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What is a rabbi to do?
My inbox this morning includes a petition from my local Jewish Community Relations Council opposing the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations, a request from a Jewish lobby that supports a two state solution and a message from a colleague asking me to endorse a Jewish organization that promotes “democracy, equality and self determination” for both peoples. My husband suggests that I ignore all my emails and write about some topic other than Israel.
I am reminded of my earliest encounters within the Jewish world. In 1974, a year after the Yom Kippur War, I joined a newly founded group called Breira (Alternative). It was the first organization in the Jewish community to publicly criticize Israel’s continued occupation of land captured in the Six Day War—the first to question the claim that circumstances left Israel no alternative (“ain breira”). At a time when there were between 10,000 and 20,000 Jewish settlers living in the territories, Breira was committed to the safety and security of the Jewish state but also supported self-determination of the Palestinian people, talks with the Palestinian Liberation Organization and, later, a Palestinian state. Although I was just out of college at the time, I found myself serving on the first governing board.
In the beginning, a number of prominent Jewish leaders signed on to Breira’s larger “advisory board,” only to drop off within the next year or two. Some of the departing members feared for their jobs. Ira Eisenstein, then the president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, had other reasons for leaving. While he had joined to support a challenge to “Israel right or wrong” thinking, Rabbi Eisenstein had come to feel that Breira extended “greater sympathy to the Palestinians than to the Israelis,” as he explained in an editorial in the movement’s periodical in February 1977.
The next month, he followed up with another editorial, “Needed: An Alternative to Breira.” If Israel did not want to talk to the PLO and America was prepared to support them, Eisenstein wrote, who were we as Diaspora Jews to disagree?
As an applicant to RRC, I read those editorials with some trepidation. Would my career be over before it began?
But while Rabbi Eisenstein opposed Breira’s positions, he defended its members’ right to hold them. He saw the importance of level-headed discussion among those who wanted to “establish Zion with justice.” His second editorial deplored the attacks against the organization’s leaders, specifically Hillel directors whose jobs were threatened. He added that “punitive measures… are wrong, propelled by panic.”
Fortunately for me, the rabbinical school reflected its president’s principles: Just a few weeks after those editorials appeared, I was admitted. During my years at RRC, Rabbi Eisenstein and I continued to disagree strongly on that issue, among others, but always with respect. Other parts of the organized Jewish world were not so open minded, and Breira folded within five years of its founding.
Today, according to the petition from the JCRC, I should oppose the unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood because the official position of the Jewish community is “two states based on negotiations”—the very position considered outside the pale by Breira’s opponents. But now there are close to half a million Jews living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Rabbi Eisenstein’s hope for establishing “Zion with justice” looks increasingly shaky.
In retrospect, perhaps Breira’s position was sympathetic to both Palestinians and Israelis.
The current “heresy” involves questioning whether two states are still possible. Some Jews recall Zionist visions from the years before 1948 that included skepticism and even opposition to a Jewish state, positions advocated by leading Jewish thinkers such as Martin Buber and Rabbi Judah Magnes. Some who care deeply about being Jewish no longer define themselves as Zionist.
I can understand why Rabbi Eisenstein worried about Breira in 1977. But my experience reminds me that ideas considered unacceptable then look sensible, if not timid, now. As I listen to Jews discuss which positions on Israel are now kosher or treif, I realize how quickly those borders can and do change, and I admire even more Rabbi Eisenstein’s visionary commitment to keep the conversation open.
Rabbi Eisenstein understood that the philosophical pragmatism at the base of his Reconstructionist approach to Judaism required humility. Writing about pragmatism, Louis Menand said, “Beliefs are just bets on the future… There is always the possibility that some other set of truths might be the case. In the end, we have to act on what we believe…but the moral justification for our actions comes from the tolerance we have shown for other ways of being in the world, other ways of considering the case.”
I am grateful to be part of a Jewish movement that values respectful and compassionate Jewish peoplehood, that understands beliefs as bets on the future, and that welcomes new voices, even those that make others uncomfortable, perhaps especially those.