(JTA) — Israel’s 75th anniversary was supposed to be a blowout birthday party for its supporters, but that was before the country was convulsed by street protests over the right-wing government’s proposal to overhaul its judiciary. Critics call it an unprecedented threat to Israel’s democracy, and supporters of Israel found themselves conflicted. In synagogues across North America, rabbis found themselves giving “yes, but” sermons: Yes, Israel’s existence is a miracle, but its democracy is fragile and in danger.
One of those sermons was given a week ago Saturday by Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of Manhattan’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, expressing his “dismay” over the government’s actions. Hirsch is the former head of ARZA, the Reform movement’s Zionist organization, and the founder of a new program at his synagogue, Amplify Israel, meant to promote Zionism among Reform Jews. He is often quoted as an example of a mainstream non-Orthodox rabbi who not only criticizes anti-Zionism on the far left but who insists that his liberal colleagues are not doing enough to defend the Jewish state from its critics.
Many on the Jewish left, meanwhile, say Jewish establishment figures, even liberals like Hirsch, have been too reluctant to call out Israel on, for example, its treatment of the Palestinians — thereby enabling the country’s extremists.
In March, however, he warned that the “Israeli government is tearing Israeli society apart and bringing world Jewry along for the dangerous ride.” That is uncharacteristically strong language from a rabbi whose forthcoming book, “The Lilac Tree: A Rabbi’s Reflections on Love, Courage, and History,” includes a number of essays on the limits of criticizing Israel. When does such criticism give “comfort to left-wing hatred of Israel,” as he writes in his book, and when does failure to criticize Israel appear to condone extremism?
Although the book includes essays on God, Torah, history and antisemitism, in a recent interview we focused on the Israel-Diaspora divide, the role of Israel in the lives of Diaspora Jews and why the synagogue remains the “central Jewish institution.”
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency: You gave a sermon earlier this month about the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding, which is usually a time of celebration in American synagogues, but you also said you were “dismayed” by the “political extremism” and “religious fundamentalism” of the current government. Was that difficult as a pulpit rabbi?
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch: The approach is more difficult now with the election of the new government than it has been in all the years of the past. Because we can’t sanitize supremacism, elitism, extremism, fundamentalism, and we’re not going to. Israel is in what’s probably the most serious domestic crisis in the 75-year history of the state. And what happens in Israel affects American Jewry directly. It’s Israeli citizens who elect their representatives, but that’s not the end of the discussion neither for Israelis or for American Jews. At the insistence of both parties, both parties say the relationship is fundamental and critical and it not only entitles but requires Israelis and world Jews to be involved in each other’s affairs.
For American Jewry, in its relationship with Israel, our broadest objective is to sustain that relationship, deepen that relationship, and encourage people to be involved in the affairs in Israel and to go to Israel, spend time in Israel and so forth, and that’s a difficult thing to do and at the same time be critical.
American Jews have been demonstrating here in solidarity with the Israelis who have been protesting the recent judicial overhaul proposals in Israel. Is that a place for liberal American Jews to make their voices heard on what happens in Israel?
I would like to believe that if I were living in Israel, I would be at every single one of those demonstrations on Saturday night, but I don’t participate in demonstrations here because the context of our world and how we operate is different from in Israel when an Israeli citizen goes out and marches on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv. It’s presumed that they’re Zionists and they’re speaking to their own government. I’m not critical of other people who reach a different perspective in the United States, but for me, our context is different. Even if we say the identical words in Tel Aviv or on West 68th Street, they’re perceived in a different way and they operate in a different context.
What then is the appropriate way for American Jews to express themselves if they are critical of an action by the Israeli government?
My strongest guidance is don’t disengage, don’t turn your back, double down, be more supportive of those who support your worldview and are fighting for it in Israel. Polls seem to suggest that the large majority of Israelis are opposed to these reforms being proposed. Double down on those who are supportive of our worldview.
You lament in your book that the connections to Israel are weakening among world Jewry, especially among Jewish liberals.
The liberal part of the Jewish world is where I am and where the people I serve are by and large, and where at least 80% of American Jewry resides. It’s a difficult process because we’re operating here in a context of weakening relationship: a rapidly increasing emphasis on universal values, what we sometimes call tikkun olam [social justice], and not as a reflection of Jewish particularism, but often at the expense of Jewish particularism.
There is a counter-argument, however, which you describe in your book: “some left-wing Jewish activists contend that alienation from Israel, especially among the younger generations, is a result of the failures of the American Jewish establishment” — that is, by not doing more to express their concerns about the dangers of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, for example, the establishment alienated young liberal Jews. You’re skeptical of that argument. Tell me why.
Fundamentally I believe that identification with Israel is a reflection of identity. If you have a strong Jewish identity, the tendency is to have a strong connection with the state of Israel and to believe that the Jewish state is an important component of your Jewish identity. I think that surveys bear that out. No doubt the Palestinian question will have an impact on the relationship between American Jews in Israel as long as it’s not resolved, it will be an outstanding irritant because it raises moral dilemmas that should disturb every thinking and caring Jew. And I’ve been active in trying to oppose ultra-Orthodox coercion in Israel. But fundamentally, while these certainly are components putting pressure on the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, in particular among the elites of the American Jewish leadership, for the majority of American Jews, the relationship with Israel is a reflection of their relationship with Judaism. And if that relationship is weak and weakening, as day follows night, the relationship with Israel will weaken as well.
But what about the criticism that has come from, let’s say, deep within the tent? I am thinking of the American rabbinical students who in 2021 issued a public letter accusing Israel of apartheid and calling on American Jewish communities to hold Israel accountable for the “violent suppression of human rights.” They were certainly engaged Jews, and they might say that they were warning the establishment about the kinds of right-wing tendencies in Israel that you and others in the establishment are criticizing now.
Almost every time I speak about Israel and those who are critical of Israel, I hold that the concept of criticism is central to Jewish tradition. Judaism unfolds through an ongoing process of disputation, disagreement, argumentation, and debate. I’m a pluralist, both politically as well as intellectually.
In response to your question, I would say two things. First of all, I distinguish between those who are Zionist, pro-Israel, active Jews with a strong Jewish identity who criticize this or that policy of the Israeli government, and between those who are anti-Zionists, because anti-Zionism asserts that the Jewish people has no right to a Jewish state, at least in that part of the world. And that inevitably leads to anti-Jewish feelings and very often to antisemitism.
When it came to the students, I didn’t respond at all because I was a student once too, and there are views that I hold today that I didn’t hold when I was a student. Their original article was published in the Forward, if I’m not mistaken, and it generated some debate in all the liberal seminaries. I didn’t respond at all until it became a huge, multi-thousand word piece in The New York Times. Once it left the internal Jewish scene, it seemed to me that I had an obligation to respond. Not that I believe that they’re anti-Zionist — I do not. I didn’t put them in the BDS camp [of those who support the boycott of Israel]. I just simply criticized them.
You signed a letter with other rabbis noting that the students’ petition came during Israel’s war with Hamas that May, writing that “those who aspire to be future leaders of the Jewish people must possess and model empathy for their brothers and sisters in Israel, especially when they are attacked by a terrorist organization whose stated goal is to kill Jews and destroy the Jewish State.”
My main point was that the essence of the Jewish condition is that all Jews feel responsible one for the another — Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh. And that relationship starts with emotions. It starts with a feeling of belongingness to the Jewish people, and a feeling of concern for our people who are attacked in the Jewish state. My criticism was based, in the middle of a war, on expressing compassion, support for our people who are under indiscriminate and terrorist assault. I uphold that and even especially in retrospect two years later, why anyone would consider that to be offensive in any way is still beyond me.
You were executive director of ARZA, the Reform Zionist organization, and you write in your book that Israel “is the primary source of our people’s collective energy — the engine for the recreation and restoration of the national home and the national spirit of the Jewish people.” A number of your essays put Israel at the center of the present-day Jewish story. You are a rabbi in New York City. So what’s the role or function of the Diaspora?
Our existence in the Diaspora needs no justification. For practically all of the last 2,000 years, Jewish life has existed in the Diaspora. It’s only for the last 75 years and if you count the beginning of the Zionist movement, the last 125 years or so that Jews have begun en masse to live in the land of Israel. Much of the values of what we call now Judaism was developed in the Diaspora. Moreover, the American Jewish community is the strongest, most influential, most glorious of all the Jewish Diasporas in Jewish history.
And yet, the only place in the Jewish world where the Jewish community is growing is in Israel. More Jewish children now live in Israel than all the other places in the world combined. The central value that powers the sustainability, viability and continuity of the Jewish people is peoplehood. It’s not the values that have sustained the Jewish people in the Diaspora and over the last 2,000 years, which was Torah or God, what we would call religion. I’m a rabbi. I believe in the centrality of God, Torah and religion to sustain Jewish identity. But in the 21st century, Israel is the most eloquent concept of the value of Jewish peoplehood. And therefore, I do not believe that there is enough energy, enough power, enough sustainability in the classical concept of Judaism to sustain continuity in the Diaspora. The concept of Jewish peoplehood is the most powerful way that we can sustain Jewish continuity in the 21st century.
But doesn’t that negate the importance of American Jewry?
In my view, it augments the sustainability of American Jewry. If American Jews disengage from Israel, and from the concept of Jewish peoplehood, and also don’t consider religion to be at the center of their existence, then what’s left? Now there’s a lot of activity, for example, on tikkun olam, which is a part of Jewish tradition. But tikkun olam in Judaism always was a blend between Jewish particularism and universalism — concern for humanity at large but rooted in the concept of Jewish peoplehood. But very often now, tikkun olam in the Diaspora is practiced not as a part of the concept of Jewish particularism but, as I said before, at the expense of Jewish particularism. That will not be enough to sustain Jewish communities going into the 21st century.
I want to ask about the health of the American synagogue as an institution. Considering your concern about the waning centrality of Torah and God in people’s lives — especially among the non-Orthodox — do you feel optimistic about it as an institution? Does it have to change?
I’ve believed since the beginning of my career that there’s no substitute in the Diaspora for the synagogue as the central Jewish institution. We harm ourselves when we underemphasize the central role of the synagogue. Any issue that is being done by one of the hundreds of Jewish agencies that we’ve created rests on our ability as a community to produce Jews into the next generation. And what are those institutions that produce that are most responsible for the production of Jewish continuity? Synagogues, day schools and summer camps, and of the three synagogues are by far the most important for the following reasons: First, we’re the only institution that defines ourselves as and whose purpose is what we call cradle to grave. Second, for most American Jews, if they end up in any institution at all it will be a synagogue. Far fewer American Jews will receive a day school education and or go to Jewish summer camps. That should have ramifications across the board for American Jewish policy, including how we budget Jewish institutions. We should be focusing many, many more resources on these three institutions, and at the core of that is the institution of the synagogue.