Shouting but Not Hearing

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published May 19, 2010, issue of May 28, 2010.
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Yoram Tehar Lev, a songwriter from Kibbutz Yagur, tells the story of a rabbi who was hired by an old-line congregation. Upon arriving, he was mystified: During the recitation of the Sh’ma, half the worshippers stood while the other half remained seated. Those who were standing would shout to those who were sitting, “You are supposed to stand! That is the way it has always been done!” And those who were seated would shout right back, “Sit down! One sits during the Sh’ma!”

The rabbi decided to put an end to the bedlam, and proposed a visit with the oldest member of the congregation, a man 98 years old. The committee said to him, “Zayde, tell us how it was. Didn’t the people stand for the Sh’ma?” And the old man thought and finally said, “No, that is not how it was.” Those on the committee in favor of a sedentary Sh’ma were delighted. “So, Zayde, you mean people sat during the Sh’ma, right?” The old man thought and finally said, “No that is not how it was.”

At this point, his frustration mounting, the rabbi said, “Zayde, please, please try to remember. Otherwise the two camps will just go on yelling at each other.”

“Yes,” said the old man, “that is how it was.”

Sound familiar? That is how it was, that is how it is. Oh, there’s some squeezed middle ground, kind of what it might be like to do the Sh’ma in a crouched position. When it comes to the topic of Israel, at least some of our national organizations try to speak temperately. But in the synagogue world, in particular though hardly exclusively, the rhetoric is often rough, bordering on boorish. Sit in on a committee responsible for planning a forum on Israel, and you will quickly learn how many people are “outside the tent,” unacceptable because of their views.

I will not employ the currently ritual invocation of symmetry which requires that we say things like, “the left and the right are equally to blame.” The way it works, in my experience, is that Mr. X, a longtime commentator on Israel with dovish views, is dismissed as a forum prospect because he is “controversial.” But Mr. Y, an equally experienced commentator who opposes the Obama administration’s initiatives and who supports the ideologically motivated settlers, is deemed acceptable with nary an eyebrow raised. He is seen as “pro-Israel”; his counterpart is not.

Just the other week, the executive of a major city Jewish federation took me aside at a reception and said, “You know how much I dislike the left.” (And yes, he knew that I am of the left.) “Well,” he continued, “I loathe the right. They are insufferable. Follow their advice — actually, their demands — and the ranks of the pro-Israel community would be cut by 80%.” He was complaining about the right’s objections to co-sponsorship of communal events that might include such allegedly nefarious organizations as J Street.

J Street and the New Israel Fund are this season’s favored targets. A friend tells me she attended a service where the rabbi spent a full five minutes denouncing J Street as “anti-Israel,” this after Israel’s ambassador to the United States made nice to J Street, this after officials in Jerusalem hurried to invite members of a J Street mission for collegial conversation. But no, the house may be burning, but we have to be very selective in who gets to help put out the fire. J Street? Incendiary. My goodness, it favors a two-state solution. Golly, it supports vigorous American diplomacy.

The left? Not wholly innocent, albeit quite different from the right. There are people on the left whose assaults on Israel are so brutal that they make me feel at one with the settlers. The other evening, at a Boston celebration of Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, held in the auditorium of the main public library, there were people outside the building holding up signs such as “Palestine Will Be Free, From the River to the Sea.” (They were otherwise extremely well-behaved. No shouts, no catcalls. Very large police presence.) And inside, in the lobby, again, more demonstrators, this time apparently Jews. But such people have already separated themselves from the community.

My concern is with the very large swath of Jews who do care, many of them deeply, about Israel’s safety and believe that Israel’s own policies contribute to its increasing isolation in the world. That does not mean that they are enthralled with the Palestinians, or that they fail to acknowledge the complexities of peace-making. Nor, by any stretch, does it mean they are anti-Israel.

Israel itself seems bent on displaying the same self-defeating tendencies. Noam Chomsky is denied entry to the West Bank. There is a bloc in the Knesset that seeks to render criticism of Israel by NGOs illegal. And so forth.

Full disclosure: I am a longtime and very proud supporter of the New Israel Fund, and I wish J Street much success in its efforts.

As to the Sh’ma, sometimes I stand, sometimes I sit. But I never yell at the others.

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