Notes on speaking about Israel

R. Noa Kushner
Presented at JEN conference, Los Angeles
June 2018

I keep two ideas in my head when approaching talking about Israel / Palestine.

On the one hand, I have the words of (my father’s teacher and R. Lizzi’s rabbi) Arnold Jacob Wolf z”l: The worst thing someone can say to you after your teaching / drash is: “Nice teaching Rabbi.”

He would have preferred someone would be furious or at the very least, in disagreement – it would show they were considering an idea in a new way. He was a master truth teller and agitator.

On the other hand, I learned something from one of my rabbis, Les Bronstein. He was the rabbi at our wedding and was giving Michael and I pre-wedding counseling, general advice. He said, “There are two kinds of arguments: the kind that goes in circles, goes nowhere, and the kind that is l’shem shamayim / for the sake of heaven. It is good to learn how to identify which is which. Try to make the majority of your arguments l’shem shamayim.

In other words, from Rabbi Wolf: Don’t play for laughs. The Torah, certainly Israel, these are too serious and they deserves our most sincere efforts to try to say something serious, nuanced and real. His approach is the opposite of trying to be popular.

And then there’s Bronstein: Try to know which arguments you get sucked into for the sake of your ego, arguments that are almost guaranteed to go nowhere, versus those times when it is truly necessary to get in there and argue for a greater good, for the sake of heaven.  

We started The Kitchen 7 years ago this Shabbat. When I started, one of the realities I experienced was that most of the people I was trying to reach were not on different sides of a radical Israel divide, fighting about BDS or the UN resolutions.
Rather, they were not talking about Israel at all.
That is, they were confused and ashamed by what they read in the paper, they were largely illiterate when it came to the situation in Israel, the people whom they encountered on the topic seemed overly extreme, so they avoided the topic altogether.
It didn’t come up.
They were absent from the room.

Frankly, what frightens me the most is that I think had I refrained from bringing Israel up at The Kitchen, I think few to no one would have complained, and most would have been secretly relieved. Even now, there are people who ask me, “Why talk about Israel in shul? Let’s focus on the spiritual.” And while I understand that inclination, and I think it is an understandable position, I think in this time and place, I just can’t abide by it. There’s too much at stake. So I try to chose when and how to address Israel with care but we do talk about it.

In fact, I actually think shul is the best place to talk about Israel because even if we disagree, if the community is working, we are stuck with each other, and we can talk about the issues of the day in the context of Torah, we can argue about things over time. And if we know each other from a larger context, from Shabbat and being together at a shiva and celebrating Purim I think we have a chance at being decent with one another when we disagree.

In San Francisco, I knew that no amount of pro-Israel talking points would get more unconnected people connected. I had to start with offering an exposure to what I felt was the unvarnished truth and hope that the truth would at least help the people to understand that this was not a sell job, that Israel mattered so much to me that I was willing to make us all extremely uncomfortable in service of not just connecting them to Israel but engaging them in a larger role – the role of helping to shape the future of Israel and the larger Israeli – American conversation. I wanted them to understand: there is something real here, something real and worthwhile and, yes, difficult, and it has everything to do with you and your life.

So we brought the smartest, most compelling scholars and journalists, too many to list.

And I spoke, on Shabbat, from things I learned in Torah, I spoke in stark terms about the limiting danger of a survivalism that supersedes moral responsibility, I spoke about the occupation and the obligation of building a social democracy in our Jewish home. I spoke about this a lot, and each time I would sweat it out.

I did not mince words and we lost some nice people along the way, people who did not like hearing about Israel in shul. Or, they did not like hearing what I was saying.

At one point, we sent out a Kitchen email and a funder told us that if we used a certain word in our email again, we would lose $50K.

I am so out of it I thought the bad word was, “Palestine.” Turns out it is “Occupation.”

But you know, I have and will think very hard about using that word in an email again, that is how censorship works. These are the things I weigh: Is that word in that next email necessary for the sake of heaven? Or will it just be another log on the proverbial fire?

And: What good is money if we can’t tell the truth?

Overall, I think what we have done is working.
That is, first, we have Kitchen-ites who now regularly talk about Israel / Palestine, they come and hear the scholars and lectures, we went on a profound trip, we met a wide range of activists, artists, scholars. It was not a subsidized trip, and this time and money that the participants offered, this is a big deal, a big commitment. And these are people who I think really, truly would have not shown up in this conversation were it not for us bringing it up all the time in ways they could respect.

In the next seven years I think it is time to bring in more controversial views, which, for The Kitchen will mean a few speakers from the right.
After all, heaven demands more than one point of view.
And I am working to create a group of emerging leaders, here and in Israel, people who will apply and pay to learn in an intensive program concerning America and Israel with the aim of rising into leadership, and committing to work on a problem together.

Heaven demands, the ideas and problems are so serious they demand, our sincere efforts to try and know one another, here and in Israel, as we argue this one out.