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Progressive Rabbi: Bnai Jeshurun Colleagues Gave The Wrong Message
Thu, 12/06/2012 - 19:00

Here is my message to my colleagues, the rabbis of B'nai Jeshurun:

I read with dismay your letter about the UN vote upgrading the Palestinian status to observer state, and your subsequent letter expressing regret for the feelings of alienation that it caused, but affirming the essence of your original message. 

Some of the criticism directed towards you is unfair.  We can be critics of Israel and lovers of Israel at the same time: it is often critics who express the greatest love.  Furthermore, you are right that the pulpit must be the place where moral issues are discussed.  We have a responsibility to express our views publicly, honestly and forcefully. 

However, I do not agree with some of your admirers that your letter demonstrated unusual courage.  Nowadays it is not courageous to criticize Israel in the liberal and progressive circles in which we travel.  It has become normative to criticize Israel in these circles – sometimes fairly, but often unfairly and immorally.  In fact, it takes courage to face down these critics and their increasingly self-righteous moralizing.

You write: “The vote at the UN is a great moment for us as citizens of the world.”  You are wrong.  It was a bad moment for us.  It damaged the cause of peace that we so desperately pursue.  It violates every agreement that the Palestinian Authority made with Israel since Oslo.  It generated an immediate and predictable (and unwise) Israeli response to build more settlements – the very thing you say you are against.  It encouraged the Palestinian community to avoid the hard decisions that are necessary to achieve peace.  It did not, in fact, create a state of Palestine.  It further deluded many Palestinians, who took to the streets in celebration, thinking that their lives would somehow change the day after the vote. 

You couldn’t even bring yourselves in your letter to cast responsibility for the recent conflict where it belongs: on Hamas, an anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Semitic terrorist organization that seeks to inflict indiscriminate death on innocent Israelis.  You wrote: “…in the light of the violence this past month in Gaza and Israel…” as if somehow this mysterious violence just appeared, and implying that both parties to the violence were equally at fault.      

The UN vote and your letter encouraged a perception common in our liberal and progressive circles that Israel bears the primary responsibility for the deadlock when, in fact, it is the Palestinians who still refuse to even come to the bargaining table.  It is the Palestinians who rejected at least three comprehensive peace offers extended by liberal Israeli governments.  There is a reason that they have rejected every Israeli peace initiative: They cannot or will not agree to the concessions that will be necessary to address even the minimal Israeli political and security needs.

But even these critiques are not my main concern.  Reasonable people can differ on these points, and in any case, we rabbis are not specialists in diplomacy and international relations. 

My primary worry is that we are losing our people: liberal Jews who are so confused and are in such despair of this seemingly never-ending conflict that they are simply walking away as if to say “a plague on all your houses.”

We are not only citizens of the world, as you write.  We are also leaders of the Jewish people.  And in this respect, the UN vote was a bad moment for us as well. It further isolated Israel and strengthened those who unfairly attack its standing and legitimacy.  This is the reason that most Israeli liberals also opposed the UN vote.  It is not that they seek peace any less than you or I.  It is that they realize this is not the way.

We progressive Jews need to tell the truth to our people: Peace is hard.  If it is was easy, this conflict would have been resolved long ago.  It will be a long difficult slog.  It will require good people not to despair and not to walk away.  It will require liberal Jews to engage the world as it is, not only as we would like it to be.  It will impose burdens and hard decisions not only on Israelis but also on Palestinians.  They too, will need to compromise, far more than any of their leaders have ever acknowledged.

There is nobility – and courage – in not despairing.  Some of our greatest moments as a people were connected to simply enduring.  It was Moses’ greatness to tell the people the truth: “We will not arrive soon at the Promised Land; but we will continue on the path, and we will endure, and one day, if not we, than our children, will prevail.”

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch is senior rabbi, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.

B'nai Jeshurun, Hamas, Palestine, UN, United Nations

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The problem with Rabbi Hirsch's comment is that he is in total denial. He states about the UN vote "It damaged the cause of peace that we so desperately pursue." The thought that the current government of Israel is truly interested in peace is a joke. Don't listen to his words, but look at the actions of the government of Israel. There has been no real interest in reaching a peace agreement, just continuing complaints. No one is defending the actions of Hamas, but there was a real possibility of serious peace talks with the PLO. It would not be easy, but no one said peace talks would be easy. The current government of Israel has done everything possible to sabotage serious peace talks. The PLO had absolutely nothing to lose by taking the action they did.
Let's stop blaming everyone else in the world for the current situation, and look to the deliberate actions taken my the Prime Minister of Israel. He got what he wanted, a reason for cry about the terrible situation and say he is the only one to lead the country. It is all about politics, and let's no kid ourselves!

By their foolish action at the UN, the Palestinians have declared the Oslo Accords null and void. Israel is therefore not obligated by them anymore.

Kol haKavod Rabbi Hirsch! It pained me to read about the BJ comments. I have great respect for the BJ rabbis and they are certainly inspiring in many domains. BUT, on this issue I believe they are sadly mistaken and misguided. I recommend that people interested in the realities of Israel on the ground read the following recent article in the Jpost: Hamas tells Fatah: Let’s fight Israel togetherBy KHALED ABU TOAMEH- 04/12/2012.

Abu Toameh only scratches the surface of course in this short article, but the realities Israel has to deal with are quite serious and existential, in fact. And this is not sufficiently recognized by many Jews in the diaspora. That coupled with a new and rising trend of anti-Semitism in Europe (often influenced and manipulated by resident immigrant populations) is a serious matter and hardly frivolous.

I say this as a resident of Ra'anana (far from the imminent threats faced by Israel's southern residents...) : (

When you can hear military aircraft flying overhead on
Erev Shabbat, you really DO get it -- viscerally!

Rabbi Hirsch's comments indicate to me that the UN, as currently structured and configured, is incapable of moving the conflict towards peace. How else could one explain the inability of that body to see the consequences, for peace, of its own actions? I think it was Shimon Peres who said recently that the path to peace for the Palestinians requires three simple things: 1) stop shooting (i.e., control the violent extremists), 2) recognize Israel, and 3) start talking. This seems to me a good recipe for Israel as well, who will have to recognize the States of West Bank and Gaza. By means of the coastal gas fields in the Mediterranean, the Palestinians could become viable economic entity if they could wrap their heads around the peace. So I would add a fourth element: 4) start drilling for gas.

I think that Rabbi Hirsch has tried to focus on the wrong aspect of this issue. Although the enthusiasm of the RS rabbis was inappropriate, their point was that the vote in the UN, symbolic as it was, gave the Palestinians a significant step up in their position in the world stage. Note the overwhelming vote and significant abstentions of otherwise friendly counties. It was more then a non event, as Rabbi Hirsch stated in a recent sermon, calling it"fluff'. It should be understood as a warning to increase efforts at achieving a two state solution, before the Palestinians make some further legal move to establish their status unilaterally. Try to punish them by building more settlements, or witholding funds will not solve the problem. It would be unfortunate if all energies were focussed on criticizing the Rabbis of BJ, and not the real issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

A very thoughtful and well articulated op-ed piece, which I wholeheartedly agree with.  The note from the BJ rabbis, whom we thought we knew quite well as we were BJ members a number of years ago before rejoining SWFS, was to us very disturbing and wholly inappropriate.  I'm so glad you have spoken up so forcefully

Thanks Rabbi Hirsch. It has become more than fashionable for our own community to do join in the myriad of voices condemning Israel. It saddens me deeply that the rabbinical leadership of BJ has propagated such an undermining and divisive position.

The statement from the Rabbi's at BJ was inappropriate in its enthusiasm, but it did recognize that something important had happened both for the Palestinians and for Israel. It is unwise for those of us who support and love Israel to dismiss it as unimportant, as Rabbi Hirsch did in a recent sermon. Like it or not, each step that gives the Palestinians more leverage makes Israel's position more difficult, and the path to a two state solution more difficult. Also, the reaction of the Netanyahu government, clearly an effort to "punish" the Palestinians was very inappropriate, and certainly worthy of criticism by anyone concerned about the future of Israel. We should not let this degenerate into a battle between supporters of Israel on the two sides of the political divide. It is not the time to rely on previous failures to achieve a negotiated solution. It is time for Rabbi's and others leaders of the American Jewish community to press for another try at a negotiated solutiion, before time runs out on the possibility.

Thank goodness for people like you who make sense and say it right!

Thank you Rabbi Hirsch for your thoughtful remarks and perspective.

Very well said.

Ammiel Hirsch in his sermons and op-eds has proven time and time again that he is not remotely progressive. The Jewish Week does a disservice to progressives by allowing Hirsch to misrepresent himself as one.

Rabbi Hirsch gets it. The BJ rabbis still do not and that is truly a shame.