talking Israel

"Jerusalem _ Old and New _ evening _ Noam Chen_IMOT" by Israel_photo_gallery is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Candice Gimbel has a lot to say about Israel, but she isn’t offering many thoughts on social media or in large gatherings these days.

“Everything I say can and will be used against me,” she said. There was a time when she could talk to her neighbors, her friends and even her brothers about Israel. But not anymore.

“It wasn’t long ago when we would talk about the vibe of the country, and we were talking about Washington. And then the conversation expanded,” she said. “There’s a very cynical assumption that everybody assumes somebody else is biased.”

Gimbel’s struggle reflects a lot of what local Jewish leaders feel when speaking about Israel to their congregations and in other Jewish spaces. For them, too, addressing the topic in a time of intense polarization is tricky.

Rabbi John A. Linder, Temple Solel’s senior rabbi, said he feels like he is walking a tightrope whenever he talks about Israel — that he has to preface whatever he says about Israel with an explicit caveat: “Rabbi John Linder, lover of Israel.”

“The tightrope is where I want to listen to Arabs that are being discriminated against,” he said. “Although I am conscious of walking a tightrope, I will not, for the sake of fear of ruffling feathers, remove myself from the arena.”

Temple Beth Sholom of the East Valley Rabbi Herschel “Brodie” Aberson said, he too, is keenly aware of the parameters of what is, and what is not, considered “safe” to say.

It’s disturbing that expressing concern for others — without saying any one is particularly evil or wrong — could be perceived as a betrayal, he said.

“I believe Jews have a right to self-determination of their own land. I would never deny that to another people,” he said. “If a rabbi can’t say we need to actually try and cultivate empathy for not just ourselves but the other, then what’s the point of being a community leader? What’s the point of being a spiritual leader?”

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, president and dean at Valley Beit Midrash, said the Arizona Jewish community needs more local Jewish leaders willing to talk about Israel in a nuanced way.

The American Jewish relationship to Israel has become almost completely intertwined with American Jewish partisan politics, he said.

“People expect bandwagoning,” he said. “There’s a conservative bandwagoning and there’s a progressive bandwagoning. And if you stray from that, you are in trouble. It is fierce and relentless.”

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found a growing political divergence of the American-Jewish population. While 71% of Jews are Democrats or lean Democratic, 75% of Orthodox Jews are Republican or lean Republican.

Orthodox Jews are becoming “as solidly Republican as non-Orthodox Jews are solidly Democratic,” the survey found.

Scott Lasensky, former Middle East adviser to the Obama administration, said the American Jewish community as a whole is still broadly supportive of Israel and its decisions around security.

“There’s a strong norm of deference to Israel, of solidarity with Israel. It’s a baseline norm in American Jewish life for decades,” he said. But that norm has broken down over time.

“I don’t believe it’s solely because of the difference of views in terms of Israeli policies,” he said. “Some of it has to do with polarization here in the United States.”

Jason Greenblatt, former White House Envoy to the Middle East during the Trump administration, did not directly address questions about partisanship, but said “social media, strident activism and cancel culture pose significant challenges to some when it comes to talking about Israel in public spaces.” He encouraged anyone who wants to speak out for Israel, or to defend Israel, "to stand tall and firm in your convictions." 

Congregation Kehillah Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman talks about Israel in a variety of ways within her congregation:

“I talk about Israel frequently from the bimah and always have, so it’s not a new thing for my congregation to hear about Israel from me; it is challenging to explore serious issues in the limited time allocated for teaching from the bimah during services, so I offer classes to explore in more depth the history and background of the conflict, considering various perspectives.”

She said Israel is a “beautiful, joyful, inspiring and sometimes frustrating place and her politics do not map out easily on the American political landscape.”

Sharfman is a Zionist to her core and is “deeply aware” of the role Israel has played in her identify as a Jew. “I am able, with pride, to share Israel’s many accomplishments and to share, with pain (but hope), the areas in which she falls short,” she said. “It is simply honest discussion, akin to a family member who may, at times, fall short of expectations, but yet we still are a family and try to learn from one another and make each other healthier.”

Democratic state Rep. Alma Hernandez (LD-3 ), who describes herself as an unapologetic Zionist, said talking about Israel has never been easy, especially “being a progressive, being a person of color and being in a lot of the circles that sometimes these comments and issues are not welcomed in.”

But, just because talking about Israel isn’t easy doesn’t mean those conversations shouldn’t happen.

“I know people are a little scared to say things,” she said. “ Every time I post something I have many people reach out to me privately saying, ‘I agree with you. Thank you so much for doing that. Thank you for standing up and using your voice.’ And my response is always, ‘Great, but I also can’t be the only one.’”

There are increasingly pluralistic attitudes about Israel and what defines a legitimate Israeli defense versus a provocation. Overall, younger American Jews are less attached to Israel than older generations, according to Pew. About half of Jewish adults under 30 describe themselves as emotionally connected to Israel, compared with about two-thirds of Jews over age 64.

Yanklowitz said the old ways about thinking about Israel and framing a dialogue about Israel don’t work anymore.

“We’re going to have to get to critical thinking about a next model, beyond the models we’ve been engaging in,” he said. “Part of the assumption in the new model is going to have to be, there is no security for anyone without successful coexistence” among Israel’s various populations.

Hernandez said everybody is entitled to their own opinions.

“But, at the end of the day, what’s important is that we all support each other as a community. That we see each other as humans, and see each other as members of the Jewish community, regardless of what our beliefs are.”

Where those conversations should happen is up for debate as well.

Gimbel has been a member of several area synagogues. She feels knowing the ins and outs of Israel is definitely part of a rabbi’s job description, because Israel is a “very essential part of our identity.”

But Aberson noted he didn’t learn a great deal about Israel outside of a biblical context during rabbinical school.

“I don’t know a lot of rabbinical schools that have extensive programs in the history of Israel or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said. “It’s an interesting aspect that we would assume a religious leader in the United States would have to speak out about what is essentially a social political conflict in another part of the world.”

There’s an assumption from the outset, that everybody, as a Jew, has some long history with Israel, he said. But that isn’t a given. JN