It was a hot day this past July, and it looked like the Old City of Jerusalem was going to explode. A few days before, three Israeli Arabs had killed two Israeli Druze police officers near the Temple Mount. Security forces had closed off the area and then reopened it with metal detectors. Israeli Arab leaders and the leadership of the Waqf, the religious authority that supervises Muslim holy sites in Israel, staged a protest, and began calling for a day of rage. Three Israelis were killed when someone broke into their home, and three Palestinians were killed in rioting. For those of us watching this past summer, it appeared that once again Israel would be embroiled in violence.
In response to the increased tensions, Sarah Tuttle-Singer, an American Israeli journalist who has been living in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, stood outside and, with a few friends, handed out popsicles to passersby. She started with popsicles she had paid for out of pocket, and by the end of the day merchants were donating them entire boxes.
She wrote the following of the experience:
On Thursday, a group of us stood in front of the Austrian hospice at the intersection of Al Wad and Via Dolorosa and handed out (parve) popsicles to anyone who would accept.
Men carrying prayer rugs on their way to the Mosque.
Guys going to the Western Wall.
Families walking north and south and back again.
A baffled looking priest and two nuns.
A guy in Border Police with braces on his teeth.
A pilgrim from Russia wearing a giant cross and strappy sandals.
A bunch of tourists from Ohio.
Lots and lots and lots of kids.
Anyone who would accept a popsicle got one.
Because it's *** hot out.
And we may come from different cultures and religions, we may speak different languages and see the world through different eyes, but we are all a sum part of chemical and biological processes, and we all get hot.
And when we get hot we get irritated and the tensions that are already there can ignite.
Also, the Old City is my home and I believe in treating my neighbors with respect during good times, and bad.
As it happened, the next day, Israel removed the security apparatuses and tensions were calmed.
I suspect many of us, as touched as we are by Sarah’s gesture (on her birthday, no less) find it lovely but Pollyanna-ish. How do popsicles solve the crisis between Palestinian and Jew in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan RIver? How does this account for the Waqf’s incitement, fanning the flames of violence? How does it deal with the Palestinian Authority continuing to pay the families of terrorists, including the three who killed the Druze police officers? How do popsicles deal with olive groves destroyed by settlers who build on hilltops that don’t belong to them? What do popsicles do to protect our kids at college when someone paints a swastika on their dorm room door? How does this really resolve anything? We see the picture of Sarah handing out popsicles, and it’s lovely, and kind, yet by the time we’re done thinking about the matzav, the situation, we get ourselves so worked up that it feels futile and hopeless and irrelevant.
When I was a kid I had a book from AIPAC called “Myths and Facts”, a guide to talking about the Arab-Israeli conflict, that was meant to help someone who would get caught up in a conversation about Israel and quickly get overwhelmed. That’s because the conversation is overwhelming. Because when we speak of Israel, we are often very quick to speak of technicalities: dates and maps and green lines and technical marvels, who did what when, who is to blame and who is responsible, who really actually truly cares about others? And what’s worse, the diversity of Zionist organizations on the left and the right has created increasing fracture within the Jewish community, including here in Delaware. Myths And Facts was meant for Jews to speak with non-Jews, but it seems that we have reached the point where we may feel that we need it internally, not just externally. It was one thing to combat well-meaning non-Jewish peaceniks who would carry the claim that Zionism was racism. Now we have the ZOA, AIPAC, J-Street, ARZA, IfNotNow, Open Hillel and many other organizations whose relationship with Zionism is complex and nuanced, which would be great, if we were living in a time of complex and nuanced discussion and debate. But increasingly, we have been living in a world of alternative facts, fake news, insistence that if the person across from me disagrees with me even in the slightest bit, they are not just wrong, they are my enemy and the enemy of all I hold dear. To be a J-Street supporter in the eyes of many is to betray the Jewish state to an Iranian Nuclear Weapon, while to be an AIPAC supporter is to capitulate to an Israeli Prime Minister unwilling and unable to make peace. Is ARZA fighting to create space for Reform Jews to practice an egalitarian Judaism at the Western Wall, or a distraction undermining the fabric of Israeli society and Judaism as we know it? Does the ZOA advocate for a strong Jewish State or is it a racist organization advocating bigotry against Arabs? These are actual discussions that are taking place, if you can call them ‘discussions’. More like weaponized sentences, screaming matches, skirmishes that have casualties. As one example, a student of mine, now in college, shared this experience with me: She was getting ready to go on a birthright trip, one geared toward LGBT individuals, that would coincide with Israel Pridefest. She wrote: “Before the trip I had gotten anti-Israel hate on campus (anti-Trump protests saying if you didn't vote to divest then you don't believe in human rights, friends saying Zionism has no place in feminism) and my best friend told me she cancelled her trip with me because she couldn't "morally go to Israel" but nobody was like actually attacking me for going cuz I kept it on the down low since I knew so many of my friends legitimately hated Israel and would make laugh about terrorism on twitter. Only after I went did I have people be blatantly anti-Semitic to me on twitter because of my trip and people passive aggressively post articles about pink washing the day I got back” . Can you imagine having friendships ruined, trips ruined, relationships blown apart? That is what is happening, and this is being repeated over and over again. My friends, we are tearing each other apart.
Friends, if we keep talking about Israel through technicalities, as if it were a zero-sum game, without nuance or complexity or an acknowledgement of each other’s lived experiences, then we are not going to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis. We are not going to stop dumb college kids from saying dumb and terrible things and doing dumb and terrible things. We aren’t going to be able to support the kind of Israel we want to see—strong and diverse and safe. We are creating a no-man’s land within the Jewish community; no one wants to talk about Israel. I’ve seen it for years: a survey came out two years ago of rabbis across all three major movements that indicated the majority refrained from discussing Israel because they feared for their jobs; one prominent rabbi in the Northeast who does a great deal of social justice work told a group of us ten years ago to approach the topic of Israel gingerly, and treat it as a third rail in synagogue politics. And we see it in Delaware. How many people are still giving to ARZA, or are willing to go to an AIPAC or J-Street policy conference, or at least tell others? How many look over both shoulders while at Temple before talking about Israel so as not to get into a fight? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’ve been without an Israel Advocacy Chair for more than two years, a Board position! Because no one wants to touch it.
So let’s go back to those popsicles, shall we? Did some blonde woman from LA who now lives in Jerusalem handing out popsicles resolve the borders, water rights, Palestinian Right of Return and the boundaries of Jerusalem? Nope. Did it resolve the issue on the Temple Mount? Nope. Did it bring back the lives of those killed—the policemen, the family, the young people at the protest? Sadly, no. But it was a human gesture, a recognition that the people shared a city, shared a love for that city, and a love for each other as well. It was neighborly, it was kind. And it allowed the people to be people, to recognize the humanity in one another, even for one brief, cool, sweet, drippy moment.
We need more of those moments. We need more opportunities that are safe, where we can sit with our fellow congregants and speak from our lived experiences, talk about what Israel means to each one of us personally. We need to start not at 30,000 feet, at borders and drip irrigation and the like. That doesn’t mean that isn’t interesting, that doesn’t mean it isn’t cool, but that’s not our starting point. Our starting point needs to be each other. Why do we care about Israel? What does that look like to me, or to you? Where does it come from? How does it relate to the rest of our lives? How can we listen and affirm that connection, deepen it, relate to it, let it resonate for ourselves? How does Israel challenge us, upset us? How do we create space to listen to one another, not scream the so-called correct answers at one another?
This year, I want to try an experiment; an experiment in listening. Over the course of this year, there will be sessions, held over several months, beginning in October and culminating in May. The purpose of them is to create the space to talk about Israel, to listen to each other in a safe space, and to build relationships. No other agenda, no convincing one another of being right or wrong, no yelling, no screaming, no Myths and no Facts. Only listening deeply and seeing the humanity in one another, and acknowledging each other’s experiences. I can’t promise there will be popsicles, but my prayer is that we’re able to come together and speak honestly and compassionately, to hear one another even when it’s difficult. Because it’ll be no good if we only speak platitudes and avoid the subject; that’s what we’ve got now and it’s not doing anything either. We need to be able to be honest, but to be able to hear one another clearly as well, not just prepare our next fusillade. Rabbi Amy Eilberg, in her book From Enemy To Friend, talks about “skilled disagreement”, and this will help guide our conversations. Ideas like: we can be critical of ideas but not people, we can separate our personal worth from criticism of our ideas, we listen to everyone, even when we don’t agree, we try to understand one another and stand in a posture of curiosity, asking questions. I’ll be going into greater detail about those ideas tomorrow, but that is the intention. I cordially invite you—all of you, each of you—to come and participate, to share, to be present, to create those moments of empathy with one another. Perhaps it will lead to something concrete for the synagogue—a new Israel committee, a new program—or perhaps it will just mean that the participants got to know each other better and learned how to speak thoughtfully. Perhaps we will choose to extend the conversation: to the rest of Delaware’s Jewish community, to the non-Jewish community, or perhaps not. What’s most important is that we do it. Because if we do not start here, each one of us, in this congregation, then I fear our relationship with Israel will become increasingly tenuous, and our relationship with one another ever more brittle. And should that happen, then we cannot advocate for Israel, at least not effectively. And are we really ready to give up on the Hope and the dream of a Jewish people, Free in our land?
The rabbis of old ask, “Who is the hero of heroes? The one who makes an enemy into a friend.” May we, through our listening and our kindness learn to keep our friends “friends”, and see those around us not as enemies but as potential friends, then may our words be as sweet to one another as a popsicle on a summer’s day. Amen