On Yom Kippur, leading rabbi says she would not hire rabbinical students who signed letter critical of Israel

On Yom Kippur last week, Reform Rabbi Angela Buchdahl declared from her New York pulpit that she was “angry and embarrassed” by a letter signed by 94 rabbinical students during the Gaza fighting last May that criticized Israel for “violent suppression of human rights” and enabling “apartheid.” And Buchdahl said, “I would not want to hire anyone who signed that letter.

Buchdahl made the pronouncement to her Central Synagogue congregation Sept. 16, recorded here. Her sermon during Kol Nidre service of the most solemn Jewish holiday was about the “discomfort” of dissension in a religious community, and the importance of debate.

I experienced some of this discomfort myself recently. Last May I traveled to Israel on a UJA mission [UJA-Federation is largest Jewish organization] of New York rabbis right after the ceasefire. Israeli Jews described to us their terror of having to rush their families into bomb shelters in the middle of the night. Palestinians and Jews who had worked for years to create a shared society saw their fragile trust shattered overnight.

I felt like I was there to sit shiva with the country.

In the midst of all this a letter signed by 90 rabbinical students made front page news in Israel. I understood why they were upset. I too feel frustrated by the continued occupation and its costs.

But I was struck by how the letter accused Israel of violent suppression of human rights and quote enabling apartheid. I was also struck by what the letter didn’t say. It was silent on the terrorist leadership of Hamas and its 4000 rockets, it was devoid of any historical context and there was not one expression of compassion or empathy for Israeli Jews.

I was angry and embarrassed that in this moment these students would choose to send this message. Before I filed the letter away, and I’m not proud of this, I thought to myself I would not want to hire anyone who signed that letter. I also knew that dismissing these students was not the answer. It wasn’t very rabbinic on my part and it wasn’t very Jewish. I was pulling up the ladder on a large swath of future Jewish leaders. And I’m not just talking about those rabbinical students but our own kids too.

So many of you have told me that it’s become impossible for you recently to have a conversation with your children or your grandchildren about Israel. But the answer is not to shut the next generation down but to engage with them more deeply, to listen to them and push back and wrestle until the matter becomes clearer to everyone.

The future of our Jewish community depends on it, and I daresay the future of our democracy… I cannot think of a more important time in our country to promote the Jewish idea of respectful disagreement… The world has become frighteningly polarized.

Questioning is sacred. Dissent is productive. If you start to debate you might discover something that transcends the binary.

Buchdahl did not return to the rabbinical letter. You could imagine her saying, “I commit to you that I will love these students and I will hire them, whether they recant or not. I welcome their dissident voices.” But she concluded by likening them to anti-vaxxers and urged congregants to talk about such difficult matters.

This year instead of turning away from those difficult conversations, could we speak to that friend who is not comfortable getting vaccinated, ask that colleague why she opposes the right to an abortion… inquire why your neighbor supports defunding the police. Ask your fellow congregant why he supports a one-state solution.

Nearly forty percent of young American Jews believe that Israel is practicing apartheid, according to recent polling.

But Buchdahl was letting slip a policy that many Jewish organizations maintain, not to hire or give a platform to those who question Zionism. Her opinions are standard among the older, established Jewish community; and she speaks to her congregation as the parents and grandparents of these students. Her sermon functions as a kind of blacklist. The experience of many anti-Zionist rabbis is that they are unhirable in synagogues unless they hide their advocacy for racial equality in Israel/Palestine.

The letter Buchdahl found so embarrassing was titled “Rabbinical and Cantorial Students Appeal to the Heart of the Jewish Community.” Signed by 94 students, it stated that the Jewish community should have a crisis over Israel’s conduct.

Our political advocacy too often puts forth a narrative of victimization, but supports violent suppression of human rights and enables apartheid in the Palestinian territories, and the threat of annexation. 

It’s far past time that we confront this head on.

So many of us ignore the day-to-day indignity that the Israeli military and police forces enact on Palestinians, and sit idly by as Israel upholds two separate legal systems for the same region. And, in the same breath, we are shocked by escalations of violence, as though these things are not a part of the same dehumanizing status quo. 
The current reality, in the streets of a land our tradition deems holy, necessitates a spiritual crisis. A spiritual crisis requires more than prayer. It requires heartbreak, which demands reflection, which then demands action.

Buchdahl misrepresents the letter. It included statements of compassion.

With each refresh of the news and each rocket that falls, new images of terror sear themselves into our minds. We find ourselves in tears. 

 For many, we experience heartbreak over and over again with each new injustice. 

For these things [we] weep. (Lamentations 1:16)

It included historical context.

When we teach about Israel, we can endeavor to tell the messy truth of a persecuted people searching for safety, going to a land full of meaning for the Jewish people, full of meaning for so many other peoples, and also full of human beings who didn’t ask for new neighbors.

Buchdahl’s delegation arrived in Israel nine days after the letter made headlines in the times of Israel, May 15. The newspaper called it “a landmark collaboration across American seminaries,” though noting that the signatories were from non-Orthodox rabbinical schools. 

The letter was clearly enabled by reports that Israel is practicing apartheid from two leading human rights organizations, B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch, in February and April respectively. Then in May Israel unleashed a bombing campaign in Gaza that killed more than 250. In the same conflict, 13 Israelis died. It prompted unprecedented political protest in the U.S.

The recent poll of Jewish attitudes shows that 20 percent of all American Jews support “Establishing one state that is neither Jewish nor Palestinian, and includes Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza under a single government elected by Israelis and Palestinians.” A majority of 61 percent support a two-state solution, while 19 percent support annexation of the West Bank.

H/t Allison Deger.

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