Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, June 21, 2018
An American Jew in Israel
An American Jew in Israel
JUNE 21, 2018, 1:33 AM
Next week, I’m bringing a group of congregants, primarily first-timers, to Israel for a tour. I’ve led about a dozen groups during my years as a rabbi, and I’ve been to Israel many other times, including a full year there as a rabbinical student.
No, I’m not looking for a medal. I just wanted to mention that to show you that Israel has always been — and will always be — close to my heart.
In the same way, America is the place of my birth and I will always love it. Israel and America, my homeland and my home. I will never abandon either.
So I have a favor to ask. Please remove all the “God Bless Trump” signs from the streets of Jerusalem that were put up when the America embassy move was announced late last year. I don’t know if they are still up. But before I get there — just for a few days — humor me and take them down.
For one thing, those signs were just one manifestation of the outsized influence of their creators, the evangelical Friends of Zion, whose museum has become a focal point of Jerusalem tourism. The pro-Trump evangelical point of view might be appealing to many Israelis, but it is anathema to nearly three quarters of American Jews; not that we matter that much to the current Israeli government.
Well, we should matter — just as the sensitivities of Israelis should matter to us. As one whose allegiance to Israel cannot be questioned, I am asking for some sensitivity to the legions of American Jews who are disgusted beyond belief with the behavior of the Trump Administration.
Where shall I begin? With the insidious acts of Holocaust denial, the equivocation of Charlottesville and the enabling of White Supremacist hate? With the overt racism of “s*hole countries” and the Muslim ban? With the systematic destruction of sacred alliances, global order and the environment? With the degradation of the free press and independent judiciary and the degrading of truth itself, including the questioning of empirical science? With the treacherous policy of divide and conquer, appealing to the worst fears and stoking suspicions? With the blatant, overt corruption that has turned the US government into a banana-republic kleptocracy? With the coddling of dictators and authoritarian regimes? With the likely obstruction of justice and already-demonstrated acts of treason by at least his cohorts during the 2016 elections, if not by Trump himself?
Or perhaps I can begin with the abomination du jour, the purely Trumpian policy of ripping migrant babies from their parents. He compares migrants to vermin. Is that not enough to repulse you?
But no, you got a nice all-American Trump palace in Jerusalem to call your own and a free pass to forget about the peace process, and that’s all you need, it seems, to convince you to neglect the moral underpinnings of our tradition.
What’s that I hear? You don’t like being lectured by a American Jew, one whom many of you would not even consider to be a rabbi (another serious problem)?
I do it — as Trump would say, “believe me” — out of love.
I get it. There is no comparison between what Americans and Israelis have endured through the past 70 years. I’ve shed tears at the grave of the American Lone Soldier, Michael Levin. I was one of the “brave tourists” who shopped in downtown Jerusalem during the second intifada, looking around wherever I went, concerned that the next step might be my last. Admittedly, I came and left. But I needed to be there, and I felt what you felt. I was there just after the first Gulf War too, sharing in the grief and the relief that those 39 Iraqi Scuds had taken a miraculously light toll. Yigal Amir’s bullet pierced my soul too, and my “Song of Peace.” I’ve been there with you, every step of the way. And unlike some of your new friends, I’m not aiming to convert you.
But those of you who do not live in the US cannot possibly understand what it is like to live here right now, having to reawaken each morning to a fusillade of presidential tweets designed to wear us down, that have become obscenities to the very concept of truth.
You can’t possibly know what it like to be a religious leader here, a rabbi with an angered but perplexed congregation, some on the right, some on the left, but most of them hopelessly confused. At a time like this, with the country torn apart and the laughingstock of the world, it is hard to escape the feeling that a major conflagration approaches. We are not at the beginning of a process that leads to autocracy — we are smack in the middle of it, and we are fighting like heck to save democracy, for us and for the world. You may not see it now, but you have an enormous stake in our success.
Can you imagine being a rabbi whose every act of kindness is seen as subversive, because compassion is not what Americans “do” these days. Even the most fundamental moral message can be interpreted as a partisan attack on Trump: “Love the stranger.” “Tell the truth.” “Be faithful to your partner.” “Words matter.”
Imagine, in this environment, trying to lead, comfort and inspire people to lives of sacrifice and hope.
You have no idea!
So please cover those signs, if they haven’t been replaced already with something for Prince William, (“God bless the Irgun fighters who blew up the King David Hotel” perhaps?) or something actually put there by Israelis instead of the government’s American Christian benefactors.
Meanwhile, I can’t wait to be back in Jerusalem, to see the people and land that I love. Moshiko’s falafel, here I come!