A Reflection Following the AIPAC Policy Conference

By Rabbi Neil Sandler

April 2, 2019

Since I returned from the annual AIPAC Policy Conference last week, a few people have asked me, “So, how was AIPAC?” I find that to be an impossible question to answer in a few words. If you mean, “How were the logistics?” my response is, “Incredible! No one does it better than AIPAC!” If you mean, “Was it worthwhile to go?” my response is, “Absolutely! It is important for the pro-Israel community to annually gather.” But if you mean, “What are you taking away with you from the Policy Conference this year?” my response takes more than a few words.

While the annual AIPAC Policy Conference is largely positive, this year it is some of the negative experiences there that remain uppermost on my mind. I don’t think they portend anything of concern regarding AIPAC’s ability to fulfill its mission of maintaining a strong US-Israel relationship. However, I do think these experiences represent tendencies that I find of growing concern. And the one “feeds” the other. Let me explain.

AIPAC emphasizes its bi-partisan nature. Nonetheless, I understand why a growing number of people believe that AIPAC is a right-wing, Republican organization. Yet, as one whose politics are very different from such a description, I can attest to the fact that AIPAC is, indeed, a bi – partisan organization. But something troubled me at the Policy Conference this year. For the first time that I can recall, more than one speaker spoke in unmistakably disparaging terms about the “other” political party. That phenomenon was not bi-partisan in practice. It was entirely associated with a few representatives of one particular party who spoke in such ways about the other party or specific members of it.

That was unfortunate. But it’s worse. In a breakout session in which Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary participated, I came to see anew how such hyper-partisanship has impacted rabbis and the messages they share (or, more correctly, do not share) with their congregations.

Many of you will recall that, not so long ago, an annual Israel-related sermon was standard fare on the High Holidays. That annual given is becoming a thing of the past. Several years ago, the New York Times published a pre-High Holiday article about rabbis and the messages they would deliver on the High Holidays. In detail, the article shared that a growing number of rabbis were choosing not to speak about Israel because Israel had become “the third rail” in congregations, a divisive topic.

The AIPAC Policy Conference breakout session in which Dr. Eisen participated was on “Israel and Civil Conversation.” What Dr. Eisen added to my knowledge, rooted in that New York Times article, was the fact that rabbis report that leadership figures in their congregations now request they not speak about Israel! The hyper-partisanship of America that leads to outright rejection of opposing views is apparently invading our congregations. It shouldn’t be that way. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Rabbis are not op-ed writers or political commentators. Rabbis speak (and write) with the rich voice of our tradition. As the Talmud records the multiplicity of rabbinic voices, so our tradition puts forth a variety of perspectives on topics. When a rabbi speaks or writes about Israel today, (s)he properly adds an insight from our tradition to the other voices we read and hear. When rabbis stifle themselves in the name of precluding divisiveness, they help to give expression to a very superficial sense of “unity” in our congregations. Any perspectives from our Jewish tradition and how they may apply to Israel today remain unspoken and unconsidered…

And all of us are the worse for it. When it comes to Israel, rabbis who remain silent in the name of “unity” contribute to our spiritual impoverishment regarding the Land and State of Israel. Israel becomes a solely political entity (albeit which we still call “Jewish”) that we politely demur from considering in the synagogue because doing so might upset someone. The by-product of such silence is the sacrifice of our existential and spiritual ties with the land of our people. Yes, we know that Israel is a “safe haven” in case of need. Yes, we know that Israel is the land of our ancestors. Yes, we know it is “the Jewish Homeland.” But what does it really mean to us if it is a place that exists in the 21st century that you read or hear about, in sometimes troubling ways, only in the daily news?

In synagogues, places we think of as kehillot kedoshot (“sacred communities”), we ought to check hyper-partisanship and narrow thinking at the door. Instead of rejecting the validity of those whose opinions differ from our own, we must emulate the example of our Talmudic rabbis who listened to each other even when they vehemently disagreed with each other. In turn, those who serve as our spiritual leaders today in congregations ought to be given the tools and develop the confidence to share messages about Israel, rooted in the rich insights of our tradition. May our rabbis know that their messages are always heard, if not necessarily endorsed.