Liberal Rabbis, American Judaism, & Gaza (Shaul Magid)


Along with a dirty American flag by Jasper Johns, I’m posting this guest blog from Shaul Magid, erev Tisha B’Av in conversation with my own post earlier today about U.S. liberal rabbis, Israel, and Gaza. While unsure as to the moral somnolence of the American liberal rabbinate, I am leaving Shaul the last word.


Thank you for asking me to weigh-in on the issue of how American liberal/progressive rabbis have been dealing with Israel and the Gaza Operation and Jerry Haber’s recent essay in Magnes Zionist. When I read the essay by Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky in Haaretz, a respected colleague and long-time friend, I initially felt somewhat relieved that the ice may have finally been broken and the Hasbara Industry that has had a chock-hold on so many American pulpit rabbis (I serve as a rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue) is beginning to give way. Kalmanofsky’s willingness to confront the reality of death and destruction in Gaza as distinct, albeit not fully severed, from Hamas’s rockets showed signs of courage all too rare among American rabbis these days. The rabbinic silence resulting from ambiguity has been deafening for far too long.

But as much as I appreciated and even admired the essay, like Haber I was left somewhat uneasy. And here I speak to the larger swath of the liberal American rabbinate, but surely not all of it. Why now? Isn’t this an all-too-convenient moment to break the ice; the deaths of hundreds of civilian women and children in an operation that was ostensibly about the legitimate destruction of rocket launch sites and tunnels close to the Israel/Gaza border. Like Haber, I wondered where were these rabbis during the decades of occupation, humiliation, house demolitions, land confiscation, “administrative detention” which requires no habeas corpus, and all in the name of the Jewish people? How did these rabbis react to David Shulman’s heart-wrenching book Dark Hope about settler violence against the Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills? Where are the sermons decrying racist legislation that is slowly making its way through the Knesset where Arab Israeli rights are slowly being eroded?  What do they tell their congregants when they take trips to Israel and hear anti-Arab racism in the streets the likes of which they have never heard in their life-time? Where were they when AIPAC launched a vicious and unwarranted critique of J-Street, labeling it “pro-Palestinian” and “anti-Israel” (even if you prefer AIPAC to J-Street)? Where were these rabbis when the rabbis of Bnei Jeshurun in Manhattan were skewered in the press for supporting the Palestinian request to upgrade their status at the UN, finally trying to move beyond violence protest? Even if one was not compelled to support this act personally there was good reason to defend the rabbis who did so against vicious attacks in the media. Instead, the rabbis of Bnei Jeshurun were largely hung out to dry.

There are indeed some liberal rabbis in America who are speaking out about this from the pulpit. But in my view it is far too rare and often accompanied by so many caveats that the message is diluted and loses its necessary edge. This does not suggest that there is only one culprit in this conflict. Far from it. But rabbis are not lawyers; their job is not to justify their “clients” behavior by showing us how badly the other side is behaving. A rabbi in the spirit of the Hebrew Prophets should never tolerate comments like Israel Knesset member Yair Lapid’s statement that Hamas is making us kill their children. The prophets were not obsessed with the evil of the other side; they were obsessed with the evil in the hearts of Israel. Let the lawyer Alan Dershowiz make his “case for Israel.” Rabbis, those of us who live inside the Jewish tradition, have another calling. We can support Israel’s actions or criticize them, but it incumbent upon us to do so from the depth of the Jewish tradition and not the vantage point of ostensible Realpolitik.

I understand that rabbis have congregations and that they must consider the tenor and substance of what they preach. And I know personally that many congregants have been courted by AIPAC and fed a very tidy message of pro-Israelism that is hard to crack. But AIPAC’s message, whether one agrees with it or not, is not founded on or informed by the Jewish tradition. It is a secular political lobby with a particular agenda and should be viewed as such, even as many of its members are “religious.” I also know many of these rabbis have a deep and abiding love for Israel that too easy lends itself to what I consider a blind spot when it comes to matters of morality and justice. While I have no particular rabbis in mind here, I do wonder about the silence of many liberal rabbis that ends only when corpses of women and children appear on our computer screens that have been killed “in our name” and “for our sake.”

As both an academic and a pulpit rabbi I have been speaking and writing against what I take to be Israel’s morally outrageous policies for years (this does not ignore or deny Palestinian violence). And I have watched many of those I know and respect slowly move from moral outrage to moral ambiguity and finally to a defensive posture that justifies Israel’s occupation, even if they do so via silence or the constant refrain of “we would make peace if we only had a partner.” I have a deep commitment to Israel, am an Israeli citizen and served in the IDF, as did my oldest son. I have taken a lot criticism for my views, including veiled threats. Some congregants have left my synagogue as a result of my views. I respect their choice and have told them so explicitly. These are matters upon which intelligent people can surely disagree. To paraphrase Abraham Joshua Heschel, I see my job as a rabbi as much about making comfortable Jews uncomfortable as making uncomfortable Jews comfortable.

Some years ago a representative of the Orthodox minyan in town even sought out the president of my synagogue to suggest that I be fired for my “anti-Israel” views (in my mind it is he and not me who is anti-Israel as he supports policies that are undermining the moral fiber of the country and our people). Thankfully, the president and the synagogue board, many of whom do not agree with me on many of these issues, are committed to open dialogue and understand the complexity of these matters. These are hard issues and they demand hard choices. In these matters I look to Marshall Meyer, Arnold Jacob Wolf, and to a certain extent Abraham Joshua Heschel whose moral outrage of injustice and inequality in his time inspired many in my generation. But in my view Heschel could not really understand what was beginning to happen in Israel (he died in 1972 before the occupation become “the occupation”). No one can predict what another soul might do but I would hope if he were alive today he would cut through any ambivalence and strike out hard against what is happening in Israel/Palestine. I would hope he would be at the weekly protests against house demolitions in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood just as he marched on Selma. But I have also come to understand that everyone seems to have their own “Heschel,” mostly reflections of themselves, and I do not have much skin in the game for that to matter much to me.

In any event, there is a delicate balance a rabbi must forge between not alienating his or her congregation and speaking truth to power. It may be the most challenging part of the rabbinic vocation and surely the most dangerous in terms of one’s career. And I fully acknowledge, and respect, that many rabbis simply do not hold my views. I think what bothered Haber, and to some extent what bothers me, is how some rabbis choose to take a moral stand when it is quite easy to do so while not seeing the larger context that produced the source that sparked their outrage. I am not speaking about Palestinian violence that has certainly changed the opinion of many progressive rabbis. I speak rather about over four decades of occupation, most of which did not see much Palestinian violent resistance (it was twenty years of occupation before the first Intifada), when settlements were being built, when land was being confiscated, when “administrative detention” was a regular occurrence. If one does not consider these things moral outrages, that is fine. However, Haber suggests, and I agree, that standing in righteous indignation only when one sees corpses of women and children lying in the streets of Gaza is troubling. This terrible mess, the fault of both sides, did not happen in a vacuum. It is the cumulative effect of decades of terrible polices and bad behavior.

My hope is that those who have largely been silent until now and have expressed a sense of disbelief and outrage will not descend back into complacency and moral ambiguity when this “operation” ends, when the dead are buried and things go back to “normal.” Why? Because in the world of Israel/Palestine “normal” is a moral outrage. It is just easier to overlook and thus easier to sleep at night. As we read in these weeks before Tisha b’Av, Isaiah and Jeremiah’s outrage was less about the overt sins of our people than the ways in which the Israelites were unwilling to see that they were sinning in the first place.

Erev Tisha b’Av, 5774.



About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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6 Responses to Liberal Rabbis, American Judaism, & Gaza (Shaul Magid)

  1. Carol Zemel says:

    My thanks. to both of you.

  2. IH says:

    There are deep moral issues exposed by this latest war, but they are poorly served by forcing them into the small frame of the Left/Center/Right Israel peace camps. Amos Oz is one of the few voices on the left that has captured the key moral issue that has been exposed:

    “Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?

    Question 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?”

    The frontier of asymmetric warfare has been moved irrevocably and the moral/legal response to these questions should be the focus of attention. Jews have grappled with issues like this since Talmudic times. And the American liberal rabbinate should be leading these discussions if they want to have an impact.

  3. Mike walker says:

    The messaging skills of Palestinians are so advanced, they make the Obama Administration look like a high school student council.

    Clearly they’ve gotten to the naive Shaul, who’s been convinced this is a territorial dispute rather than an existential one. Of course, the Church of Progressivism tends to turn people into narrow-minded elitists who convince themselves that all human beings want the same things they do. And since they see inequality as an injustice on par with murder, they’re easily duped into believing that the basis of decades of palestinian violence is “Occupation”, a word that means something different in the context of this region, than it does anywhere else.

    Putting aside the history that easily refutes “occupation” as the cause of violence, Shaul ignores the elephant in the room, Islam. He still hasn’t realized that Jewish autonomy within Israel is a victory for the Judeo/Christian historical narrative, a victory that the Islamic world cannot tolerate.

    In the current day, there is conflict everywhere islamic countries border non-islamic states. There are no examples of Arab countries that treat religious minorities as equals, and yet Shaul believes that if israel handed the palestinians a Jew-free state, they’d be the very first arabs in the world to accept Jewish rule over an inch of land in the middle east.

    How misguided. This isn’t a civil rights movement. Rather than introspection or examination of Jewish conduct and its impact on this perpetual conflict, it would do you a great service to study the works of Western scholars of Islam, listen to the speeches and words of Palestinians when speaking to their own people, and try to open your mind to the fact that the Islamic Middle East openly practices racism, bigotry, rampant misogyny and child abuse, capital punishment for homosexuality and apostasy. ..qualities that all liberals should be horrified by. To believe they’d ever accept a Jewish state before some Islamic cultural renaissance occurs is to live in an alternative reality.

  4. Let’s not anachronistically talk about the Prophets. When did the Rabbinate serve this purpose? The exceptions prove the rule. But what makes me uneasy is the eagerness (of Manekin, Magid and “Jewish Voice for Peace”) to put liberal American Zionists in their place. JVP has an anti-Zionist motive – to discredit Zionism. Others may simply be inattentive or dismissive of politics. Heschel’s voice reached as far as it did in America in the 1960’s because he joined his voice with people who had thought hard about moving people politically.

  5. Abbie H. says:

    None of us on the left should underestimate how difficult it is for a rabbi at a mainstream congregation like Ansche Chesed to take a stance critical of Israel during wartime. Rabbi Kalmanofsky is to be praised for his courage in his Haaretz article. One can be sure that there are those in his congregation who were enraged by it. The American left, in the 1930s, as in the 1960s, as today, has always been fatally weakened by the endless squabbling about ideological purity. Some minimal goals should be set vis-a-vis Israel – above all, that it not engage in wholesale attacks on densely populated areas with the inevitable mass killings of civilians that always result. Given the horrifying events of the past few weeks, can’t we at least unite on this issue and try to marshal a consensus in the American Jewish community on this? These are matters of life and death for thousands of people. Let’s find some areas where we agree and not try to one-up each other on “who’s more progressive”! Most mainstream organizations don’t even have the decency to express grief about the hundreds of innocent lives killed by the IDF. Let’s try to bring them at least to this most minimal of moral stances!

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