This past week I had the blessing of driving down to Baltimore with Rabbi Beals for a special AIPAC presentation. The American Israel Political Action Committee brought in Ari Shavit to speak in the Baltimore area, and he gave a rabbis-only presentation at lunchtime. I have not read Shavit’s book yet, but I have frequently read his articles in Ha’aretz and I find him to be the most lucid writer on Israel’s current situation.
This being an AIPAC program, he could have started with a discussion of the war in Gaza, or the kidnapping of the three teenagers, or ISIS or Iran or the current ‘crisis’ in the American-Israel relationship as Yair Lapid refers to it, but instead he chose to begin with a story, a true story, the story of his great grandfather.
Shavit’s great grandfather was a proper British Victorian gentleman who found his way to the port of Jaffa in 1897. He had grown up in England as a full citizen of the Empire, then the most powerful and progressive nation in the world. He loved that Empire, loved the English language, loved the Queen, Shakespeare, had been educated at Cambridge, did very well for himself in business, and was said to even look like the Prince of Wales. Why, then, Shavit wondered, did this successful, assimilated British gentleman, the model of success, make his way to a hard-scrabble port city, unwelcoming, on the seeming other side of the world? What would make him leave?
That, my friends, is the fundamental question of Judaism, the very question that begins this epic journey we are all participating in to this very day. “The Eternal said to Avram, Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you.” Forget about the stories of the Idol Shop, and Avram being the first monotheist and all that jazz—what makes a person uproot themselves from their native land and family home to go to a totally different place, an uncomfortable place, a place where he will be a stranger, with no connections, where he won’t even speak the language, where he will be rootless, where he will be the Other?
Avram’s story is Shavit’s great-grandfather’s story, and is our own story. For Shavit’s Great-Grandfather, he left his comfortable life because, according to him, the early Zionists were prescient in two specific ways. One, they realized that Europe, where they had been—and continue to be—the ultimate Other, Jewish life was ultimately doomed. They did not—could not—see how destructive Europe would become, but they understood that a Jewish life of progressive values could no longer exist there. Second, unless you were Orthodox and willing to remain within the walls of the ghetto—even carrying the ghetto with you—the only way to create a progressive, modern Jewish identity was to be willing to uproot themselves and their families, go to a foreign place, leave everything they understood about the world behind, and even re-create an all-but forgotten language in order to revitalize the Jewish experience. Zionism, so often castigated as racist and incompatible with modern values, was actually the greatest, most just revolution of the modern era, and it saved Judaism.
Shavit’s family story is Avram’s story, is our story. Avram leaves Paddan-Aram to be a blessing, that all the families of the world shall bless themselves by him and his descendants. That blessing could not be realized in the old country, where people were set in their ways. That blessing could not be realized with the temptation of assimilation, where the lone voice of justice and light would get drowned out by the cacophony of poverty and darkness. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t dangers and anxieties: by embracing the role of Other, we are often vilified. There is no place in the world the Jew can live in isolation; even in the Land of Israel is an Arab population galvanized to seek their own destiny. Avram, for all God’s blessings, agonizes whether there will be another generation, never mind descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. We, too, wring our hands over whether our children can and will choose to be both progressive and Jewish, whether our values are compatible, or whether we should release our Otherness entirely. Zionism, born of a progressive ideal, is increasingly misused by nationalists, Jewish chauvinists and religious extremists, with results such as last week when women had to smuggle a barbie-sized torah scroll to the kotel to celebrate a bat mitzvah, or when Shavit got married by his rabbi in Jerusalem, and it wasn’t recognized, but the second ‘official’ marriage in England by a non-Jewish clerk in an office in London was.
This summer, indeed this past year, we’ve been reminded of our Otherness again and again. We have been reminded by well-meaning non-Jews who cannot relate to our experience, and by extremists in our own camp we’d sooner avoid. We have a choice before us, Avram’s choice: we could try to make a go of it and convince ourselves and them that we aren’t different. Or, to borrow a shopworn phrase, we could ‘lean in’ to our otherness, and become the blessing we are meant to be. That means leaving our comfort zones. That means speaking out against injustice wherever we see it; the soft bigotry of the European-American left, and the hard bigotry of the Ultra-Nationalist Right. We must challenge the false equivalencies of Zionism and Racism, but we must also work to combat the bigots in our midst who would maintain a status quo that satisfies no one: not the Jew, not the Palestinian, not the woman, not the young person asked to protect his country. We must own Zionism, and not let others define what that means for us.
What must we do? We have our own elections next week where we can make our voices—our progressive voices—heard. And The World Zionist Organization elections begin next month. The WZO sets the policy of the Jewish Agency—including financial policies, and it is essential that our progressive voice is heard. I encourage you to register and vote for ARZA, the Reform Movement’s Zionist organization, to promote our progressive values. And it’s not just about voting; when our kids come home challenged by a social studies project that casts Israel in a bad light, when we hear the voice of the disempowered in our own community grow ever fainter, when we see poverty and violence snuff out any hope in this world, when we see our fellow Jews attempt to enforce some romanticized version of Orthodoxy as a way of ‘keeping the peace’, we must act. It isn’t enough to hold anxiously to our values here within our own House; we need to bring that forward to the community around us.
To be a Blessing is not easy; the challenges are legion, and there are days when it would just be easier to nod and smile. But like Avram our father and the Zionists of old, we are called to a journey—from ease to action, from comfort to justice, from darkness to light. May we find our way together on this journey, and may each of us strive to be a blessing. Amen.