V’etchanan: listen and then love

I’ll admit it… I did not want to listen.

Two months ago, when a letter signed by more than 60 rabbinical students from a variety of rabbinical schools claiming that Israel holds an apartheid system was published, I decided to put it aside.

At that time, I felt that I needed to focus my attention on other things: Family and friends were in shelters in Israel, our youth here in the United States were dealing with baseless accusations in their schools, and there was a lot of confusion around the community regarding the context of what was happening.

Now, two weeks ago I read a newly published survey done by the Jewish Electoral Institute, and the first thing that came to my mind was the letter of the Rabbinical students back in May.

The survey found that 25% of American Jews believe that Israel is an apartheid state and 

 22% that Israel is guilty of genocide. Now this is a single survey and it is too early to take its input as a hard fact, however it is not too early for us  to recognize that we are witnessing a trend that requires serious introspection from us.

After reading the survey, Dr Tomer Persico, a Research Fellow at the Hartman Institute, published on his social media that the Jewish community in the US is experiencing an earthquake.

I wish he was right because that would mean that we are listening and reacting to this very concerning news, but regrettably I think he is wrong because it wasn’t the survey that moved us the most. Last week instead of discussing the meaning of this trend we mostly watched pictures of Ice cream in trash cans! As if right now, our biggest challenge was the decision of Ben & Jerry’s to stop selling their products in Judea and Samaria!  As I was following this topic in social media, at some point it felt to me that we preferred to focus on the Ice cream boycott, which is somehow external to us and we can not really control, rather than have a serious conversation about what’s happening to us internally. 

In the Sidra (Torah portion) this week we read: Shema Israel! Listen O Israel! Followed by “V’ahavta” you shall love. Love comes from listening. Love is born in an awareness that eradicates obliviousness and indifference.

Our love for Israel and for the Jewish people should lead us to exercise and nurture our listening skills.

Over the course of the last two decades 750,000 people have traveled to Israel through the generosity of the Birthright program. The contribution of Birthright is invaluable. However, it is a consensus among Israel educators that Israel education should start years earlier. Teenagers start to shape their world views years before they go to college. 

Furthermore, we know that too many high schools and colleges across the United States give space to toxic and one-sided narrative regarding Israel. 

Now, it’s not surprising that often the first time that our children hear about the complexities between Israelis and Palestinians is not from us, because conversing about Israel in our communities has become a Taboo. And so, we shouldn’t be surprised that some of them hold on to the same argument that we believe is so fundamentally false. 

Often our education and our conversations tend to eradicate complexities, as an attempt to avoid discomfort within our communal households. When this applies to our Israel education, a common outcome of the approach is the creation of an “in love” state of mind toward the state of Israel. Now, being in love is a great feeling but  is not enough for a lasting relationship, and very often the next step to that status is disappointment, frustration and break-up. 

So how do we move from the “in-love” status into a loving relationship?

“Love comes from listening. Love is born in an awareness that eradicates obliviousness and indifference”.

We must expand our conversations and our listening within our household. And for that purpose, let’s get back to Ben and Jerry’s. Rabbi Shai Held posted on his Facebook: 

“For so long I have heard so many friends accuse BDS of being unable to make a distinction between the occupied territories and the state of Israel as a whole. And now it turns out that the pot was calling the kettle back. Can it really be the case that so many of my friends think there is no legitimate way to both criticize the occupation and try to actually do something concrete to try to end it?”

Let’s divide this idea in two parts. First, the BDS is by all means an anti-semite organization and if their vision was fulfilled there would be no more a Jewish state. 

On the other hand, from a very Zionist standpoint, you can oppose the presence of the state of Israel in Judea and Samaria. So, even though I personally disagree with this decision of Ben and Jerry’s and I don’t believe it brings any improvement to an already very difficult situation, I recognize that many Zionists who love Israel no less than I do, see this decision as an act of pressure toward a better Israel. 

The dialogue that recognizes the nuance and the complexity of the situation and at the same time the diversity of our opinions is indeed a very difficult one.

Now, the same Shema, the same V’ahavta – you shall love – text that we read in this Torah portion tells us that we shall share this teaching with our children. Avoiding the dialogue shouldn’t be an option for us, because when we shut down this conversation, when we decide that it doesn’t belong in our house of study, then we enter the cycle of avoiding discomfort, which perpetuates a failing educational model. 

So here are two ideas I believe can help us start breaking this cycle:

First, let’s decide that we will listen. Let’s decide that listening is not just to what we like to hear, it also means to engage in what is uncomfortable to us. Let’s acknowledge that when we refrain from that engagement then the Mitzvah of sharing teachings with our children is not fulfilled by us, and instead of getting a nuanced narrative from us they get a one-sided perspective from someone else. 

Second, Let’s urge our congregations and our federations to engage in multi-generational, nuanced, Israel education. Let’s assure that our organizations don’t reduce their Israel activism and education to condemning the BDS, but they rather become agents that help us develop the kind of listening awareness from which true love is born. 

Shabbat Shalom

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