About seven years or so ago, I got an email from a former classmate at the Solomon Schechter Day School in Detroit which I attended for ten years. The 25th anniversary of our graduation was coming up and she invited me to become part of an online group made up of the people in our class. It sounded like a great idea.
However, in order to join the group I would first have to create an account on a web site called Facebook. I had heard about this Facebook thing, but it was only a few years old at that point and I didn’t really know very much about it. I thought it was for college kids. After a bit of research, I reluctantly signed up for Facebook in order to connect with my old classmates.
And it was great! I got to see what everyone looked like, I got to see the partners they chose and their children. Most importantly, I didn’t have to go to some boring reunion with bad food on an inconvenient weekend in order to do it. It was perfect. And for a long time, that’s what Facebook was – a medium for reconnecting with old friends from school, camp, youth group or college. You would post a few pictures, crack a few jokes, make a few references to old movies and that was basically it.
But in a few short years, everything about social media has changed.
While you can certainly spend your time looking at videos of kittens or pandas and posting pictures of your children or pet if you so choose, there are some very important conversations happening on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. While I had sensed this change over the past couple of years, it was hammered home for me this past summer when Israel began Operation Protective Edge) in response to the non-stop barrage of rockets from Gaza.
While the Iron Dome missile defense system got most of the attention, the IDF also had nonstop Facebook and Twitter feeds. The Prime Minister’s office was consistently posting photos, statistics and quotes. Although there never seemed to be much doubt as to the outcome of the military battle itself – Israel is unquestionably militarily superior to Hamas – the war of words and ideas on the internet – on news websites, on blogs and on social media sites – was not so clear cut.
In this other war – which is still going on – anyone who loves Israel has a role to play.
In the 1940’s when Israel’s birth and survival were far from certainties, American Jews smuggled weapons and sent money to Palestine and Israel to ensure her military victory. That was what Israel needed then and while support for the Jewish State among American Jews was not as unanimous as we might think, American Jews came through for Israel when Israel needed it most.
Today, in the 21st Century, Israel needs our help, but she doesn’t need machine guns or grenades hidden in the hold of a ship. With natural gas fields and innovative tech industries, she doesn’t need us to collect coins in a blue and white can.
What Israel needs today is our help in telling her story, making her case in the court of world opinion. It is no small task, but as Rabbi Tarfon taught in Pirkei Avot, “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither may you desist from it.” We all have to do our small part even though it’s not always easy.
In a JCPA survey of American congregational rabbis last year (prior to the latest round of violence in Gaza), one in five rabbis reported that they “fear significant professional repercussions” if they state their opinions about Israel or specific government policies. Some thought that they were too dovish for their congregations and some thought that they were too hawkish for their congregations. But either way, one in five rabbis were apprehensive to speak about Israel.
I didn’t participate in that survey, but I definitely think that I would have reported being a part of that group. It’s not that I think I’m a hawk or a dove when it comes to Israel. Actually, I think I’m not hawkish enough for the hawks and I’m not dovish enough for the doves. And so I avoided talking about Israel even though I love Israel and it’s very important to me.
In fact, about five years ago, a prominent member of the congregation said something in a very polite way about never really hearing my take on Israel. Perhaps, I could address Israel during the High Holidays. So, I took a deep breath and wrote a High Holiday sermon about Israel. As I suspected, I got a few comments pointing out the flaws in my presentation where I went too far, where I didn’t go far enough. But, the next day, the key to my office still worked.
Since that time, I’ve spoken about Israel from time to time, but I’ve never really considered it the most important topic for a rabbi to discuss from the pulpit. I always want to talk about infusing our lives with Judaism, adding new practices, applying Judaism’s ancient wisdom to our modern lives.
This past summer, though, that changed.
I alluded to the change a bit last week on Rosh Hashanah. With the rise in anti-Semitism worldwide, we must never take Israel for granted. Israel’s existence is the one great counterbalance to the anti-Semitism spreading around the world. And while we may not feel the need to pack up and move there, we have an obligation to ensure that Israel is there – strong and ready – when a Jewish community somewhere in the world comes under attack and Jews need a safe refuge.
Now, I may not be able to help much with an M-16 or an F-16, but I can help make Israel’s case for her. This past summer, like many of you, I came to realize how much inaccurate information flows through the internet when it comes to Israel. Much of it is intentional but some of it is inadvertent.
If, for example, someone turns to Al Jazeera in the hopes of finding balanced reporting about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there’s not a lot we can do about it. No one can honestly think that Al Jazeera is trying to tell both sides of the story. However, if people turn to (supposedly) responsible news sources – New York Times, CNN, BBC – and still get inaccurate information, we have a problem. Because how can people make a fair assessment of Israel without facts?
There’s a teaching in the Talmud, “The gossiper stands in Syria and kills in Rome (PT Pe’ah 1:1).” That was said LONG before all the technology that enables us to literally send our words instantaneously from one place to any other place on this earth. In this case, the lies about Israel coming from bloggers and reporters in Gaza were having an immediate impact in Europe and North America. Israel may have been winning the battle on the ground, but she was getting pummeled in the world press. And although this quote is sometimes attributed to Vladimir Lenin or Josef Goebbels, it was actually William James – the 19th century psychologist – who said: “There’s nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it.”
Absurd things were being said about Israel and, sadly, they were becoming truth. Somehow, the media found a way to make a terrorist organization the good guys and a democratic state the bad guys.
This was all floating in my head at the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war when an acquaintance – with whom I am friends on Facebook – posted something about the Jewish-controlled media always taking Israel’s side. Needless to say, I went nuts. I thought my head was going to explode. I couldn’t believe an educated person living in the Metropolitan New York area could actually believe something like that.
I realized that I could no longer take the approach that other topics were necessarily more important than Israel. And so, as some of you know, I took it upon myself to inform my small circle about Israel this past summer to the best of my ability using social media.
I started by sharing articles with accurate information about Israel and also pointing out unbalanced, unethical reporting on my Facebook page. During the seven weeks of Operation Protective Edge, I posted 43 such articles – when you consider I don’t do Facebook on Shabbat and I was on vacation for one of those weeks, that’s more than one a day. In fact, during my week of vacation, my cousin sent me an email to see if I was okay because she hadn’t seen any Israel posts in a few days.
In addition, I used my weekly blog – which many of you receive and read – to share my thoughts and feelings about Israel. For eight out of nine weeks, I wrote about Israel (interrupted only to share some thoughts on the passing of Robin Williams). I didn’t see myself as doing anything extraordinary, but a friend of mine who is a member of a different congregation made a point of reaching out to me to tell me that she wished her rabbi was doing the same. And then, a colleague of mine reached out to me for help in setting up a blog and linking it to his Facebook page. He had come to the same conclusion that I had come to. We have to tell Israel’s side of the story.
I share this with you NOT to toot my own horn, but because we should ALL be coming to the same conclusion.
Perhaps there was a time when we could rely upon the traditional media to present the news in a responsible, credible way. If that time ever really existed, it no longer does. Anyone with a computer, tablet or a smart phone can now be a source of information. Newspapers, TV Stations and web sites are merely businesses trying to stay afloat in a constantly changing media industry. Readers, visitors, traffic and clicks are much more important than honest reporting.
We cannot assume that Israel’s story will be told accurately unless we take it upon ourselves to do the telling. As the great sage Hillel taught in Pirkei Avot (1:14), “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Or emending it slightly, “If we Jews are not for Israel, who will be for Israel?”
So, perhaps you are thinking to yourself that you are not qualified to be an advocate for Israel, you don’t know enough. Start with some Israeli news sites – Haaretz, Jerusalem Post, Ynet (Yediot Acharonot), Times of Israel. Need more? Greater Metro West is offering a workshop in Israel advocacy and grassroots education called Step up for Israel on November 2. If you can’t make the workshop, Federation has set up a web site called “Campaign for Truth,” to give people like us the ammunition we need to fight mistruths, half-truths and outright lies told about Israel.
Then, you need to start sharing this information with others.
Maybe you like to email articles to friends and relatives. Maybe you like to post on Facebook or Twitter. Maybe you like to blog. Maybe you like to print up articles and stick them in an envelope with a stamp. No matter your preferred method of communication, we all need to start sharing accurate information about Israel in our small spheres of influence. Taking it a step further, this coming March, I hope to co-lead a group of Christians and Jews to Israel with my colleague Rev. Robert Morris. We hope to have about a dozen Christians and a dozen Jews. It’s an opportunity for us to share the Israel we know with some of our neighbors. If you are interested in joining me, please let me know.
Now I imagine that some of you are thinking that it makes sense for a rabbi to be doing this stuff, but it’s not exactly in your comfort zone. I get that. As I have tried to point out, I used to feel the same way – that it’s not really a rabbi’s job to be an advocate for Israel. After all, if you look at the role of the rabbi from a historical perspective – teacher, interpreter of law, prayer leader, and counselor – you won’t find anything about being a cheerleader for Israel.
But, the times they are a-changing. It’s not just rabbis who need to speak up for Israel. It’s incumbent upon anyone who loves Israel, anyone who wants Israel to be there in case of some threat to Jews anywhere in the world and anyone who recognizes that holding Israel to a different standard than any other country in the world is simply anti-Semitism to stand up for her.
I won’t lie to you – it was not immediately comfortable. It took some getting used to. But, I can tell what convinced me that I was doing the right thing. It was the first time I got a comment from a non-Jewish friend thanking for me providing her with accurate information about Israel. That’s when I knew that I had to keep going and get more people to do the same.
Because the next time that Israel comes up at my friend’s dinner table or work place and when she’s assessing which candidates she wants to support, she’s going to have some accurate information about Israel in her hip pocket.
The Kol Nidre service which the Cantor just chanted so beautifully is all about vows. Vows that we made that we were unable to keep due to circumstances beyond our control. Vows that we had no intention of keeping. Vows that we took seriously. Vows that we will make this coming year. Vows that we are afraid to make this coming year.
This past summer, I made a vow to myself that I would no longer let others tell Israel’s story. It’s too important of a story to leave the telling to people who do not understand Israel’s place in the world. I plan to continue keeping that vow this coming this coming year and I would like to challenge everyone to make a similar vow.
Because if we are there for Israel today, then Israel will be there for the world’s Jews in the future.
Rabbi Avi Friedman.
Delivered at Kol Nidre 5775.