I write this post from a sidewalk cafe Tel Aviv - the day after our AIPAC Rabbinic Mission has ended. Most of our group has returned to the States and I am staying a few extra days to rest, gather my thoughts, and visit with friends and family. I have travelled to Israel at least 20 times - it's hard to count. I have come as a student, a tourist, a pilgrim and a group leader. I have been in Israel for happy occasions - to celebrate weddings and births, to officiate at B'nai Mitzvah ceremonies, to teach and to perform my music. I have lived here as a student and visited during times of war and times of peace. Each trip has had its own unique characteristics, but this one was different. I was honored to be part of a select group of "progressive" rabbis from across the country - 19 in total - invited by AIPAC for high level briefings at the Knesset and with political, religious and cultural thought leaders. During our week together, my colleagues and I were exposed to parts of Israel that I had never seen before. We experienced great beauty and creativity as well as some very disturbing and ugly realities. Contrary to what one might think about a trip sponsored by AIPAC, we saw multiple aspects of society - from members of the Palestinian authority in Ramallah to the most right-wing members of Knesset. We visited with the leaders of the Settlements, with peace activists and members of the LGBT community. We were given high-level security briefings by the IDF and stood on the Northern borders of Lebanon and Syria as the civil wars that have ravaged both of these countries literally played out in front of us. We travelled to a hospital in Tzfat that treats wounded men, women and children who fled from the carnage of the Syrian civil war and visited too many other places to be able to list them all in this post.
Of course, a main theme and overriding concern of our trip was the Iranian Nuclear agreement that was signed as we were en-route to Israel. From the moment we landed at Ben Gurion Airport, the historic and potentially pivotal nature of this agreement was foremost in everyone's thoughts. Israel, as you know, is a very diverse society. There are multiple political perspectives that every Israeli is happy to share with anyone who will listen. The last election took a powerful toll on the social fabric of Israeli society. And yet, as poll after poll indicates, the majority of Israelis - on the left and the right - feel that this agreement poses an existential threat. The specter of a Nuclear Iran is frightening. In addition, once the sanctions are lifted and the frozen assets (conservatively estimated to be at least $100 Billion) are released few doubt that Iran will use this infusion of assets to continue to exert its influence on the region and support Hezbollah, Hamas and other enemies of Israel and other moderate Sunni States.
This having been said, we were traveling, not as Israelis, but as American Zionists. The question of how we, as an American Jewish community, should respond to the agreement is both complex and emotional. It is clear from what I have read in the press and what many of you have individually conveyed to me that our community is divided. Passions are inflamed on all sides and the calls for both condemnation and support of the agreement are forceful and compelling.
We are caught in a maelstrom of conflicting perspectives that has the potential to drive a wedge - not only between Israel and American Jewry but to cause serious damage within our community itself. Whatever our own opinions might be about the agreement, it is vitally important that we not allow our legitimate concerns to become personal. This is about policy - not personality. There are some who will attempt to use fears about Israel's safety to demonize those in our government who worked hard to bring us to this point in time. Others may accuse those who oppose the agreement of using fear tactics to manipulate us into taking an extreme position that will drive a wedge between the current administration and the Jewish people. When we attack one another, we run the risk of hurting the fabric of our community and, in doing so, damaging the vitally important relationship that we hold with Israel. Debate is essential - but so is dialogue. We must not only share our individual views, but we also must listen to one another with respect and love.
I will conclude this post with a picture of the cafe in which I began to write this post. As you can hopefully see, in spite of the intensity of the situation, life goes on and thrives here in Tel Aviv and throughout the country. Israeli society has learned how to separate between political debate and personal feelings. We can do no less.
I look forward to speaking with you this Friday night after shabbat services. In the meantime, I intend to enjoy every last second I have in this country that I love.
Shalom from Israel!
Rabbi Joe Black