The American Jewish thought police are quick to label sympathy a betrayal of Israel. “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). That familiar verse, which I call “the commandment to empathize,” is God’s decree that we put ourselves in the stranger’s place and feel the feelings of the Other.
But these days, if the Other is the Palestinians, and a Jew admits to even the most rudimentary concern for their situation—the slightest tinge of rachmanes, or caring—it’s more likely to be treated as a betrayal of the Jewish people, as if merely acknowledging Palestinians’ hardship or their yearning for independence amounts to delegitimizing Israel.
Having virtually silenced political dissent, American enforcers of Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line political correctness have moved on to the next phase of social control: They’re policing our thoughts and feelings.
During November’s Gaza war, Rabbi Sharon Brous, leader of the IKAR Jewish community in Los Angeles, sent this message to her congregation: “I believe that the Israeli people, who have for years endured rocket attacks targeting innocents and designed to create terror, instability and havoc, have the right and the obligation to defend themselves. I also believe that the Palestinian people, both in Gaza and the West Bank, have suffered terribly and deserve to live full and dignified lives… But most critically at this hour, I believe that there is a real and profound need for all of us to witness with empathy and grace… Supporting Israel’s right to protect and defend itself does not diminish the reality that the Palestinian people are also children of God, whose suffering is real and undeniable.”
That sounds pretty rabbinic to me—measured, empathic and moral. But Rabbi Daniel Gordis, president of the Shalem Center, who purports to be a friend and admirer of Brous, responded with an appallingly adversarial screed that accused her (and most progressive Jews) of disavowing Jewish particularity and abandoning Israel. According to Gordis’s twisted reasoning, because the Hamas government wants to destroy Israel, we cannot feel sympathy for the Palestinian whose baby was blown to bits by an Israeli bomb.
On November 29, the day after the United Nations voted to recognize the Palestinian state, Rabbi Roly Matalon of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (BJ) in Manhattan, speaking extemporaneously during Friday night services, noted the moment’s historic significance. Analogizing it to Israel’s birth at the UN on the same day 65 years ago, Matalon said “sensible people” would debate whether statehood was “a blessing or not.” But, he added, “the Palestinian people got overwhelming recognition and I think a sense of dignity that they really deserve and that they were missing for many, many years.”
In an email sent a few days later, all three BJ rabbis—Matalon, Marcelo Bronstein and Felicia Sol—as well as the cantor, board president, executive director and director of Israel engagement, reiterated support for the UN vote, prayed for a peaceful resolution to the conflict and repeated the core message about dignity.
The reaction was so virulent you’d have thought the letter had endorsed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For empathizing with the national aspirations and fundamental humanity of the Palestinian people, for saying what millions of Jews, especially young Jews, believe, the rabbis were excoriated. Although they also received a lot of support, it was the attacks that made news, especially when Alan Dershowitz, Israel’s self-appointed defender-in-chief, weighed in with a patronizing, wildly exaggerated critique.
After a front-page story in The New York Times about the uproar, the rabbis wrote again to congregants apologizing for the first letter’s “tone” and claiming that as a result of the premature release of an “incomplete and unedited draft,” the other signers had been included in error. Lord knows what went on behind the scenes, what pressure was brought to bear against the rabbis (three holy souls who, in my opinion, anchor due north on the Jewish moral compass) or what financial and other threats may have been made by funders, board members and poobahs in the Jewish establishment. This second letter apologized for “the feelings of alienation that resulted from [the first] letter,” while not retreating from its sentiments.
The media coverage that ensued ignored the moral quotient of the rabbis’ original letter. The headline in Haaretz said, “N.Y. shul rabbis backtrack on support for Palestinian UN bid.” Other articles described the rabbis as “chastened,” apologetic, pleading for “forgiveness” or issuing a “mea culpa.”
That people’s behavior is informed by their experience and emotions is obvious. Yet for years now, millions of Jews, Israeli and otherwise, have turned a blind eye to the feelings of Palestinians, refusing to consider the strain of living under occupation, the burdens of statelessness, their hunger for national dignity or how their frustration at their own inept leaders and humiliation at the hands of the IDF might have influenced not just their UN bid but how they behave in the world.
Think about times when you’ve felt powerless and hopeless; imagine what it must be like to be a decent person who is routinely debased and treated like a potential terrorist, whose pain is denied and freedom of movement hobbled. Then multiply your anger and frustration a thousandfold and you may begin to understand why the UN’s largely symbolic vote meant so much to the Other.
Whatever our opinion of the Israel-Palestine conflict, we must not let the thought police drain us of the rachmanes that makes us Jewish and the empathy that makes us human.