Israel, BJ & Hanukkah

The WORD – 12/6/12.  Yesterday morning, barely into my first cup of coffee, an article on the front page of the New York Times caught my eye.  It was the story of a Conservative rabbi sending out an email to his congregation.  As a Conservative rabbi who sends out emails to my congregation with some degree of regularity (without ever garnering the attention of the New York Times!) it was immediately clear to me that this had to be a pretty juicy email.  And it was.

The short story is that the rabbinic and lay leadership of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (better known as “BJ”) on the Upper West Side of Manhattan issued a statement in response to the UN’s vote on recognizing Palestine as a state – a non-member observer state, but a state nonetheless.

The letter – signed by the two rabbis, the executive director and the congregational president – described the vote as being historic, which it certainly was.  However, the letter became newsworthy when they went on to describe the vote as a “great moment for us as citizens of the world.”

I have to admit that I have been reluctant to comment on this new development because I haven’t been sure how I feel about it.  After all, we have always wanted the Palestinians to seek out diplomatic solutions to the conflict and not violent solutions.  This just wasn’t the diplomatic solution that WE wanted them to pursue.  Further, I have never been afraid to criticize Israel and I have never been afraid to say controversial things.  However, this statement has really given me pause.  But, here are a few thoughts:

First of all, although many want to draw parallels between the UN vote establishing a State of Israel and this one, there is one key difference.  Unlike the Arab nations of 1947, Israel stands ready to negotiate with the Palestinians.  Although Benjamin Netanyahu is not famous for his peaceful posture toward the Palestinians, the overall Israeli record is clear.  Recent Prime Ministers – including Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert – have made serious peace offers to the Palestinians that have been rebuffed.  While supporters of Palestinian independence are quick to blame Israel, the Palestinian leadership – leaderships? – has failed their people time and time again.

Secondly, this vote has been met with a surprising lack of enthusiasm.  On the day of the vote, I went to the Google News website to see what the vote count had been.  This “historic” story was not even the top story.  There was no “buzz” about this story.  Perhaps that is because it does not change the reality on the ground.  At the end of the day, for the Palestinians to get the independence that they justifiably crave, they will have to talk to Israel and not to the UN.

Finally, in its article, the New York Times cited another email sent out by a group of rabbis in White Plains, NY.  In this second document, the authors basically said that the vote is a fait accompli.  So, rather than waste time or energy pointing fingers or despairing, we ought to consider how Israel – and supporters of Israel – can move forward toward peace given this new reality.  This approach makes a lot more sense to me.

We are about to celebrate the Festival of Hanukkah.  While we like to focus on the military victory of the Maccabees over the Assyrian-Greeks, there is much more to the story.  We often forget to discuss what prompted Antiochus to send his troops to Jerusalem.  While he was clearly a tyrant and he might have desecrated the Temple anyway, our ancestors gave him an opening.  Individuals illegitimately purporting to represent our people – such as the priests Jason and Menelaus – tried to negotiate deals with Antiochus.  They started looting the Temple before a single Greek soldier came to town.  The Seleucid army only finished the job.

I think that there is a lesson in this story for us today.  We – from the comfort of our homes in America – cannot speak on Israel’s behalf on the world stage.  Until we spend days in bomb shelters with our families and send our children, our siblings and ourselves into the army, we cannot negotiate the peace for Israel no matter how much we want that peace to come about.  If our brothers and sisters in Israel didn’t see this as a “great moment” – and I think it’s pretty clear that they didn’t – then we ought to be very careful before making such a declaration.

Jodi and the kids join me in wishing you all a wonderful Hanukkah.



About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
This entry was posted in Weekly On-line Rabbi's D'var-Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s