Religion & Beliefs

Roundtable: The Synagogue/ Israeli Politics Mash-Up

Zeek Contributing Editor (and Velveteen Rabbi) Rachel Barenblat asked Rabbis Camille Angel (Reform), Lynn Gottlieb (Renewal), Fred Guttman (Reform), and Meyer Schiller (Orthodox/Hasidic) to discuss the impact of the Israeli state and its politics on their rabbinate. Zeek: Thank you … Read More

By / May 6, 2008

Zeek Contributing Editor (and Velveteen Rabbi) Rachel Barenblat asked Rabbis Camille Angel (Reform), Lynn Gottlieb (Renewal), Fred Guttman (Reform), and Meyer Schiller (Orthodox/Hasidic) to discuss the impact of the Israeli state and its politics on their rabbinate.

Zeek: Thank you all for joining us. The central issue I want to look at is how we relate to Israel as American Jews, in American communities and congregations and schools. The first question I want to throw out is, do any of you have experiences working in a community where your own relationship with Israel isn't mirrored by those you're working with?

Schiller: I teach in a Modern Orthodox high school. The mood there is decidedly in line with the Israeli right, and has been since '67 war. My own perspective, favoring a two-state solution, is not that of the community in which I teach. The community in which I live, the Haredi community, is largely indifferent to these issues except to the degree that they share deep fear of Palestinians and of the gentile world in general.

The right of Orthodoxy and the Modern Orthodox share a certain fear and demonization of the Other. It's difficult to offer a different perspective than that of the comunities in which I live. I try, but by the time I come in contact with students, attitudes are already set. It's very difficult to move people from a sense of victimhood, from a sense that there's one side to the conflict and the failure of the world to recognize that is an indication of the world's persistent antisemitism.

Zeek: Do you think there's a sense in which your own background, coming originally from a secular family and choosing Orthodoxy as a pre-teen, has an impact on how you approach this?

Schiller: Absolutely. Because I went to public school; my parents shared a sense that the non-Jews amongst whom we lived were people like ourselves in many ways! It's always been difficult for me to make my peace with those who don't view the world that way.

There are inklings of an alternative perspective within Orthodoxy. I think the German Orthodox experience of the nineteenth century was different. There are individuals in Israel like Eliyahu MacLean who are active in reconciliation efforts. There are echoes within Orthodoxy, but it is lonely.

Gottlieb: Camille [Rabbi Angel] and I were both laughing, not because this is funny but because this is so difficult; we share with Rabbi Schiller across the spectrum how difficult it is to help people overcome their fear of Palestinians. Which of course is necessary for us to build the kind of peace we hope for.

Angel: My experience is in some ways similar to Rabbi Schiller's, although from the other side. I'm in the Bay Area in San Francisco; this is the first time in my life I've been surrounded by so many Jews who developed a Jewish identity post-'67. By and large they're from secular backgrounds; they've felt marginalized by the mainstream for all sorts of reasons, and are deeply suspicious of mainstream ideas–and being pro-Israel is largely a mainstream idea.

When I went to Israel as a high school student, I believed — hook, line, and sinker! — that Israel was defending itself appropriately in every way. I have a cousin by marriage who told me that Israel committed human rights atrocities, and I thought she was from Mars!

Over the years I've been here, I've worked to bring people to Israel in order to begin to get a clearer idea of what Israel is. In turn, our visits have involved me going on trips into the occupied territories, being with Israelis and Palestinians who can help me to see how deeply complicated and pained both sides are.

Guttman: I'm pretty much a centrist on Israel and Israeli politics, and my community for the most part shares my perspectives. I do try to help our congregation learn to love Israel; the land, the people and the country. Naturally there are those to the right and left of me.

I also try to help our congregation understand the existential difference between being here and being there. I may have feelings about what the government of Israel should do on a particular issue, but the ultimate responsibility for the implementation of those policies will fall upon the people of Israel and not their supporters in the United States. Having served extensively in the IDF and in the West Bank when I lived in Israel, I can fully appreciate the difference between living here and living there.

Zeek: Rabbi Guttman, you've used the phrase "administered territories." Say more about that?

Guttman: That's the nom de jure that the Israeli government uses, that these are "administered" territories. This has been the term used since shortly following the Six Day War. "Liberated" would have implied no intention to ever give these territories back. "Occupied" might imply the intention to give all of the territories back. However, the interpretation of Resolution 242 by the governments of the United States and Israel for the past forty years has been that in return for peace and security, Israel will return territories occupied in 1967.

The feeling then, and now, as reflected in the Geneva Accords, is that there will need to be some sort of territorial adjustments made to the 1967 borders. The word "administered" implies that Israel is controlling these territories until an agreement for peace (God willing!) can be reached. The recent events in Gaza sadly seem to make such an agreement more unlikely in the near future.

Angel: "Occupied Territories" is a term I use now that I wouldn't have used before. I also use "Disputed Territories." It depends on the audience. I want my congregation to try and understand multiple perspectives, just as they have helped me to broaden mine.

Gottlieb: I want to offer some strategies for coping with this. I've been involved in Palestinian-Jewish reconciliation since 1966, when I met Atallah Mansour, the first Palestinian journalist for Ha'aretz. He told me the story of the Naqba, their term for their experience of 1948, and I realized there were at least two competing narratives. And how tragic the situation was and is.

Guttman: But the conflict didn't commence in 1948 with what the Palestinians call the Naqba. Jews were already being murdered in Palestine half a century earlier. Most Israelis believe that the Palestinians have the right to an independent state of their own. Unfortunately, that view is not shared mutually by the Palestinians, who have yet to recognize our legitimate rights (remember, I hold dual citizenship!)

The Jewish belief that the land was given to us by God from the Nile to the Euphrates is not mainstream. But it is mainstream in the Arab world to believe that Jews have no right to their own state in the Middle East. The Palestinians have been offered a partition of the land so many times and have always turned it down. Understanding the Palestinian narrative requires us to recognize that there is, among many in the Arab and the Palestinian world, no room for Israel on the world map.

Gottlieb: My strategy has been to be in partnership with Palestinians, so we have a mutual opportunity to meet. And of course I've worked with those who, like me, are interested in peaceful resolutions. Lately I've tried to focus attention on those who, like Yehuda Stolov of Interfaith Encounter, are working with Palestinians in partnership and mutuality to build institutions in civil society. We need to figure out how to… nurture young men and women to form the connections that are needed to move toward the future.

Whether it's "administrative oversight" or "occupation," anyone who's… watched olive trees by the thousands be pulled up from the earth, sat for hours at a checkpoint, or seen tanks in the streets — you realize that no matter what you call it, Palestinians are feeling very helpless as they witness the loss of land and livelihood. As of 2007, 50% of the West Bank was off limits to Palestinians. This is part of the reality of life on the ground that is necessary for people to understand.

Zeek: It's interesting to me that you mention nurturing young men and women to form the connections that are needed to move forward, especially given what Rabbi Schiller was saying about working with teenaged boys at YUHS. Do you have thoughts on how to bring this to American teens in a way that they'll be able to hear?

Schiller: My experience has been that if you focus on conflict elsewhere, Northern Ireland or the Balkans, and you present the histories of the rival peoples there, it's a good starting point. They don't have as much at stake; they can see that there are places in the world where territory is disputed, similar to Israel and Palestine.

I like to start from a perspective of: one's heart has to become a different kind of heart. It has to be a heart in which love and charity are essential ingredients of one's whole human and religious perspective. Going from there: okay, now we know this is how God wants us to be. Fair, compassionate and just. Now what do we do when we move that into the reality of the situation?

Gottlieb: I like to work with theatre games. When you bring people into a theatrical conflict, you can then apply that to different situations. You get a more firsthand experience, you see what works and what doesn't work in conflict transformation.

For me, building understanding in the American Jewish Community has set me on the road to the Muslim community. I've been involved in the Muslim-Jewish Peace Walk, which I co-created with Abdul Rauf Campos Marquetti. It's based on a model of bringing people together in pilgrimage to each others' holy sites. We nurture relationships around which people can build coalitions of shared concerns, which inevitably involve the safety of their youth and the health of their communities.

Zeek: I'm going to pull us in a different direction for a moment. How do you navigate the need to direct time and energy toward Israel, with the need to direct time and energy toward what's happening in our Diaspora communities? Is that a tension any of you want to speak to?

Guttman: It's not necessarily an "either/or" type of situation. I view Israel as an incredible educational resource for adults and teens. In our congregation, we make a concerted effort to raise the necessary funds to help our teens go to Israel. The percentage of our students who have visited Israel before high school graduation has been as high as 70%. This is very important to us because recent studies of college-age youth show a marked decrease in their feelings of connection to Israel.

But our Jewish communal leadership hasn't come to terms fully with two basic facts. The first is that Israel is no longer a third world country and therefore less of our philanthropic dollars need to go there. More of these dollars should go to the JDC and should stay here in the United States. Second, our Jewish communal leadership has yet to fully comprehend how underfunded Jewish education in the United States is and how devastating the consequences for such underfunding can be in the next twenty years for the American Jewish community and for the support of Israel from the United States.

Zeek: Has support for Israel always been a strong part of your congregation, or is that something you've stewarded during your time there?

Guttman: Support for Israel has always been there, but has increased during my time. This is especially true of teen trips to Israel, which were kind of non existent prior to my arrival thirteen years ago. But, these trips could not have been done without the support of lay leadership, generous donors and the Greensboro Jewish Federation.

Angel: When I first came to my congregation there was a veil of silence that the leadership and the congregation had consciously and unconsciously colluded in establishing, so that Israel was just not talked-about. The Israeli flag had been taken out of the sanctuary, Hatikva had been taken out of the siddur. There was no reference to Israel in the curriculum for our school; no one talked about Israel from the bimah in divrei Torah.

Part of my work has been to find organic ways to bring Israel back into the full life of everything we do. In the same way that we work to make sure God and Torah are part of the life of the congregation, we're trying to strengthen the pillar of Israel in various dimensions.

Zeek: Has your community been receptive to that?

Angel: Yes, mostly! Now it seems hard to believe there was a time when it was such a lightning rod. Now we're trying to make annual congregational pilgrimages to Israel. We have Israel in the curriculum. We have a whole continuum of dialogue in the life of the congregation. That's healthy.

Of course there was an Exodus of people who wrote in that they were quitting the synagogue because of our Israel politics–on one side or the other. We're too this, or we're too that. Even though now what we aim to be is dynamic.

Gottlieb: I can relate. On both sides. How painful it is to be the messenger of difficult news. I've led delegations to Israel and Palestine and when I've come back people wanted me to speak from the pulpit, and it's a very painful reality to convey.

People are looking for a ready-made solution. As Jews we're used to thinking in long periods of time, but nonetheless there's so much anxiety about the ambiguous and unresolved nature of the situation, especially on the heels of such terrible trauma and tragedy (the Shoah is still very much with us.)

Zeek: You mentioned working with Palestinians who are working toward peace. How has your community responded to that? Have you and your community always been aligned on the need to "live in the ambiguities," or has that posed a challenge? And on a related note, (how) do you think your geographic location shapes your community's response to these issues?

Gottlieb: My community is committed, but it's a burden to bear in relationship to the rest of the Jewish community. Since I've left my congregation, the desire to connect with the rest of the Jewish community has dampened their willingness to reach out to Palestinians who are critical of Israel's policies related to occupation. Geography can impact this situation; communities in more isolated areas feel vulnerable to lack of connection with the rest of the Jewish community.

Every year or so in my community we have what we call Council; we pass the proverbial talking stick or shofar around, and each person speaks about how they're feeling about Israel. We have different feelings, different experiences; we can cultivate this talmudic idea that "these and those are the words of the living God." If we can't do that in our own communities, how are we going to find common ground with the Palestinians?

Zeek: I'm delighted that you mention the talmudic idea that we're a multi-perspective people; that enshrined in our texts is a sense that disagreement can be productive. I'd love to look at how our relationship with our texts shapes this whole set of questions for us.

Schiller: The solution to part of the struggle, the political part, is ultimately in God's hands. As it says in Avos [Pirke Avot], "lo alecha hamlecha ligmor," the work is not upon us to conclude. We have to bear witness, we have to create acts of kindness on the ground. How the political struggle will play itself out, from this vantage point is difficult to see. But it's not just about the political solution; it's about the 101 day-to-day acts of conversation and kindness, which in a mystical sense are adding to the spiritual balance of existence.

In hockey when two players fight, the officials let them fight until they're exhausted and then separate them. It's possible that we are, tragically, not yet at the point in history when these two peoples are exhausted. But if other models are being created through acts of kindness, by moral spiritual warfare, then at the point when the combatants are exhausted there will be an alternative model on the ground. The things we do in relation to Israeli-Palestinian conflict and our own spiritual development can't be divided.

Gottlieb: How we respond to the Palestinians is core to our spiritual development as a people. What we're watching happen to the Palestinian people is partly in our hands because of the balance of power in that relationship. We're called to rise to the occasion. And in order to do that, we have to address healing from cultural trauma and then understand what that means for the Palestinians as well.

Angel: There's a certain willingness, in a large part of my community, to only be learning about the Palestinians' cultural experience. We need to start with an appreciation for Jewish history and the miracle that Israel is. I want us to form an attachment to our Jewish homeland, our Jewish family and origins before working on behalf of the family of humanity.

Gottlieb: I'm into that. In the non-Orthodox world we're often challenged to carve out a space for Jewish cultural identity. I teach in a program called Interfaith Inventions, which brings Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Native American kids together. They explain their traditions to each other, and we've found that both their self-pride and their self-knowledge increased, as well as their respect for others.

Schiller: Amongst the Orthodox I find a tremendous need to teach that there is a version of Zionism that is not a rightist type of Zionism. I speak to them about the original Brit Shalom, the Ichud movement, Ernst Simon who was an Orthodox Jew in the 1930s and 40s. There is an opportunity to be a Zionist with a humanistic strain. I trace that history for my students, because I'm always afraid they think they're going to forfeit their Zionist credentials if they appear even-handed.

In the Haredi world, it's very important to show sources in Talmud and Shulchan Aruch that embrace a humanistic vision of Judaism. And to deal with sources that seem antithetical to that, which also certainly exist. One must dialogue with those sources, and cite alternate sources, amongst the Orthodox. There's a lot of work to be done within the Torah experience itself, to show people they need not embrace the endless dialectic of victimhood and hate.

Gottlieb: I remember sitting in Kiryat Arba in the home of a man who had settled there with his wife. And I asked, can you show me where it's a mitzvah to live in the Land? He pulled a text out and started quoting from Ramban instead of Rambam. At that moment he realized that, in fact, there were alternative perspectives — it was like Coyote had entered the room and made him point to the wrong text! By the end of our conversation, talking about the idea that we as children of Abraham should be known for our compassion was a source of opening for him.

If you have an angry heart, you'll end up with an angry Torah. A fearful heart, you'll end up with a fearful Torah. A compassionate heart will lead you to a compassionate Torah.

RB: Maybe that's a good place for us to end. Thank you all.

Rabbi Camille Angel was ordained through the Reform movement in 1995. "One of the most primary influences in my life was my father, who was ordained Reform in 1934 and whose letters I found this year from his travels through Palestine. Unlike many classmates in '34, he was very much a Zionist.

Today I serve Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco, primarily a congregation that serves GLBT Jews — though we have an increasing population of straight folks, and a religious school of 160 kids."

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb is a sixth generation American Jew of German Jewish descent. "My grandfather, Morritz Gottlieb, founded the National Jewish Welfare Board. He was active during the Second World War, and after, in supporting the birth of the state of Israel. My family has pictures of him with Ben Gurion and Aba Eben.

My first year with Temple Beth Or of the Deaf, also kind of an unusual pulpit to begin with, was 1973. I had the unfortunate task of announcing the beginning of the Yom Kippur war in sign language to my congregation. I have a long history with Israel; I was an exchange student there, went to college there, and have gone back numerous times, most lately leading delegations for the Fellowship of Reconciliation."

Rabbi Fred Guttman lived in Israel from 1979–1991. "I served in the Israeli Army as a reserve soldier in a combat artillery brigade and served extensively in the administered territories from 1984–1990. Since 1995 I've served as the senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, North Carolina.

I'm an AIPAC activist and I've lobbied extensively in Congress on issues affecting Israel. I've been a member of the UJA/UJC Rabbinic Cabinet since 1993, and I serve on the Commission of Social Action of Reform Judaism, where for two years I was chair of the Israel/Foreign Affairs Task Force. I've also been very involved with the March of the Living."

Rabbi Meyer Schiller teaches Talmud at Yeshiva University High School for boys in Manhattan. "I've been teaching Talmud to Modern Orthodox high school youth for thirty-one years. I've written several books and articles on political and religious matters. I was raised in a secular or perhaps one might say Reform-oriented home in the 1950s, and opted for Orthodoxy in seventh grade.

My ties are in the Hasidic community though I teach in the Modern Orthodox community. I'm very much taken by notions of seeking to create a broad-based humanistic vision for Orthodoxy which would embrace the sufferings of all of mankind and the narratives and experiences of all peoples."

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