Over the next couple of days, Jews will meet in thousands of synagogues and at family dinners all over the globe, to usher in Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. This festive gathering of the Jewish community is not without its challenges. How do you bring together Jewish neocons and progressive Democrats, gays and family-values conservatives, BBQ champs and vegans, creationists and evolutionists, jet setters and climate change campaigners? We have little training for navigating this social minefield; the rest of the year, we tend to avoid controversial conversations and seek out like-minded people. For Jews, Rosh Hashanah is the equivalent of the Thanksgiving conundrum.
But one political issue is more explosive than all the others put together. The political cause that supposedly all unites Jews but -- as any Jewish leader will tell you -- threatens to tear us apart.
Particularly now. Israel's summer war in Gaza is over but the turmoil it set in motion in the Jewish community is just unfolding. On the one hand, the Gaza war politicized unprecedented numbers of Jews. In July alone, Jewish Voice for Peace (the activist movement I belong to), enrolled 50,000 new members. Record-breaking donations are pouring in to JVP. But, predictably, those Jews who backed Israel's war war are feeling increasingly embattled. They identify with Israeli policy. When Israel is criticized, they feel under attack too. These Jews are hurt by the global wave of condemnation of Israel which many feel is unfair, even biased against Jews.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the immediate past-president of the largest Jewish religious group in America, the Reform movement, has a plan to keep Jewish communities safe: We should all agree that all Jews support Israel, including its right to launch wars like the Gaza war. Therefore, criticizing Israel is allowed, but only up to a point; BDS is beyond the pale.
BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) is the call by Palestinian civil society to launch campaigns pressuring the State of Israel to end its military occupation and the colonization of Palestinian areas, grant Israel's Palestinian citizens equal legal rights along with the Jews, and recognize the residency rights of Palestinian refugees in their homeland. Rabbi Yoffie would bar any Jew who supports BDS from speaking in synagogues. Jews who support BDS are welcome to pray so long as they don't speak about Israel. Don't ask, don't tell.
Rabbi Yoffie is right. There is tension between Jews who support Palestinian liberation and Jews who are loyal to the Zionist vision of Israel. But his policy is wrong. Our national leaders should be promoting dialog between the two groups, not silencing it.
Ironically, Rabbi Yoffie's piece is entitled "Muzzled by the Minority". His "red lines" bar Jews from the community because of their principled commitments and political affiliation on Israel. Jewish McCarthyism. He did not make up these restrictive rules. He merely articulates the practice of the broader Jewish establishment.
What does the Jewish establishment say to me and many thousands like me? I grew up in Israel and lived there for 20 years. I served in the Israeli army for the mandatory three years. I am an Israeli. I still have close family there. And yet, like other Israelis and Jews, I was outraged by the Israel army's brutal attack on Gaza under the pretext of defense. I protested against the war. My personal BDS guides me to not purchase products made by Israeli companies in Israel's West Bank settlements; I do not participate in events sponsored by the Israeli government, military or their affiliates. I still enjoy my Israeli food, read Israeli newspapers, and visit Israel regularly.
Just a few weeks ago, my friend and neighbor, Rabbi Brant Rosen, announced his resignation from the synagogue he has served for 17 years after a small group of congregants mounted a vicious, personal campaign on him. Their complaint: His years of activism on behalf of Palestinian liberation. Rabbi Rosen still enjoys the support of the vast majority of his synagogue. But the minority decided that they could not live with his activism. Muzzled by the minority indeed.
Rabbi Yoffie's sole piece of evidence for his position is the numbers of American Jews who support Israel. Since most Jews "support Israel", most Jews also want to silence those who endorse BDS. According to this thinking, since Christianity is the largest religion in the U.S., ergo other religions -- including Judaism -- have no place here.
My concern is that the Jewish establishment's attempt to control the terms of the debate does a disservice to our youth. A recent poll shows American teenagers are significantly more committed to the first amendment than their parents. Young American Jews overwhelmingly do not support Israel-right-or-wrong.
What we need as Jews and as Americans is not less dialog, but more. Even more than learning how to debate we need to learn to listen to opinions that we do not share. To respect the intentions and honor the feelings of those on the other side of the debate.
Every generation of Jews has its own schism. The ferocity of these intra-communal battles can be as scorching -- and as fleeting -- as last summer's forest fire. Who remembers the early 19th century religious war between Hassidim and Mitnagdim, the late 19th century rift between Maskilim and religious conservatives, the early 20th century feuds between secularists and traditionalists, the mid-20th century crisis between Zionists and Classical Reform and traditionalists. The camps' hyperbolic rhetoric has long since faded away. The names of the fractious parties are but distant memories. The current communal strife over Israel shall pass too. Our generation's war will be filed away in the pages of history books, alongside all those other battles.
Our challenge as a community right now is to navigate this period of changing opinions, inquiry and doubt with dignity and with least amount of hurt. Barring the doors of the synagogue to dissident voices is neither helpful nor is it the Jewish way.
The Torah teaches that all Jews are members of the community. In the Jewish Reform tradition, the scriptural reading for Yom Kippur opens with a stirring passage from Deuteronomy (29:9-10): "You are all standing here today -- your leaders and their followers, your elders, judges from the highest stations in society to the most menial laborer, all the men of Israel, the children and the women". Moses addresses all the people. This echoes the intent of the ancient Kol Nidre prayer. All Jews are welcome. No-one is left outside the tent.
I hope that when the leaders of the Jewish establishment hear the Torah reading on Yom Kippur, they will take its message to heart. No Jew should be denied her place in the community on account of her position on Israel. We need leadership today who will follow in the footsteps of Moses and commit to an open and inclusive Jewish community.