It is a blessing in synagogue life when rabbis really get on with each other, and I am so lucky that Rabbi Jordan and I do. We drop in and out of each other’s offices, check in on how the other is doing, and always look for ways to support each other.
And we don’t agree about Israel.
We don’t agree, and we’re not going to. That’s OK. That’s good. It means we can have real conversations. It means when we need to make decisions or work out our thoughts, we can bounce ideas off each other as critical friends.
Last week, after a discussion on Zionism, he did what he often does, and left an earmarked book on my desk. The book, edited by Rabbi Larry Englander, is called ‘The Fragile Dialogue.’ It includes various reflections on Israel.
The chapter Jordan highlighted was by a self-proclaimed TwentySomething Congregant. In a heartfelt letter to her rabbi, she pleads not be excluded from her synagogue because of her views on Israel. She speaks on behalf of her generation, which opposes occupation and supports boycotts. She begs that she, and the rest of the Jews of her generation, will not be cut off from their own communities.
The letter highlights something many of us already know but struggle to articulate: the debates around Israel and Zionism are largely generational.
These differences were visibly lived out last week at a funeral. The great Israeli singer and poet, Yehonatan Geffen, died. He had been a cultural icon, associated with the songs of Israeli childhood.
In three generations of his family, you can see the wildly different approaches to Israel.
Yehonatan Geffen’s uncle was Moshe Dayan, a fierce Israeli military chief famed for his eyepatch and hard right attitudes. He had been a combatant in Haganah, the guerilla army that founded Israel, led the IDF, and gone on to become a politician.
As far as he was concerned, the Holocaust left only one imperative: to conquer and settle the land and become so strong that Jews could never be hurt again. He pledged to blot out Palestine, and respond to hate with greater hate. He was a true hawk.
Fast forward to the funeral of his nephew. The mourners arrived wearing shirts that carried the slogan: אין דמוקרטיה עם כבוש – there is no democracy with occupation.
Yehonatan’s daughter, Shira Geffen, wore this slogan as she gave the hesped.
This slogan argues that Israelis cannot protest Netanyahu’s anti-democratic measures while ignoring the millions of Palestinians denied basic democratic rights to vote, freely assemble, and even walk to their homes without facing checkpoints and guns.
The t-shirts are produced by מסתכלים לכבוש בעיניים – an Israeli left organisation who insist on looking the occupation in the eye. They speak out about what they call “the power relations between the coloniser and the colonised,” urging the public to see how the occupation is destroying the dignity of Palestinians and the humanity of Israelis.
Sandwiched in the middle between these generations was the man they mourned, Yehonatan Geffen. He had been part of Israel’s cultural establishment, and a true icon. He was associated with what many Israelis saw as the best in their culture. One of his eulogisers was the centre-right politician Yair Lapid.
Geffen was also an outspoken peace campaigner. He wrote extensive criticisms of the army. In 2018, he wrote lyrics in praise of the Palestinian child protester, Ahed Tamimi, resulting in him being cancelled on Israeli military radio and censured by government officials.
Within one family, within one century, you can see such a huge diversity of Jewish views.
They do not agree about Israel. They will not agree. But they prayed together. They came together to say kaddish and mourning prayers. They joined each other as a family.
Of course, these differences of opinion on Israel are not just generations-based. I know anti-occupation activists in their 80s and I know pro-settlement campaigners in their teens. Nevertheless, what we have seen of Israel in our formative years is decisive.
I belong to Shira’s generation, and one of my most formative memories of Israel was witnessing the inexcusable assault on Gaza in 2009: Operation Cast Lead.
During the commemorations of Yom HaAtzmaut last week, I could not hide my discomfort. I find prayers for a state tantamount to idolatry, and when I hear blessings for troops, I can only think of those priests who poured holy water onto bombs. I do not see how one can pray for peace while praising the instruments of war.
Yet I understand why, for many in this community, honouring Israeli independence and those who fought for it feels like an important undertaking.
Some of you belong to the generation that came just after the Shoah. The memories of genocide and antisemitism still loom, and it is understandable that you should want to know there is some security against that. For you, defending Israel matters.
Others of you came up in the generation of Peace Now. You believed in Israel and its mission, and held onto its constitutional claims of what it would be: a safe haven for all its peoples. You hoped, even campaigned, for an Israel where Jewish culture could thrive while Palestinian minorities received justice and human rights. For you, holding on to that dream of what Israel could be matters.
My generation came after. I was born not long before the signing of the Oslo Accords, and came of age as they failed. During my 34 years on this planet, Netanyahu has been Israeli Prime Minister for nearly half of them. I have never known Israel as anything but the aggressor and the occupying power.
Based on our ages and experiences, we will have different views. If we cannot have disagreements about Israel, we cannot have an intergenerational community.
We will not agree about Israel. And that’s fine. That’s good.
Rabbinic literature prizes disagreement. One of my heroes in the Talmud is Rabbi Eliezer. He stood solidly by his principles, no matter how unpopular they were. It’s not that I agree with Eliezer’s principles: he was a conservative surrounded by liberals and radicals. It’s the fact that he held fast to what he believed.
He was so strict in his adherence to religious law that the other rabbis eventually excommunicated him. They wouldn’t talk to him unless he recanted his views, and he never did. Only at the end of his life did his students and colleagues realise what an error they had made by cutting him out.
They placed him in the Mishnah, the foundational Jewish text, as one of its most-cited rabbis. Even though they completely disagreed with him, you can find his opinions everywhere.
The Maharasha says the reason for this is for future generations. While one position may be minority at one time, it may become majority, and those who follow will need to know what they rest on. Even if they never agree with it, they need to see how the conclusions they support were reached.
This is why we welcome disagreements: for the sake of intergenerational conversation.
For those growing up now, they are entering a polarised and febrile environment.
Future generations will develop their own politics, and find their own relationships to Israel, Zionism, and the occupation.
And I hope they can do so within the synagogue.
I hope they will find an environment that embraces Zionists, non-Zionists and anti-Zionists. I hope they will find communities that do not impose red lines that keep them out. I worry that the TwentySomething writing to her rabbi will be proven right, and synagogues will become platforms for single positions on Israel.
What then? Will we split into Zionist and anti-Zionist shuls? Will we keep splitting further, based on varying different policy proposals for what should happen in the Middle East? Those aren’t synagogues – those are political parties!
Such divisions have pulled apart Reform communities before. In the period prior to World War II, Zionists were forbidden from studying at Hebrew Union College, the Reform Rabbinical school in America. This meant that for nearly a century you could not be a Zionist and become a Reform rabbi. One early Reform Zionist, Maurice Perlzweig, said that professing his views in polite Jewish company was like admitting to being a member of the Flat Earth Society.
At the turn of the century, the Reform Movement completely reversed its position. The 1997 Miami Platform declared that Reform Judaism was unequivocally Zionist. It said that Jews were a people; that we should all move to Israel and build it up. Ensuing from that came a programme parallel to the early push to exclude Zionists from the Jewish community, but this time, flipped: to exclude critical voices from the Jewish community and maintain only a pro-Israel consensus.
Is this really what we want? Do we want to keep going back and forth drawing new lines depending on which position has the upper hand? Do we want to enforce conformity of political views in Reform congregations?
Surely what we stand for is bigger than that! Surely our Judaism, our God, our people is bigger than that!
The joy of a synagogue is that it brings together so many different people. Where else are you going to find people of different backgrounds, classes, genders, abilities, beliefs, and ethnicities, all under one roof, bound together by something greater than themselves? Only the synagogue – greek for beit knesset – the House of Gathering – can achieve that.
We are not going to convince each other of our political opinions, and that’s fine. That’s good. If we have a space filled with diverse views, we have a community. If you have uniformity, you have an echo chamber.
We are Reform because we understand that the Jews of tomorrow will not look like the Jews of yesterday. The Judaism of tomorrow will not look like the Judaism of yesterday. Reform Judaism is an ongoing commitment to learn and struggle and grow, always adapting to new ideas and developments. That is what makes it Reform.
And what makes it Jewish is that we do it together. We hold on to belief in the same God, the same cause, the same traditions. We hold all the manifold opinions of the congregation in a single setting.
So, let us answer the question posed in Larry Englander’s book: will this TwentySomething be excluded from her synagogue?
More pressingly, will she have a home in ours?
The answer depends on how we act. If we draw red lines and kick people out based on their views; if we define our Judaism solely by its relationship to Israel; if we make public policies about the synagogue’s stance, then, no. She probably will not.
On the other hand, we can model an alternative Jewish future. A better Jewish future. A Jewish future where we don’t repeat the mistakes and have the same regrets as the framers of the Mishnah. A Jewish future based on plurality and discussion. We can demonstrate through our relationships with each other and the synagogue that Judaism is diverse, creative and engaging across divisions.
We can show that we do not have to agree. Even about Israel.