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The Dangerous Myopia of American Jewish Leaders

December 9, 2012

From coast to coast, as Progressive American rabbis continue to call for peace, they are inadvertently revealing their tragic inability to acknowledge that the world in which they once formulated their positions on Israel has changed almost beyond recognition. The gaping disconnect between the world that these rabbis pretend exists and the one that actually exists renders their message both irrelevant and myopically dangerous. For the goal of religious leadership ought to be to get people to do something. Yet, acting while denying reality can lead only to grievous, and, perhaps, irredeemable mistakes.

Jews do not easily surrender our hopes for peace. But increasingly, beginning with the Second Intifada, Israelis have come to doubt the possibility of a “land for peace” deal. That doubt increased when Gazans voted Hamas into power after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. In recent years, as more Israelis have come to understand that there is no placating Gazans, who see themselves as descendants of 1948 refugees from the Negev and the coastal plain (precisely the places that Gazans shelled during the recent conflict), Israeli despair has only hardened.

That the situation is both dangerous and depressing is undeniable. But responsible leadership does not deny reality, no matter how sad it may be. It first acknowledges what exists, and only then tries to imagine what we can do to create a better world.

Yet that is precisely too many American Progressive Jewish leaders refuse to do. As Operation Pillar of Defense was raging, the rabbi of Ikar in Los Angeles wrote to that community saying that what Israel needed to do was “engage earnestly and immediately in peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority,” demonstrating an utter lack of understanding of the power balance between Hamas and Fatah, or of the hatred of Israel that is now systemic in Palestinian life. When the UN General Assembly voted to upgrade the Palestinians’ status to that of non-member observers, the rabbis of Bnai Jeshurun in New York wrote their community saying that “The vote at the UN [was] a great moment for us as citizens of the world. … This is an opportunity to celebrate the process that allows a nation to come forward and ask for recognition.”

Do these rabbis imagine in their wildest dreams that any parallel sentiment will emerge from the other side? The ink was hardly dry on that letter when Hamas’ political chief Khaled Meshal said that “Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on any inch of the land… there is no legitimacy for Israel.” Meshal continued: “We will free Jerusalem inch by inch, stone by stone. Israel has no right to be in Jerusalem.” Does anyone really imagine that Israeli concessions in the West Bank can curb this sort of hatred? Would an Israeli willingness to deny Meshal’s view and his popularity strengthen Israel or weaken it? Shortly after that, it was reported that PA forces in the West Bank have ceased all operations designed to curtail Hamas’ influence in the West Bank. Can anyone doubt what that means?

Some responsible American Jewish voices are coming to terms with this new reality. Leon Wieseltier recently wrote in The New Republic that “I no longer believe that peace between Israelis and Palestinians will occur in my lifetime. I have not changed my views; I have merely lost my hopes.

Wieseltier is, sadly, where most Israelis are. Progressive American voices, tragically, are in a very different place. “We are deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil, victim and perpetrator,” Ikar’s rabbi wrote, unwilling to take a stand on whether Hamas was good or evil, victim or perpetrator, while Bnai Jeshurun’s followed with that note that the UN vote was a great moment for them “as citizens of the world.”

Jews have always seen ourselves as citizens of the world. But key to Judaism’s survival has been an ability to couple that universal concern to a clear-eyed assessment of the challenges and dangers facing the Jewish world. The mark of great religious leadership is not simply its ability to imagine a better world, but to imagine how we might get to that world from the one that actually exists. We will know great Progressive religious leadership is emerging when we see the world that they describe bears at least some resemblance to the one in which Israel has to try to survive.


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