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Jewish Nationalism, Antisemitism & Us Part 1 - Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Evening

09/20/2021 02:44:18 PM


Rabbi Bruce Alpert

Thirteen years ago, my second High Holidays here at Beth Israel, I began my sermon on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah with these words:

For some time, I have been discontent with referring to Judaism as a religion. The term religion is too confining to adequately express the scope of Judaism. Judaism is, in fact, a world-view that impacts every part of our lives …

Tomorrow morning, I will begin my sermon with these words:

Judaism is not a religion. It’s a nationality.

As it says in Kohelet, אֵין כָּל־חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ - there is nothing entirely new under the sun, or, apparently, in my head. But while not entirely new, there are some differences between those two openings and those differences reflect a change in my thinking.

One difference is the length. What took me forty words to express back in 5769 I now say in just eight. My thirteen year-old-writing is a bit verbose. But it really isn’t loose sentence structure that’s behind the difference. Rather it’s a tentativeness about the conclusion. I understand that Judaism is more than just a religion, but if not a religion, then what is it?

And that brings me to the main difference. Back then I called Judaism a world-view - whatever that means. Now I’m more definitive. I call it a nationality.

Why I call it a nationality is, obviously, the subject of tomorrow’s sermon so we won’t get into that right now. But it’s also the subject of the two sermons I’m going to give - with God’s help - on Yom Kippur. And that’s what I want to talk about tonight: why my thinking has changed over these years and what impels me to give three sermons on, if not the same topic, then certainly ones closely related.

My Rosh Hashanah sermon back then was about identity. In stating that the word “religion” could not adequately describe Judaism’s scope, I was leading into the question, “How central is your Judaism to your identity?” I used the terms “Jewish American” or “American Jew” as a device to examine that question. The difference between those two terms is which word is the noun and which the adjective. One word is a modifier, but the other gets to the essence of your identity. That we tend to use these two terms interchangeably testifies to how completely amalgamated are our Jewish and our American selves. From that standpoint, it doesn’t seem to matter much whether you call yourself a Jewish American or an American Jew.

But, I argued back then, there is a complication to the ease with which we don our combined Jewish and American identities: antisemitism. To those who hate us, there is no amalgamation: we are Jews, plain and simple. And while I denied the right of our enemies to define us, the reality of antisemitism impacts our choices. Do we backpedal on the Judaism by making American our noun, or is Judaism too central to our identities to give any ground to those who hate? For me, the choice was clear: I am an American Jew.

So far, so good. Up to that point I could as contentedly give that sermon today as I did thirteen years ago. My problem today comes at the end of that old sermon. There, in the concluding paragraph I said that “I never foresee a day when America would forsake its high principles and religious freedom, or abandon its one ally, Israel, that so boldly if imperfectly represents those principles in the Middle East.” In other words, I could not imagine a time when I felt I would have to choose between my identity as an American and my identity as a Jew. Well, I don’t feel that way any longer. In fact, I fear we may be heading in a direction in which I, or my children, or my grandchildren will indeed have to make such a choice.

The seeds of such a conflict have been germinating in America's soil of assimilation for a long time. On my first High Holidays with you, I spoke of my struggle over how to think about the State of Israel. I talked about my experience the year before: sitting in Israel’s Independence Hall on the very day war broke out on the Lebanese border: eight Israeli soldiers killed and two others taken captive by Hezbollah terrorists. The operation was a copycat of a Hamas raid from Gaza that had taken place right before we arrived there, in which Gilad Shalit, a 19-year-old Israeli soldier, was taken captive. Israel, once again, felt besieged on all sides.

I was there on a trip with my rabbinical school and the tour guide in the hall began to berate us. What were we doing standing on the sidelines, in the far away safety of America, when our brothers and sisters in Israel were struggling against an enemy that wouldn’t be satisfied until every Jew was driven into the sea? Here is where the Jewish struggle lay, he insisted, and here is where we belong.

For a long time, I agonized over his words. Maybe I was taking the easy way out; ignoring the real struggle for Jewish survival. Maybe in modifying my Jewishness with my Americanness, I was going AWOL from the battle of our time. But then I came here, to this wonderful congregation that I have grown to love so dearly. I know that you, like me, are here partly by choice, and partly by the circumstances that have been given to us. We may not be at the center of today’s Jewish struggle, but we have chosen to be part of the Jewish world; a world that seeks to live by Judaism’s values and ideals. And being part of that world means looking at ourselves critically, in order to understand our place and our responsibilities in it.

A big part of my rabbinate has been about justifying our existence as American Jews by keeping us engaged with the broader Jewish world, particularly with Israel. That is why I have spoken about Israel on virtually every High Holiday since I came here. That is why I have taught classes entitled “Why Should I Care About Israel?” And that is why I organized our synagogue’s first trip to Israel in 2019, and am currently organizing another trip for next summer.

The response of this congregation has always been supportive and enthusiastic. You have engaged my thoughts and deepened your understanding and commitment to the Jewish State. Would that the entire American Jewish community were moving in that same direction.

But it isn’t. What I witnessed these past few months, as Israel was once again forced to defend itself against rocket attacks from Hamas, is that criticizing Israel has become so commonplace that not only is there no cost to it, doing so is actually seen as the mark of morality. And this is as true for Jews as it is anyone else. In July, The New York Times ran an editorial by two Jews named Cohen and Greenfield under the headline “We’re Ben and Jerry. Men of Ice Cream, Men of Principle” in which they defend their namesake company’s decision to stop selling its product in the West Bank as “a rejection of Israeli policy, which perpetuates an illegal occupation that is a barrier to peace and violates the basic human rights of the Palestinian people.” They deny this decision is antisemitic, claiming instead that they are “advancing the concepts of justice and human rights, core tenets of Judaism.” The idea that upholding the honor of their fellow Jews might also be a core tenet of Judaism, or that accusing the world’s one Jewish state of erecting barriers to peace and violating basic human rights might be antisemitic doesn’t seem to have occurred to them.

But here’s the thing. When two prominent American Jews condemn the actions of the Jewish state supposedly on Jewish principle, it isn’t just Americans or American Jews who are hearing this. It’s Israelis as well. Look at the website of any Israeli newspaper - The Jerusalem Post, say, or Ynet News or Haaretz - and you will discover that Israelis are obsessively aware of how their country is perceived in the rest of the world, particularly in America, and most particularly by American Jews. The Ben & Jerry news was in the headlines there for weeks and the cause of much soul searching. Not over the way Palestinians are treated; that is an issue on which Israel's roiling democracy has reached a broad consensus. Rather, they are wondering how and why they have lost American Jews whom they are increasingly seeing as, at best indifferent and, at worst downright hostile.

And that leads me back to the reason I can no longer say that I will never feel forced to choose between my American and my Jewish identities. It was one thing when the Independence Hall tour guide accused us of shirking our responsibilities to the Jewish people by staying in America. After all, we have responsibilities to the Jewish people who are here. But it’s quite another to think we might be shirking those responsibilities on account of a community that doesn't know enough about Judaism or care enough about its fellow Jews to recognize its responsibilities toward them. If I thought you didn’t care about Israel, if I thought I could never make you care about Israel, I don’t know how I could stay here.

What you will hear from me over these holidays - beginning tomorrow morning with my declaration that Judaism is not a religion but a nationality - is my latest attempt to make a compelling, logical argument as to why you must be engaged and supportive of Israel. But if the logic of my argument fails to move you, I urge you to think of my words in another way. Think about them as a cry of the heart; as the pleading of one who knows that his noun is Jew and desperately wants his adjective to be American. Help me to know that I am doing my small part in today's struggle, and that, at least in this little corner of the wider Jewish world, we are, in the words of today’s prayers, united as one community to do God’s will with a whole heart.

Wed, July 24 2024 18 Tammuz 5784