No Time For Neutrality

It didn't seem particularly sinister. An invitation from my rabbi inviting me to a reunion of my grade school Hebrew class? Normal enough. It was surprising, upon arrival, that he'd chosen to reunite multiple classes together, cramming us into a small room in the back of the temple. But there was off-brand soda, and pretzels, and bad jokes about baseball, and I felt bored and restless and inescapably at home, as I always had in Hebrew class.

I can't recall now if it was the Jenin incursions or the riots at the Temple Mount that set my rabbi off. Or perhaps he was just enraged by one of the obscure convulsions of violence that occur with such regularity as to virtually mark time in the Middle East. What punctures the haze of memory is when he transitioned from sports to politics, telling the assembled alumni that the Jews would be within their rights to forcibly deport and displace the entire Palestinian population. I objected, and we began shouting at each other as my classmates looked on in annoyance. I stormed from the room and it was the last time I set foot in that temple. In my temple.

Judaism has long been closely associated with the search for social justice and human dignity. In his beautiful essay "No Time For Neutrality," the great Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote, "one of the lessons we have derived from the events of our time is that we cannot dwell at ease under the sun of our civilization, that man is the least harmless of beings …The only safeguard against [such] constant danger is constant vigilance, constant guidance. Such guidance is given to him who lives in the reality of Israel. It is a system in which human relations rest on two basic ideas: The idea of human rights and the idea of human obligations."

The reality of Israel, of course, is more complex. There, relations between Jews and Palestinians are less about glittering ideals and more about terrorism and fences, settlements and mistrust. It would be tough moral terrain to navigate in even favorable circumstances, but for Jews, the political question is often elevated into a religious one. Israel -- or Eretz Yisrael -- animates the prayer books and peppers the Torah. For Jews, its status as a Jewish land has a sacred dimension, adding a further level of complexity to the human hunger for real estate. And so Israel's travails are regularly discussed from the pulpit. To enter a synagogue is to resign yourself to a likely digression from the numinous that will end with a disquisition on the conflict. Sometimes, the Rabbi's exploration is just, humane, and sensitive. More often, the pull of identity overwhelms the call of the ineffable, and whatever mysticism should exist is shattered as the Rabbi does his or her best to rally the assembled Jewry in defense of their besieged brethren -- and shame those who don't go along. It's an odd feeling, akin to going to the doctor for a check-up and being subjected to an angry lecture on payment rates in the upcoming Medicare law.

Sitting through such a sermon can be an uncomfortable experience for progressive Jews. Many respond by searching for a synagogue that does not mistake Zionism for Judaism. Others cease going altogether. And as the conversation in many synagogues has drifted rightward, so too has the political center of gravity on the subject. The allies of Israel now include such notables as John Hagee, a radical Christian minister who wants the Jews to occupy the Holy Land so they can be wiped out in a precursor to the apocalypse, and Joe Lieberman, whose two-word plan for Jewish security often seems to be "air strikes." If the pews can seem inhospitable to a progressive, the politics can look downright repulsive.

Which is what makes the emergence of J Street, the new pro-peace Israel lobbying organization, so interesting. Their opening day pitch says very little about AIPAC or settlements or fences or Hamas. Rather, they focus on the question of voice. Their page features a video that starkly demonstrates where the conversation has turned as the pro-peace moderates have disengaged:

"Do they speak for you," J Street asks? It's an interesting pitch, aimed less at activated progressives who labor on this issue than those who long ago turned away because they felt their voice wasted. It's an appeal to all those who walked out of their temple because they couldn't stand the sermon, didn't go back because they were tired of the politics, or have made their peace choking on silence when the issue arises.

Disengagement is an unnatural position for a Jew. Ending his essay, Heschel wrote, "Jewish existence is not only the adherence to particular doctrines and observances but primarily the living in the spiritual order of the Jewish people … it is primarily involvement and anticipation in the covenant and community of Israel." Israel, for Heschel, was the corporeal manifestation of higher ideals -- an unbreakable respect for human rights, and an unyielding sense of obligation to one another's dignity. Those who would dishonor those ideals don't speak for us. Yet their voices control the conversation. As Heschel said, this is no time for neutrality. Even more to the point, it is no time for silence.