As Passover approaches, I find myself thinking about the recent Israeli travel ban on foreigners who support boycott, divestment or sanctions to pressure Israel on negotiations with the Palestinians. At the seder we proclaim “Next year in Jerusalem!” But will they let me in?
Hebrew was my first love, with its resonant rhythms and imaginative word families that illuminate the amazing neural network of language. It led me to be one of those strange kids who paid attention in Hebrew School, and earned me a scholarship to study in Israel for six months as a high school exchange student.
There I fell in love with the land and the people. History lurked under every stone. People I met spoke about the future with great passion, spirited debate and hope that this still young nation could live up to the values articulated in its Declaration of Independence. My Israeli family was like that, cousins who had helped to found a kibbutz near Haifa and already outnumbered the small remnant we had in the U.S.
That was the image my father carried with him throughout his life. While his years in Congress, with official junkets and sometimes difficult fights to secure U.S. support for the State of Israel, had taught him that the story was more complex—I think he always pictured the family gathered on kibbutz, full of life and laughter, building something very special together.
It was Israel that made me want to be a rabbi. The rebirth of the Jews in our historic homeland kindled a passion to know, to embody the sacred story that connected us to this place. At its core stands empathy as a commandment, to know the heart of a stranger. By the time I returned to Israel for my first year in rabbinical school, however, I understood some of the challenges of living into this covenantal commitment. Nonetheless, I persisted. For my “freshman” sermon, I argued that Israel would need to talk to Yasser Arafat and the PLO because there was no one else to talk to. The Dean pulled me aside and told me that my academics were outstanding, but my attitude would never fly stateside. I remember thinking: OK, maybe not in the US, but Israel recognizes the urgency of argument about the most important questions.
Every couple years, I bring students from the progressive Protestant seminary where I work for a two-week study tour. Most have been steeped in progressive tradition and accustomed by our news media to forego complex stories and contested histories. Conjuring a David and Goliath framework, they presume Israel is the oppressive giant whose claims in the land are illegitimate. I bring them in order to complicate the narrative. Yes, we meet with various organizations who problematize the occupation and who explore a range of non-violent methods for social change. But we also put a human face on the millions of Jews who make Israel their home, including many who courageously work for justice for all the peoples of the land. We change hearts and minds.
But I am also on record, with pain constricting my throat, responding to a panel presentation on the denomination’s limited strategic divestment resolution: It is possible that a boycott of the settlements is the only way to persuade Israel to end 50 years of occupation and injustice.
Next time I come with my students, will I be allowed in? I can’t imagine that I would be stopped at the border for expressing my opinion, no matter how much the government might not like it. But if I am, I fear there will be twenty more American religious leaders who oppose Israel… and I will weep for Zion, for she has lost her way.