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How Many Fingers am I Holding Up?

06/15/2023 01:30:58 PM


When I was growing up in the New York area, the Salute to Israel Parade was one of the events that brought together almost every element of the  entire Jewish community. On a Sunday in early June, we schlepped in from the suburbs to march up Fifth Avenue, wearing our proudest blue and white. Many years, various Israeli dignitaries and Jewish (or Jewish adjacent) politicians would participate as our songs and chants reverberated across Central Park.  This year, the parade (now called Celebrate Israel) did not go quite as well. Israel’s minister for Diaspora Affairs and Combatting Antisemitism, Amichai Chikli, was present, and his picture was taken while he seemed to be offering a very different type of salute- the kind that involves just one, middle finger-  to some of the Diaspora Jews who were present.  Relationships between many segments of the American Jewish community and Israel are increasingly complex, and the portion we read this week suggests a way to approach that complexity.

In Shelach Lecha, the Israelites are on the border of the land of Israel, preparing to enter, and Moses sends 12 spies to bring back a report.  All agree that the land is fertile, and inhabited by mighty warriors.  10 spies conclude that the land is inhospitable, that they felt like grasshoppers in comparison to the warriors in the land, and that is how they were seen by its inhabitants.  As a result, they conclude that they should forgo any further connection to the land.    The other two spies insist that there is a path forward to success.  They concede that other 10 may have an equally good grasp of the facts, but have made incorrect assumptions based on those facts.  In particular, the 10 spies know how they feel about themselves, but how can they know what the Canaanite warriors think of them?  As we think about our relationship with our cousins in Israel, and as Israeli leaders ponder how they relate to us, we (and they) must be cautious to avoid the mistake of the 10 spies, as American Jews and Israeli leaders misestimate each other

Chikli claims that the picture was poorly timed, and he was caught at an awkward point in the process of signaling people to smile.  Having seen the picture, and as someone who often looks awkward in photos, I have to concede to him that he has established a reasonable doubt. The essence of the problem is not the photo, but that Chikli has already, metaphorically given the finger to many in the Diaspora.  He has made statements he has made attacking the Reform movement of Judaism and gay Jews. He doubled down by calling the J Street advocacy group worse than those who seek to boycott Israel.  I personally believe  J Street is wrong on some fundamental issues,  but it represents a significant segment of our American Jewish community who do care about Israel, and whose support may not be guaranteed.  As such, any Israeli government minister tasked with connecting with America’s Jewish community should find ways to engage with, rather than antagonize.  Even since I wrote the first version of this article, he has had to walk back remarks that appeared to be denigrating Deborah Lipstadt, who is a legend not just in our Atlanta Jewish community, but  in the fight against antisemitism around the world.  Unfortunately, he has demonstrated that he not understand the needs and existential concerns of many of the people that his ministry is supposed to serve and connect with, and he has jumped to dangerously wrong conclusions  about who matters to Israel  in the American Jewish community and who doesn’t. 

More generally, this brouhaha over a photo reflects, if you will, a “snapshot” of the challenges in the relationship between different segments of our American and Israeli Jewish communities. The political situation in Israel is as complex as it has ever been, as plans to revamp Israel’s legal system bring continued protests and conflict, and negotiations for a shared solution have stalled.  Those changes matter deeply to Jews  in the US because we care about what kind of place Israel is, but we are a step removed because we do not live under that system.  However, when key ministers in the new government express disdain for their fellow Jews who believe and practice differently that they do, and specifically for American Jews, we have an undisputed right, and indeed, an obligation speak up.

What Shelach Lecha reminds us is that it is dangerous for those inside the land of Israel to jump to conclusions about those outside, and vice versa, or to write each other off.The spies made a grave error by writing off the holy land, and it took 40 years to undo the consequences of that mistake.  Some in Israel’s government are falling into that trap now.  We should avoid making the reciprocal overgeneralization.  In particular, as American Jews, we must hold on to the ideal of Israel, even when we are challenged by some of its inhabitants.  We must realize that our stake in the holy land is not to be given up lightly, and certainly not because someone might have been seen lifting a finger against us.

Tue, December 5 2023 22 Kislev 5784