Two Critical Issues

This piece is based on the most recent episode of my podcast, Wresting and Dreaming, which can be heard at

This is the 49th episode of my podcast and I want to thank so many of you who have told me how much you have enjoyed and learned from Wrestling and Dreaming. If you’d like to contact me about anything you have heard, you can do so by sending me a private facebook message or you can go to my website and send me an email. I would love to hear from you.

In this episode, I want to share my thoughts on two critical issues: anti-Semitism in America and our relationship with Israel. These two issues are, sadly, related.

I have spoken in my podcast about bigotry against people of color  and members of the LGBTQ community. The bigotry and acts of violence against these individuals and communities reflect wide-ranging and long- standing systemic exclusion and discrimination. We need as Americans to acknowledge that systemic discrimination and work to eradicate it. 

I believe there is a critical difference between anti-Semitism in this country and the other forms of bigotry I just referred to. I do not believe that there is systemic or structural anti-Semitism in this nation in 2021. By that I mean that while the incidents of anti-Semitic bigotry and violence are of great concern, American Jews are not confronted with institutional anti-Semitism every day and most Jews live lives of relative privilege and security which can not be said for others whose lives are affected at every moment by deeply rooted discrimination. That was certainly the reality for Jews in America in previous generations, but it is not today and, in my sermons and writings I have often warned people about basing our Jewish identity in America on victimization or potential victimization. We have too much to be grateful for in this nation to focus only on anti-Semitism. 

But the fact that anti-Semitism is not woven into the fabric of American society does not mean that it can be taken lightly. It can not. When Jews are the victims of persecution or violence, people of good will must respond and must loudly condemn the violence and the rhetoric that inspires it. It is comforting to hear many in this nation respond with support to the Jewish community but there still is too much silence from those who have stood for other endangered communities and who, for whatever reason, do not stand in same way towards Jews.

I want to consider two sources for anti-Semitism in America today. The first source is the anti-Semitic claims and accusations which have been used for centuries against Jews. We hear these from neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups who tragically have become louder and more visible in the past few years. The horrendous and libelous accusations against Jews are a stain on this nation and a threat to Jews and again they must be rejected loudly and clearly. 

But in recent years and in particular recently, we have seen an increase of incidents of anti-Semitic violence rom people holding anti-Israel and anti-Zionist political positions and this is of great concern. It is not a completely new phenomenon, but it is rising in frequency, and we need to confront it. That is the context in which I would like to share my views concerning our relationship with Israel and my hopes for both Israel and the Palestinian people. 

Before I do, let me be absolutely clear that no political opinion justifies terrorizing or intimidating of other individuals. I have no sympathy for those who attack others and I do not want my words to be seen in any way as rationalizing these attacks. They are wrong and can not be justified. There is a way to make a political opinion heard and this is not the way. 

But that is not to imply that pro-Palestinian positions or anti-Israel positions, when expressed peacefully and rationally do not merit our attention. They do.

I absolutely believe in the legitimacy of the State of Israel to exist as a Jewish state although the words “Jewish State” can be understood in many different ways. If you’d like to hear my thoughts on what they mean to me, please contact me and I’ll send you a copy of a sermon I gave on the subject some 10 years ago.  

In addition, I feel it is absolutely critical to remember in our context here that one of the principle reasons for the rise of the Zionist movements in th early 20th century was the reality of the history of anti-Semitism in Europe decades before the Holocaust. A Jewish homeland was sought to ensure safety for Jews who had very few places if any of true security.

Still, there are very serious questions which we as Jews have not adequately confronted concerning the formation of the State. I have had the opportunity on many occasions to speak with Palestinians who lived through what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, the catastrophe in 1948 or whose parents and grandparents told them their stories. Those stories must be heard, and we must all recognize that the story of the creation of the State of Israel, while thrilling and uplifting to most Jews, had great negative ramifications for the Palestinian people in the land which are still being felt.

That fact must be acknowledged but so must the reality of history and, 73 years later, Israel is a reality as a Jewish state and unless the citizens of Israel decide that it should not continue as such, I will steadfastly support Israel’s right to exist and self-define in this way.  

One of my greatest joys as a rabbi has been to  bring people, Jews and non-Jews, to Israel to see the land, to connect with our ancient and modern history as Jews, to experience the wonder of this relatively young nation as it inspired pride among Jews and a tremendous revival of Jewish culture, Hebrew language and connection with the land. 

But two  aspects of my relationship with Israel need to be stated clearly and while I know I don’t speak for every American Jew, I know many would agree. 

First, Israel is not “my country”. I am an American. I have a deep connection with Israel as the homeland of my people, but I am an American, I am loyal first and foremost to the country in which I live. When I travel to Israel, I do not go ‘home”. Rather, I return home to the United States. My flag has 13 stripes and 50 stars and my connection with the Israeli flag, while emotional, is simply not the same. You can read more of my thoughts on this question in a blog posting from April 2019 called an Open Letter to President Trump on this website. 

Secondly, my close relationship with Israel does not in any way imply support for or agreement with governmental decisions and policies and this is certainly true regarding the direction that Israel has taken in the past decades. 

I realize that some view it as arrogant or inappropriate  to speak about Israel’s policies when I am not living there to deal with the implications of my opinions. But there are many who live in Israel who share these thoughts and I speak from the heart. 

Some of the government of Israel’s actions trouble me deeply. I do not see them as reflecting the values which we hold as the foundation of our faith and tradition. Among these are the ongoing and deepening occupation of the West Bank and the disenfranchisement of Palestinians living there, the staggering growth of settlement activity, intimidation of Palestinians beyond legitimate security needs and military actions which do not always live up to Israel’s own stated standards of morality and ethics. These trouble me deeply and I have spoken out and will continue to speak out against those. 

I don’t express these opinions to ingratiate myself with anyone or to equivocate regarding my love for Israel. I express them because I believe that the future of Israel as a democratic nation is at stake.

I want to take pride in an Israel not only because of its meaning for Jews throughout the world and the economic and cultural development  that has been so impressive, but also because the nation lives up to the values of our tradition, values expressed in Israel’s declaration of Independence to the best of its ability.

I absolutely recognize and respect Israel’s responsibility for self-defense, a responsibility of any nation and one which Israel, in particular, needs to be constantly prepared to exercise given those who loudly call for its destruction. But, even given security needs, these issues must be confronted. 

Because I believe that concern for the human rights of Palestinians living under occupation or marginalized within Israel itself is absolutely legitimate and compelling, I acknowledge that a person can hold an anti-Israel position and still not be considered anti-Semitic. But, when people who hold these positions take out their anger or frustration on individual Jews, they have crossed a line into clear anti-Semitism. 

Jews and lovers of the State of Israel need to hear the perspectives of those who have deep concern and anger because of the plight of Palestinians. We haven’t listened well enough and need to listen to those perspectives and take them to heart. When they are expressed rationally and appropriately, we can not merely dismiss them as anti-Semitic. That amounts to shutting our eyes to a critical issue of human rights.

I would hope that anyone who speaks about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people would recognize that the responsibility for the conflict lies with both parties. The current conflict is not Israel’s fault alone by any means. The leadership of the Palestinian people is by no means blameless. As I would hope for all supporters of Israel, I would hope that those advocating for the Palestinian people, even if they do so in starkly anti-Israel terms, would reject all forms of terror and violence and rhetoric of destruction no matter its source. There is no double standard here. Speaking words of violence and committing acts of terror is reprehensible no matter who is doing it. But constructive debate and discussion and, most importantly, listening to each other, is positive.

I still believe in the possibility of a “two state solution”. While the prospect seems dim and is not embraced by the majority of Israelis and Palestinians, I continue to believe it is the best way to address the conflict. It would take great compromise from both sides and would mean tremendous sacrifice, but it still is, I believe, the  best way of planning for the future: of a democratic Jewish state of Israel and a truly independent state of Palestine. Other ideas exist and they deserve to be seriously considered but I have yet to hear of a more reasonable solution that both sides could potentially endorse. 

I hope and pray for safety and security and justice for both Israel and the Palestinian people. I pray for an end to discrimination against Palestinians and an end to the threats of destruction of Israel from Hamas and other sources in the Middle East. I hope that the parties in the Middle East will try, God willing, to begin to talk again. For those here in the US,  I pray that we can dedicate ourselves to talking and listening with each other and stand together against the rise of anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination and bigotry here at home and around the world. 

3 thoughts on “Two Critical Issues

  1. Marilyn Friedman

    Thanks, Rob, for publicly expressing an opinion I held but did not know how to express. I have long been turned off from the hopes and beliefs I had and experienced in 1948 spending the summer on a kibbutz and wondering if I could make it my life. My round trip ticket brought me home to finish University and remain here.

  2. Sandor Slomovits

    Thank you, Rabbi. Spoken from the heart indeed, and from the mind too. I appreciate your courage and moral clarity. These are things that must be said and heard.

  3. Steven Schiff

    The millions of words written about Israel/Palestine can, in my opinion, be summarized in a formulation I once heard… Jews were forced to jump from a burning building to save their lives and ended up falling on the heads of the innocent Palestinian residents in the streets below.

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