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Palestinian activists hold a rally outside New York’s Museum of Modern Art to protest what they claim to be board members’ funding of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, June 11, 2021Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
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We Need to Talk About the Way We Talk About Israel

Israel is the topic, but American Jews are the target

Diana Fersko
November 04, 2022
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
Palestinian activists hold a rally outside New York’s Museum of Modern Art to protest what they claim to be board members’ funding of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, June 11, 2021Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

There I was at the end of the summer, standing on a balcony in Jerusalem, quietly chatting with my husband. It was hot. But good hot. The kind of heat that reminds you that you are not in North America. We stood there on that balcony in the middle of a family vacation looking out at Jerusalem, just looking out at the Old City and beyond. That place where King David lived, that place where the Temple once stood. We stared at the site of the Western Wall, where generations of Jews leave notes, desperate for communication with God. We stood there having a very basic conversation. What should we do that day? Should we go to the shuk or the Israel Museum or maybe there were some sprinklers where our kids could run around?

And then we heard two very loud booms in the distance. “What was that?” I looked at my husband, but I knew what it was. “Whatever it was, it didn’t sound good.” he answered.

We went inside. Refresh, refresh, refresh on my phone, act calm for the kids. Run through scenarios in my mind. Is there a bomb shelter in this building? What do I need to take with me if I have to go there? Why am I even thinking these things? Everything is fine. Everything is fine. Of course it’s fine. What if it’s not fine? Of course it’s fine. Refresh, refresh, refresh on my phone. There it is, in black and white in front of me. The headline read: “Rockets Fired at Jerusalem—Islamic Jihad Takes Credit.”

It was hard to compute actual violence when we generally live so peacefully without real threat of bodily harm. What even was this? My family vacation interrupted by Islamic Jihad firing rockets at us within earshot? I still don’t really get it.

We didn’t know what was going to happen: Would things escalate? Would Hamas join in the fighting? How would Israel respond? Would this violence aggravate tension between Arab and Jewish Israeli citizens? Would we have to run into a shelter with our children like our friends in Tel Aviv had to? Under the sudden weight of that serene sun on that balcony in Jerusalem, I felt panic and anxiety and dread. We didn’t know what would happen.

In a few days’ time, it became clear that we were safe, thank God. We were under the Iron Dome and the hostilities began to relax a bit. But that anxiety and dread lingered with me for another reason—a reason we don’t usually discuss, even among ourselves. We need to talk about Israel. More specifically we need to talk about the way we talk about Israel, and the impact it has on American Jews.

Israel can be a tough topic—divisive and complex and misunderstood and emotionally charged. But one of the core elements of Judaism is the respectful exchange of ideas. Jews have been in a conversation for centuries, agreeing and disagreeing with each other. The Jewish way is to add to the conversation, not stifle it. Torah itself is full of ideas that seem in tension with each other. Any single page of Talmud will offer countless conflicting opinions. Jews even disagreed about which direction to hang a mezuzah, for goodness sake, so we hung it at a slant.

That’s to say: You may agree with some of my ideas, you may disagree with others, and that’s OK. I don’t believe agreement is always the goal. Judaism is about wrestling and listening and considering and contemplating and challenging ideas. If you disagree, I promise to respect you and your ideas and ask you to extend me the same courtesy. I promise I will listen to you and hear you out. Maybe you will disagree with something I say, and that’s OK. That’s Jewish.

One thing we probably can agree on is that the way Israel is often discussed in public discourse has a negative valence. In the academic world, there are organized, professionalized boycotts. In the media world, there are think pieces in mainstream outlets we all read that go as far as questioning the very legitimacy of the Jewish state. And of course, we’ve seen elected officials, activists, and Twitter users alike all throw around the ugliest of words about the Jewish state with relative ease. The public discussion of Israel in our country right now, in the circles most of us travel in, ranges somewhere between tense and negative to shaming, vitriolic, hyperbolic, and even condemnatory.

Zionist is the code word. Jew is the actual word.

Maybe you think the way we talk about Israel is appropriate or deserved. Or maybe you think the way we talk about Israel is wildly antisemitic. Maybe you are somewhere in between. But what I’m interested in isn’t the quality—or lack thereof—of our Israel discourse, it’s the outcome of our Israel discourse. What is the endgame of an Israel-negative worldview? Where does Israel vitriol ultimately release its venom?

Think about what happened with D.C. branch of the Sunrise Movement this year. The Sunrise Movement is a climate change organization for young people. Wonderful. They released a public statement withdrawing from a rally because of organizations “that are all in alignment with and in support of Zionism and the State of Israel.” The organizations that were so terrible, so terrifying, so toxic that the Sunrise Movement refused to stand shoulder to shoulder with included: the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, a pluralistic organization that’s existed for over 70 years; the Religious Action Center, known as the RAC, where our teens and the teens of the Reform Movement from all over the country go to participate in social justice work; and the National Council for Jewish Women, which has been leading the liberal Jewish charge on abortion access.

The topic of the Sunrise Movement’s refusal to participate was Israel, but the subject of the punishment was us: American Jews.

Does the Jew in Jerusalem feel the weight of American condemnation online? Does the Jew in Be’er Sheva bear the brunt of the boycotts? Do the Jews of Tel Aviv to Tiberias really worry about shawarma sales because of the public shaming of Israel in the United States? No.

The people who will ultimately feel the wrath of our national discourse are not out there an ocean away. They’re in here. They are you and me and the Jews of America. Hostility toward Israel in America leads to hostility toward American Jews.

I do not believe that all criticism of Israel is antisemitic. Israel has a free press and an independent judiciary. It is a democracy. Criticism is part of that culture of freedom and it’s certainly part of Jewish culture as well. Just as it is here, criticism is often necessary and can even be patriotic. I certainly do not always agree with the government of Israel, which is kind of a silly thing to say because Israel seems to have a new government every day anyway. If I lived there, there are policies I would vote against the same way I do here. I do not believe any country is beyond reproach. So criticism is not my concern.

But I am deeply concerned about hostility and even hate against Israel because there are a growing number of people and organizations who do not want to sit down and have a thoughtful conversation about policy. They don’t want to map out possibilities about how to arrive at a two-state solution. They are not interested in coexistence or peace. They are not interested in us. They are people who hate Israel or have been swept up into hating Israel. And Israel-hate leads to Jew-hate. How could it not?

Maybe you don’t agree. Maybe you think when we are talking about Israel, we are talking about Israelis and Israeli governments and Israeli policies. Maybe that provides some reassuring distance to the problem. Or maybe you think this issue is far-flung and rare. Yeah, it’s just some climate-change organization with a few quacks leading the charge.

But actually, excising Jews from public life is the prevalent and increasingly pervasive antisemtic practice of our day. It’s not just climate change and it’s not just a one-off. Jews are increasingly excluded in social justice, in equity and inclusivity work, in business, in civil rights, and in academia. And it’s all over the map: It happens in New York, it happens in California, and it happens everywhere in between.

In 2017, Jews were expelled from the Dyke March in Chicago. Lofting a rainbow flag with a Star of David on it, the marchers were told to leave because they “made people feel unsafe.” The organizers didn’t want anything at the march “that can inadvertently or advertently express Zionism.” They did not remove people from other backgrounds, or other flags and symbols—just the Jews.

Zionism is the entry point, excluding Jews is the result.

Zionism is the subject, but Jews in America are the object.

Zionist is the code word. Jew is the actual word.

Even the Anti-Defamation League is not immune to this exclusion. In 2018, Starbucks reached out to the ADL to help lead an anti-bias training for its employees. Apparently, the ADL is too controversial to work with now. Despite the group’s long history of support for civil rights and deep engagement fighting for equality for all, a cadre of Israel-haters reached out to condemn its involvement. The ADL was cast as an Islamophobic, anti-Arab organization that sponsors U.S. law enforcement agents to travel and get trained by the Israeli military. All debunked misnomers, but no matter; because of public pressure, Starbucks removed the one Jewish organization from participating in anti-bias training.

Israel is the runway, American Jews are the destination.

It’s even in the religious world: This year, the leader of the Council on American-Islamic Relations publicly warned against “polite Zionists” and “Zionist synagogues.”

Israel is the topic, but American Jews are the target.

I’m not suggesting that if this conversation had some impact on Israelis it would be all right. I would condemn that as well. I am a proud Zionist, a lover of Israel, and I pray for the strength to support Israel even when it seems hard to do so. But this “Israel conversation” is not about Israel at all. It is about you and me. It is about Jews existing in America.

Shaming Israel is the portal to silencing and separating Jews. It’s the entry point for it all. Think about college campuses.

At Tufts University there was a student led effort to stop other students from participating in anything that appeared to “normalize or benefit” Israel. The campaign demanded students withdraw from Birthright trips or J Street participation, and to withdraw from a class titled Visions of Peace that focuses on dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. The university condemned this effort.

At the University of Vermont, rocks were thrown at the campus Hillel, and a group for survivors of sexual assault allegedly denied membership to pro-Israel students. The United States Department of Education has opened an investigation into this behavior, which the university denies.

At Rutgers University, the Jewish fraternity has been regularly vandalized, including during this past Rosh Hashanah.

At CUNY, a professor withheld a recommendation from a student until the student clarified their Israel position.

At Berkeley, certain student groups have created what was reported as a “Jew-free zone” banning speakers who support Zionism on a campus that supposedly celebrates diversity. These rules ensure that the dean of the law school, himself a liberal Zionist, cannot speak there.

And at Harvard, students installed an “art” piece about Israel in the middle of campus including images alluding to long debunked lies about Jews spreading disease, killing children, and being bloodthirsty, during what they call their annual apartheid week.

Imagine being a 19-year-old Jewish person on campus. How would that make you feel?

“Anti-Israel” are the words, anti-Jewish is the truth.

Israel is the topic, our children are the target.

Are we going to allow this to be the great social justice movement of our day? It has all the hallmarks of a successful campaign: governmental support, policy goals, high levels of funding, impassioned supporters, professional leadership. It is an organized and focused movement that results in the reduction of Jews in public life.

The way we talk about Israel is the way we talk about the Jews. It feels a little bit dangerous to say that, actually. But after standing on that balcony, listening to rockets intended to kill me and other civilians, it also feels dangerous not to say it.

If we can’t call out what’s really going on with this backward, hypercritical, hyperbolic, hysterical conversation about Israel, if we can’t say that the American Israel conversation results in rampant antisemitism, how can we ask our kids to say it?

It is not some other Jews’ problem. It is ours. Are we willing to accept this elimination of Jewish existence in civic life?

It’s not about being a Republican or a Democrat. It’s about treating human beings equally and with dignity. It’s about demanding justice for all, including Jewish Americans.

The consequences of going quietly into the night, of allowing this continued exclusion of Jews from public life, are dire for the diaspora. It means that good people who want to celebrate inclusivity, eliminate climate change, do their jobs, make the world a better place, or simply learn in a school won’t be able to do so. It means the minimization of Jews in public life. It means that America is experimenting with its darkest tendencies. It means that the future of American Jewry is more fragile than it’s ever been. It means that antisemitism is winning.

It’s hard to stand up against this conversation. It’s intimidating, it’s scary, it’s risky. You could be castigated, called out, condemned, or canceled. Going against the grain is not without cost. And anyway, it is a really confusing conversation. But nonetheless, we need to say it over and over again. The way we talk about Israel is not as scary as having Islamic Jihad launch hundreds or thousands of rockets a few miles away from you. But the Israel conversation in America is its own type of violence—and there is no Iron Dome for this one.

So what should we do? Here are three options.

Option 1. We can leave. We can leave these institutions and these organizations and start our own. Our own climate change advocacy groups, our own institutions to celebrate the LBGTQ+ community, our own universities. That’s what the rabbis of post-destruction Israel did. They had no choice. They lost all their institutions and they changed the future of the Jewish people and oh my goodness that worked. The mystics of Tsfat did the same thing. They lost their geographic and cultural framework and they turned inward. They invented things, they wrote things, they created what Jewish mysticism is today. They abandoned all they knew and they changed the trajectory of Judaism for the better. Maybe we should, too. Maybe we should say we are done, we are abandoning these organizations and structures that don’t want us, and we will make our own centers of justice and education and business.

Option 2. We can stay. And we can try and change this trajectory from within. Davka, we can send our children to these colleges and help them represent as Jews. We can speak up and speak out. We can counter-protest and counter-program. We can fundraise and coalition-build and organize. We can remind people that just as we have every obligation to fight for the dignity and justice for others, we also have every right to be a part of that work. We can stay, and muster the chutzpah to shame the shaming of Israel. There are many Jewish institutions and groups and friend circles right now that are reevaluating their existence seriously and frantically. They are trying to find ways to stay and to make things better.

And then, there’s Option 3. We can do nothing. We like to say there are no wrong answers. But in this case, there is one wrong answer. Because doing nothing is the outcome we absolutely cannot tolerate. We cannot pretend this problem is on the periphery when it is pervasive and appalling. Ignoring it is enabling it. Denying it is helping it flourish. It is not for us to complete the work but neither are we free to desist from it. There is broken glass all over this world and we must pick up those pieces and repair them. The very future of the diaspora may depend on which option we choose. Option 3, doing nothing, is no option at all.

We have all the resources to really work on this problem. We have some of the best minds, the kindest people, the warmest souls here. Together, we can be a part of and even lead the way in ensuring that we quiet the growing acceptance of Jew-hate.

A longer version of this Kol Nidre sermon can be found here.

Diana Fersko is the Senior Rabbi of The Village Temple in downtown Manhattan.