. The assassination of Rabin; the first wave of bus bombings, which killed one of his classmates. Many of his classmates went home. "That was my introduction to wanting to make a difference." Being here, he says, is powerful as a reminder that he's not alone; and it's also a good reminder to him that it's good to be able to speak about Israel in a positive light without always feeling that he has to say "but."

As a rabbinic student intern at Bnai Jeshurun, Rabbi Levine-Grater felt able to speak out about Israel safely; once he had his own small pulpit in Kingston NY, once he spoke out on his feelings about Israel, he became persona non grata in the Jewish community. "They thought I was on the payroll of the PLO somehow," he says. This is a poignant example of how hard it can be to speak out on Israel/Palestine, especially in small-town communities.

He's in Pasadena now, which he notes is very different from Northern California where some of our other panelists are. "Southern California is, on Israel, fairly conservative," he says. He works with colleagues to build the ability to talk about these issues in that climate. "Being a Conservative rabbi is also a lonely place to be on this issue as well, but I feel that I've been able to open dialogue," he says. In his interview he was clear that he's written for Tikkun, that he's part of Brit Tzedek, and people immediately asked why he's anti-Israel. (!)

"But I feel that I've been able to build dialogue in two ways. One is, I allow for a lot of difference of opinion." He's had AIPAC speakers at his shul even though he disagrees with them; he gives props to Jeremy Ben-Ami for inviting Rabbi Eric Yoffie here despite their disagreements. He talks about how for a while his shul had two Israel committees, because people on the right and the left wouldn't speak with one another, but they've merged into one. Allowing people who hold positions I don't agree with to speak from the pulpit "has given me the ability to say what I want to say," too.

He's organized two trips to Israel from his shul in the last six years; on one of them, there was an optional side trip with Rabbi Arik Ascherman. And even though it was optional, he got an incredible amount of flak for working with Rabbis for Human Rights. (What I hear him saying is, this is not easy.) "Taking risks sometimes means standing up for our position and being able to speak -- always with humility, but with the ability to say, this is what I think; you hired me to be your rabbi and this is what I think." But also always allowing space for other voices. And he notes too that although he gets flak from the right, he's also not as far to the left as some of his community wants him to be! His conscience tells him to be a part of Ta'anit Tzedek, but he'd be run out of town, and so he's made the decision not to do that. Those kinds of compromises are necessary. "To be the leader of my congregation means I can't say everything I want to say. That has given me the opportunity to have people hear me more when it matters.