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One story, multiple truths

Leonard Gordon
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Published: 30 April 2018

Last updated: 4 March 2024


I have appeared twice in the Israeli press.  The first time was in the winter of 1969 when I arrived at Lod Airport accompanying my mother who was the “millionth passenger” to arrive by plane that year (the first time the Israeli tourist industry crossed that threshold). I was a barmitzvah boy, and my mother a Holocaust survivor from Kielce in Poland.

We were given gifts, a free trip and an opportunity to sit across from prime minister Levi Eshkol for a meeting that remains a pivotal moment for me in my identity as a Zionist.  The second time I was in the Israeli press was this past August.  I was in Israel leading a group of Christian seminary professors and administrators as part of my work for Interfaith Partners for Peace. Towards the end of the trip my Facebook page lit up with (semi-sarcastic) congratulatory messages; I was on the list of American rabbis who were boycotted by the Israeli rabbinate.

According to the press reports, my letters affirming the Jewish identity of congregants were no longer accepted by the State as evidence of Jewish status.  Having long known that as a rabbi ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative/Masorti) I had no rabbinic status in the country I think of as a home, the article was not a surprise.  But it was a painful reminder.  If the press about my arrival in 1969 affirmed the unity of world Jewry, by 2017 Jewish disunity was everywhere more apparent.

The gap that separates Israeli and Diaspora Jews has widened since 1969 into an excruciating chasm illustrated by my personal story.  What had been a debate about the meaning of Zionism, the centrality of Aliyah and the ultimate fate of the Diaspora, now has come to include disagreements about religious pluralism and the hope for two states for two peoples.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not on the agenda in 1969, now dominates conversations about Israel on campus, in houses of worship, and in political discourse.  Increasingly, Jews in the Diaspora who see these issues differently are finding it hard to stay in conversation with one another, one more example of the breakdowns in civil communication that have come to typify our times.

In the face of those divides, I work for an organisation (Interfaith Partners for Peace) that brings American rabbis and ministers together to find a way of talking about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.  In interfaith settings, as in the inner Jewish conversation, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become the elephant in the room, the topic that we all care about but can no longer discuss.

A 2013 a survey of American rabbis found that fully a third avoided talking about Israel from the pulpit lest they have a conflict with synagogue leadership.1 Clearly on all levels -- intra-communal, inter-faith, and Israel-Diaspora -- we need to rebuild lines of communication and find shared language.

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In trying to restart and deepen conversations about our feelings for Israel in the face of controversy, we have learned to go beyond polite listening and sharing of perspectives.  Jews in the Diaspora and in Israel need to learn to live with multiple realities and honor positions with which they disagree.
Increasingly, Jews in the Diaspora who see these issues differently are finding it hard to stay in conversation with one another, one more example of the breakdowns in civil communication that have come to typify our times.

Relationships among people must come first and out of mutual caring and commitment to stay in conversation. We need to try and find a way to live with multiple and competing perspectives on what might be best for our communities.

In the Israel-Diaspora conversation even those who might agree on taking (or avoiding) additional risks for peace, find no shared language on Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.  This disconnect is most obvious in the area of religious life.  For those of us who live in countries like America and Australia, with rich traditions of separation between state and religion, the official chief rabbinate and the insistence that all life-cycle events are performed (for Jews, Muslims and Christians) through recognised religious bodies is anathema.

For Israelis it is the recognised status quo, dating to mandatory times and therefore having the implicit support of the British legal tradition.  The irony of Israel being one of the few countries in the world where I and other liberal rabbis are not recognised as clergy looms large for the Diaspora communities in which liberal rabbis and cantors are a majority. It is more troubling that these matters barely concern the majority of even secular Israeli Jews.

How then can these divides be bridged?  Diaspora and Israeli Jews need to press the “refresh” button and start over.  Both communities are diverse and quite different from what they had been in 1969.  Israel’s cultural mosaic now includes millions who came from non-democratic nations, and the American Jewish community now includes a majority who were not yet born during the heady days of the Six-Day War (including large numbers of Jews by choice Jews by choice? for whom Israel does not resonate as a homeland they have heard about since birth).

Yossi Klein Halevi distinguishes between “Purim Jews” and “Passover Jews”. Purim Jews see the primary directive of Jewish life as maintaining the security of the Jewish people in the face of threat.  Passover Jews see the primary directive as making sure that we never do to others what was done to us when we were slaves in Egypt.

The anxiety over security and the commitment to generosity of spirit are both part of the Jewish story and Jewish ethics, and both approaches to peace and security need to be respected.  Yossi Klein Halevi ends his post by saying, “But civility is only the starting point. The goal is to create multidimensional Jews, capable of holding more than one insight about Israeli reality.”

As multidimensional Jews we can begin to heal breaches, resume conversations, and hopefully, rebuild a healthier and more supportive Israel-Diaspora relationship.



About the author

Leonard Gordon

Rabbi Leonard Gordon co-directs Interfaith Partners for Peace and recently completed a Doctor of Ministry degree in Interfaith Peace Studies.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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