In the early 1980s when I served as the Associate Rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, I had come to the conclusion that a two-states for two-peoples end-of-conflict resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the only way that Israel could remain Jewish and democratic. The year was 1983 and Menachem Begin was Prime Minister of Israel. Only 9 years earlier the pro-Israel Breira organization made up mostly of American liberal Rabbis advocated for the same resolution and was drummed out of existence by the American Jewish establishment.
In 1983 I wanted to explain to my congregation why I supported the creation of a Palestinian State alongside a secure State of Israel, but because I was a young junior rabbi I called my childhood rabbi for advice. Rabbi Leonard Beerman had never been averse to controversy. He had fought in Israel’s War of Independence, marched with MLK, was among the very first American rabbis to protest the Vietnam War, and earlier than almost anyone else supported the Palestinians in their quest for statehood. For all this he was denied the Presidency of the Central Conference of American Rabbis when he was nominated.
Leonard told me; “John, I am already at the end of my congregational rabbinate and you are starting out. You will feel badly no matter what you do. I think you ought to be circumspect. Your day will come. Be patient.”
I heeded his counsel and said in my Rosh Hashanah sermon only that the most significant moral problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was that there are two peoples who have legitimate claims to the same land.
After services concluded a number of synagogue leaders gathered to greet one another outside my Senior Rabbi’s study. A group of three Israelis approached and one of them, who happened to be the chairman of the Likud party of Tel Aviv, lost all semblance of civility and lunged at me. Thankfully, the synagogue president jumped between us and averted what would probably have been a powerful right to my jaw.
I recall the incident because ever since I wrote an op-ed column in March for The Los Angeles Jewish Journal expressing why I support J Street, a controversial left-leaning pro-Israel pro-peace political organization in Washington, D.C., there has been a constant flow of very nasty emails to me at Temple Israel by one man in particular, not a synagogue member.
Granted, one person sending vicious emails is not such a terrible thing to endure. I deleted his emails after the first couple, and eventually I had them all blocked. Out of sight, out of mind. However, for some reason in the last 2 weeks our Temple email system underwent some change and his emails began streaming into my in-box again. I was, frankly, dumbfounded that this guy was still at it. Though I am not worried for my safety, I have noticed that his tone has worsened. One accused me of contributing to the genocide of the Jewish people, and a second put me in league with Hamas.
Obviously, the sender is disturbed; but he is not alone in his intolerance and hatred for views with which he disagrees relative to Israel.
When Jeremy Ben-Ami (the founder and President of J Street) and David Suissa (a columnist for The LA Jewish Journal and The Huffington Post) spoke at Temple Israel in April before 600 people from throughout the LA Jewish community what was most striking was the civility of the event and the respectful way Jeremy and David dialogued. Both acknowledged that the other is pro-Israel even as they disagreed on fundamental issues.
As the September 21 vote in the UN General Assembly and possibly the Security Council on the Palestinian Statehood resolution approaches, we are likely to see the vitriol from the extreme right-wing intensify. We need to remember what the rabbis of the Talmud taught; that the reason for the destruction of the Second Temple was sinat chinam, groundless hatred of one Jew for another. The way our people behaves here and in Israel will help to determine the very character of the State of Israel. We all need to keep our heads.