Oy Jerusalem

January 20, 2018
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove
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On account of a bungled invitation, the Talmud teaches, Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jewish people exiled from their land. You may recall the story from your Hebrew school or Jewish camp days; it is often told around the summer observance of Tisha B’Av, the date marking the destruction of the Temple. Around the year 70 of the Common Era there lived a rich man in Jerusalem who had a dear friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza. When the man decided to throw a party, he instructed his servant to deliver an invitation to his friend Kamtza, but the servant mistakenly delivered it to Bar Kamtza. On the night of the party, the rich man saw his enemy enter his home, and he confronted him demanding that Bar Kamtza leave immediately. 

“Please,” said Bar Kamtza, “I am already here. Allow me to stay, and I will pay for anything I eat and drink.”

“Absolutely not,” replied the host. “Get out of my house!”

“I beg of you,” said Bar Kamtza, “let’s not make a scene. Allow me to stay, and I will pay for half of the party.” Once again the host refused.

One last time Bar Kamtza pleaded, this time offering to pay for the entire party, if only he could be saved from public disgrace. The stone-hearted host refused and had Bar Kamtza forcibly removed.

Shamed before his community, Bar Kamtza left, fuming at being so ill-treated. Predictably, Bar Kamtza’s humiliation turned to anger, which turned to a desire for vengeance. The story goes on that Bar Kamtza reported a plot to the Roman emperor of a brewing rebellion among the Jews, setting into motion, to make a long story short, the siege of Jerusalem, the decimation of Jewish leadership, the destruction of the Temple and, eventually, the exile of the Jewish people from our land.

On account of a bungled invitation, our people were exiled from our land. It is a tale worth unpacking in all its implications. It is a story about the pitfalls of ego, of hard-heartedness, the price of shame, and the human desire for revenge. It is also a story about a Jewish community and a gentile government, a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of infighting amongst our people, a story of a self-inflicted trauma resulting in the most horrific outcome our rabbis could imagine – the end of a sovereign Jewish state.

It is a story that I thought about last month, when my eye caught a small item in the paper regarding a more recent Jewish party - the annual White House Hanukkah party. By all accounts, it was a much smaller affair than in past administrations. The article was about how no Jewish Democratic member of Congress had been invited to the annual gathering of notable national American Jewish leadership. Whatever my thoughts were about the article itself, and of course, the anticipated call from my mother about why her son the rabbi wasn’t invited, what gave me greatest pause was the discovery that the heads of neither the Reform nor the Conservative Movement were invited to the party. It stopped me in my tracks. Here we had the “Who’s Who” of American Jewish life, more  machers than at any other Jewish gathering, a kiddush to end all kiddushes, and the representatives of two thirds of American Jewry, specifically the progressive American Jewish community, were not invited – a fact that I later confirmed with my colleagues.

Now it could have been an oversight; it could have been a reflection of the smaller crowd; or possibly, it could have been a predictable response to the fact that the leaders of the progressive movements had, in protest, cancelled their participation in the annual White House High Holiday conference call earlier last fall. There is plenty of room for interpretation, a lot of “he said/she said,” and none of us will ever know for sure. But as we try to make sense of the incident, this snub, this “latke-gate,” I would remind you that it happened in the midst of a not-so insignificant week in US-Israel relations. It was just the day before the Hanukkah party that President Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. An historic day for Israel and for the US-Israel relationship, an announcement that was not only the fulfillment of a campaign promise and a decades-old legislative commitment, but an affirmation of deep consequence to Israel from its staunchest and strongest ally. A decision about which some of the president’s most vocal critics were forced to concede that even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Yet, for a variety of reasons, this announcement was received in progressive American Jewish circles with either a deafening silence, an antiseptic acquiescence, or outright criticism. Some of that silence – I know because I felt it myself – was pragmatic in nature. Much as the first President Bush held his tongue upon news of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when it comes to responding to dramatic news, sometimes less can be more. There were protests in the Middle East, rocks thrown in the territories, and far more unknowns than knowns; restraint seemed to be the call of the day. But for many in the progressive community, the lukewarm and critical response reflected a pent-up cynicism toward the President. Some questioned the decision on the grounds that it undercut America’s role as an evenhanded peace-broker; some wondered whether the announcement was a tactical distraction by Trump to shift the news cycle away from domestic concerns and investigations into Russian collusion. Many believed, and it is on this point I want to focus, that the lukewarm or critical response reflected the fact that the policies of this administration have been so antithetical to the Torah of liberal American Jewry, so bruising to progressive Jews, that even when an unabashedly pro-Israel decision is made, progressive Jews simply could not bring themselves to embrace and endorse it.

But the irony of the tepid response should not be lost on any of us. For eight years, American Jews openly questioned whether President Obama, despite saying all the right things, really had Israel’s back. Now we have a president who declares Jerusalem Israel’s capital, calls out the Palestinians on supporting terrorism, takes the UN to task for its anti-Israel rhetoric and policies, visits Jerusalem in the first months of his administration, has Israel’s back and then some, and we can’t even bring ourselves to utter a simple todah rabbah, a simple “thank you very much.” No wonder the heads of the Conservative and Reform movements weren’t invited to the Hanukkah party!

Now, before we write off progressive American Jewry as a bunch of ingrates, we would do well to widen the lens and look at the broader context. As in all matters, there are two sides (at least) to the story. While liberal American Zionists may indeed need to do teshuvah, to engage in self-reflection, on their lackluster response, what American Jewry does understand is that the Jerusalem decision did not occur in a vacuum. The Jerusalem announcement happened in the context of a series of decisions that by all accounts do not bode well for the future of a two-state solution. The endorsement of Netanyahu’s Likud Party to annex the West Bank, the passing of a Knesset amendment requiring the vote of a supermajority to give up Israeli sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem, the legalization of illegal settlements, and the passage of law after law blurring the line between Israel and the West Bank – each one of these moves seems to preclude the possibility of a two-state solution, all the more so when they are taken together. To be clear, we dare not whitewash or excuse the persistent failures of the Palestinians that have led to the present state of affairs. – it takes two to tango. And no matter what my or your sensibilities may be, it is historically, intellectually, and morally indefensible to lay the blame for the frozen peace process solely at the feet of Israel’s democratically elected prime minister. That said, what American Jewry intuits and fears is that if there is no two-state solution, if there is a one-state solution of Israeli rule with 2.7 million (and growing) politically disenfranchised Palestinian residents, then the Israel that we know and defend, a state both Jewish and democratic, will have ceased to exist. Such an outcome would be devastating for Israel, devastating for American Jewry, and a devastating rupture in the relationship between North American Jewry and Israel.

As if things weren’t scary enough, what is also increasingly clear to me is that this imminent rupture, this sacrifice of the relationship between progressive American Jewry and Israel, is a sacrifice that Prime Minister Netanyahu is willing to make. Over the past year I have spoken to enough Israelis both in Israel and the States to sense that there is a new narrative regarding American Jewry emerging in Israel. You can see it in the Israeli government’s disregard of our concerns about the Kotel, about conversion, about religious pluralism, about so many of the concerns of non-Orthodox American Jewry. In a sentence, it is a narrative that says that we don’t or won’t matter. The writing is on the wall: In a generation or two, we will assimilate; our support can’t be counted on, and frankly it is support that comes with far too many demands. Progressive American Jews can’t keep the prime minister’s Knesset coalition together, and they are clearly out of favor with the present American administration. Who needs friends like progressive American Jews, especially when Israel enjoys an unprecedented and hitherto unimaginable set of shared interests with multiple Arab states allied against Iran? Who needs those pesky American Jews who will ultimately intermarry themselves into oblivion? Far more reliable, far less complicated, is the unflinching, unwavering support of Orthodox Jews, of Evangelical Christians – communities that represent not just the agenda of a right-leaning Israeli government but who are also in the good graces of the American president. The picture is a complex one. There are many pieces in play, and the ground is shifting all the time, but the emerging headline is there for all to see. There is a party going on; the hosts are President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu, and progressive American Jewry, don’t bother checking your spam folder, the invitation was never sent, this is a party to which you are not invited.

If the stakes weren’t so high, this would be a slight, truth be told, that I could live with. I have, after all, my own problems to worry about. Sometimes the wisest course of action is to sit out a fight in order to live to see another day. I hear that voice inside of me urging me to spend my time worrying about my synagogue, teaching our families how to read Hebrew, light shabbat candles, open a siddur. These are the things for which I went to rabbinical school; let Israelis worry about themselves. If I care so much, I should make aliyah and live there. Besides, I am no political scientist. Why even give a sermon that will end up in the hands of some internet troll and be misrepresented as a form of Israel bashing, and not as it is meant, as an expression of my profound love for Israel? Why do any of this, if as a progressive American Jew, I am not even invited to the party? Like Moses when called to appear before Pharaoh, I am torn between what I am being called on to do and the knowledge of how much easier it would be to do nothing.

As I think these thoughts, my response crystalizes in my mind. A response that brings us back to where we began, to the Talmudic tale about Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. The message of the story is not that Jerusalem was destroyed because of a host who couldn’t see past a petty grudge. Bar Kamtza’s rage, after all, was not directed at the man who ejected him from the party. Bar Kamtza’s rage was directed at the rabbis and at the Jewish community, who watched the debacle unfold and did nothing. It was their inaction that prompted his reaction. The fall of the second commonwealth came about because the Jewish community stood on the sidelines when it should have and could have intervened. The message of the Kamtza/Bar Kamtza story is that when it comes to Israel, inaction, neutrality, and playing it safe are choices that undermine the Jewish state and Jewish People. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: We have to engage, engage in those efforts that strengthen Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Even and especially in our present political climate, we must find our voice and take action to ensure a safe and secure Israel, an Israel bound together in spirit and deed with world Jewry of all types and all stripes. We must be smart, we must be pragmatic, we must learn to accept a gift even if we don’t like who gave it or why it was given. We must plant seeds for Israel’s future and most of all, we must, if we want to be taken seriously by Israel, take ourselves seriously as Jews. When it comes to Israel, neutrality, impartiality, and disengagement are not and can never be options.

Friends, it is 2018. This year marks the 70th anniversary of Israel’s birth – the dream of a Jewish and democratic state. It is the theme of next week’s Shabbaton with Rabbi Dr. Daniel Gordis, which I hope you will attend. It is the focus of our programmatic year culminating with our congregational trip to Israel in December. It is a vision that sits at the very core of who I am as a Zionist, who I am as a Jew, and who we are as a synagogue. It is an ideal that today is under threat and is worth fighting for.

“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent. For Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet.” (Isaiah 62:1) I will not keep silent and neither should you.