Israel and Gaza and the war last summer hung heavy over the rabbi’s remarks this Yom Kippur at Ansche Chesed, a large and important Conservative congregation on the Upper Westside, where I’m proud to be a member. Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky’s big Kol Nidre talk touched upon anti-Semitism, support for Israel, “moral Zionism,” and the importance of criticism in an open community whose leadership and the majority of its members want to maintain a firm ideological line while remaining open to multiple and opposing perspectives.
Rabbi Kalmanofsky began his talk on a sociological note, with reference to voluntarism in American culture and American religion with the concomitant weakening of group identity. He gave a very convincing and persuasive shout-out to Shaul Magid’s book on post-ethnic Judaism, and then swerved away from that thesis to make an unequivocal assertion of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Europe who faced a surge in violent anti-Semitism this past summer, and for our brothers and sisters in Israel in its fight with Hamas, an implacable enemy. Under no uncertain terms, the creation of the State of Israel was identified as the single most important project of the Jewish people in the 20th century, the creation of a free and democratic home in the Land of Israel. Viewed from the bimah, there’s no way to cut loose from this social bond and “ethnic” commitment.
At the same time, Rabbi Kalmanofsky signaled his own refusal to sign up last summer under the banner-slogan “Stand with Israel.” He weighed in against the closing of the American Jewish mind and the hardening of the American Jewish heart, arguing that support for Zionism cannot be a litmus test for participation in the community writ large and Ansche Chesed community writ small. Needing to make place for non-Zionists and other critics of Israel, Rabbi Kalmanofsky expressed commitment to open space and critical discussion. More important, he addressed the pressing need to open up hearts in the Jewish community to the suffering of the Palestinian people, to make for the Palestinian people a genuine political horizon that respects their own right to sovereign freedom.
What then about discussions at Ansche Chesed about boycotts, divesting, and sanctioning Israel (BDS)? This did not get addressed last week at shul by Rabbi Kalmanofsky, but my guess is that the answer would be probably not, but it depends. That is, there are limits to the any open discussion, but that these limits are fungible, not absolute.
Some backstory: In 2013, Rabbi Kalmanofsky effectively pulled the plug on an event booked at the shul by activists from outside the congregation who wanted to rent space at the synagogue for a panel on “Jewish Perspectives: Is Israel—or can it be—a democracy? Is there—or can there be—equality in Israel? Can a Jewish state be democratic?” The incident was written up by Sigal Samuel here at the Daily Beast. According the article, the last paragraph of the flyer put together by the panel organizers expressed “[interest] in continuing…discussion [about BDS] in the Jewish community and more broadly.” For Rabbi Kalmanofsky, that was probably the poison pill. Clearly, he did not want the name of the congregation to be associated with this particular event. The response on the part of the organizers was understandable as it was predictable, protesting the decision to tamp down on the event, refusing to “give in to such no-nothingism or to bullying, intimidation, or fear of being “othered.”
Does that mean, as the letter writers suggested, that the “AC leadership…did not want actual BDS supporters in their shul!” That’s not so clear. At issue was the difference between outsiders and insiders. In her own remarks, Samuel goes on to note, “Interestingly, Kalmanofsky also claimed that, had the request to hold a BDS discussion come from within the synagogue community as opposed to from an outside organization, he would have acceded. ‘If ten members of our synagogue community came to me and said, we’d like to have this as a program, I’d have no choice but to say yes, absolutely. But they approached this as a space rental.’”
There’s no reason not to take Rabbi Kalmanofsky at his word, and that had 10 members of the congregation stepped forward in support of the event happening at Anshce Chesed, it would have happened under the name of the congregation. Since then, especially in light of the war last summer, the synagogue has lost congregants who thought that Rabbi Kalmanofsky was too rightwing and others who thought he was too leftwing. Straight down the middle, I think Rabbi Kalmonsky’s position is where the majority of American Jews find themselves, refusing the contradiction between two sets of values, Jewish solidarity and liberal values, refusing to see this as a contradiction, attempting to stay true to both commitments sets of value as a fundamental compliment marking the best and most vital part of the modern Jewish condition, not when times are easy, but precisely when times are hard.
About Judaism and liberal values, American liberal values, Rabbi Kalmanofsky expressed himself quite clearly in their defense here in the pages of the Jewish Review of Books in a critical response to an article by Daniel Gordis about the so-called death of Conservative Judaism. My own sense, getting these commitments right between Zionism and humanism, Zionism as a form of humanism, Jewish commitments as a liberal value, what Martin Buber called Hebrew Humanism is central to the renewal of Conservative Judaism as a centrist, liberal Judaism, a complementary alternative in the space in between Modern Orthodoxy and Reform Judaism. Not confused, there is great moral clarity in these multiple commitments to moral particularism and ethical universalism.
Here’s the takeaway by Samuel in her article. “If congregants want their synagogues to be less fearful of entertaining the really tough questions about the Jewish state, it may be up to them to instigate and demand that shift from within.” That is to say, progressive cannot simply parachute to press a cause if they expect to be part of the discussion. If they want to change the discourse about Israel and Palestine and to rewrite the rules of the game by which it’s played in the American Jewish community, they need to show up, putting real skin in the game from a space inside the community, contributing to the everyday running and maintenance and to the renewal of its institutional and communal structures and to the calibration and re-calibration of its ideological commitments.