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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

DEBATING ABOUT ISRAEL ON ITS DAY OF INDEPENDENCE

Yesterday, Israel observed Yom Ha-Zikaron, the memorial day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. Today is Yom Ha-Atzma'ut, Independence Day.


During my many years as a Hillel director and JCC professional, these modern observances were a central focus of my work. Like most mainstream pluralistic American Jewish organizations, the mission statements of Hillels on campus and JCCs include broad support for the Jewish state. They are well-known for providing widespread programming that fosters strong relationships between Diaspora and Israeli Jews. Likewise, the religious sectors of our community—Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform—state very clear support, usually contextualized by their own vision for what Israel should look like.


The mission and values statement of our Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ) does not mention the state of Israel. Over the years, there have been very few Israel-related statements issued by its board, most of them expressing a desire for peace. In a blog entry at SHJ.org, our movement's executive director, Paul Golin, offers a deeply reality-based commentary about where our movement stands on Israel and Zionism:


Humanistic Jews around the world hold opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict along the entire political spectrum, from ardent Zionist to anti-Zionist. There is no consensus, and we don’t anticipate consensus anytime soon.


Considering how emotional the debate can get, the best we hope to achieve is respectful dialogue that incorporates our humanistic values, including empathy, compassion, reason, and rationality.


I am an ardent Zionist and I agree with Paul. It's been my goal to make our congregation a safe place to talk about Israel and the war respectfully. Since Israel's military action began, I've opened the pulpit to Rep. Andy Levin and CHJ member Prof. Fran Shor, with whose viewpoints I personally disagree. As rabbi (and with my own experience and expertise in aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), I have spoken and written about my points of view on the war and historical conflict. To learn what our movement thought about these events, I interviewed Rabbi Sivan Maas, our movement's leader in Israel, and played it on a recent Shabbat.


Our members have also been provided with opportunities to engage in respectful debate. Under the leadership of our Program Committee, a dialogue board was set up in our lobby for those who wish to share their responses to the war. Some have even used it to promote outside programs with a variety of perspectives. Additionally, when the Committee launches its new CHJ Forum program on June 2 (for members only), the opening topic will be a discussion about the future of Israel and its neighbors. Even our Book Group has made space for this discourse. Its next selection is a 2024 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Nathan Thrall, which offers a serious critique of the Occupation (see the newsletter listing for details).


As Rep. Levin—former president of a Reconstructionist congregation—remarked during his visit, only a Humanistic Jewish congregation could make space for this kind of dialogue.


What he said made me feel proud to be a member of this movement.


Yet, empowered as we are by our Humanistic Jewish philosophy to do so, we must show care to conduct our respectful dialogue in a responsible manner. Dialogue cannot be one-sided. It must show respect for all sides to respond in ways that incorporate our humanistic values. The content of this very newsletter provides a good case in point.


Each month, I receive requests—some from members, others from outside organizations—to publish invitations to their programs. When those invitations are to programs incompatible with our philosophy—featuring theistic prayers, for example—it's a simple thing to turn them down. But frequently, we exercise this responsibility for other reasons.


One of these is that the central purpose of the newsletter is to share what CHJ is doing. The whole world has access to the newsletter through our website. We put it there so that both our members and anyone else who is interested can learn more about our congregation and its programs.


Another reason we might decline to advertise an outside talk or program in our newsletter is that we have no control over its content and cannot present the opposing viewpoint within the same medium. For instance, a member once requested that we publicize a talk by an outside group in support of homeschooling. Yet had this presentation appeared in our newsletter without a counterpoint, readers could reasonably assume that we endorse this view, believing it to reflect the majority opinion of our members. This, after all, is very much our approach to issues like voting rights or reproductive rights. On these issues, there is a clear majority opinion within our movement and congregation, and we actively engage in related activism due to overwhelming support for those issues.


With homeschooling, however, there is no such consensus. Our members consider it controversial even as they remain open to reasoned discourse about it, discourse that we cannot offer in the newsletter. Should we now be required to seek out another group to present an opposing view, or sponsor our own talk on the subject? Expecting that decisions about which outside programs we advertise in our newsletter should reflect our general policy of open discourse and debate on issues about which we differ is unrealistic. Our newsletter is not meant to serve that purpose.


The power that we exercise when we set aside time to conduct sufficient debate on important issues that divide us—and there are few that are more consequential to the Jewish world than Israel—demands that we engage in the issue responsibly. I thank those who have helped organize the various opportunities that we have planned so far. On this day of Israeli independence I believe that we are paying tribute to values we would like to see on display in every Jewish community and the Jewish state.

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