The Tangled Rope: Rabbi Freedman Yom Kippur Sermon 5782/2021

Imagine a tangled rope. A lump of knots and twists with two ends sticking out. If we want to untangle the rope, we can’t just pull on the ends – in fact that will make it even worse. We need to work our way through the tangle, through the knots, slowly, delicately, painstakingly, intricately untying and unweaving until the rope is untangled.

Today, for me, that tangled rope is the current conversation about the line between anti-Israel criticism and antisemitism. And the more we pull at the ends of that tangled rope, the worse it gets.  With inflammatory comments on either side of the political spectrum like, “Ben and Jerry are antisemites,” or “Israel is committing genocide,” we are simply pulling on the ends of the rope and causing more knots, more pain, and more division in our community. To untangle this rope, we need to be in relationship with one another, listen, dialogue, and be open to nuance beyond polarizing soundbites.

One of my favorite parts about being in a large, diverse congregation is our varying opinions that reflect our different life experiences. We are taught in the Talmud (Berakhot 58a:3) that when seeing a large group of Jews we say the blessing, “Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Sovereign of all, Who knows secrets.” Why? Because, the Talmud continues, “God sees a whole nation whose minds are unlike each other.” Our myriad of opinions are literally a blessing. 

I am excited to share that we recently convened a renewed Israel Engagement Task Force*, here, at Rodeph Shalom to learn from each other and help untangle the rope. We just held our first meeting and used the time together to simply share and listen. We heard stories such as a life changing visit to the Kotel/the Western Wall, or living in Israel during the Yom Kippur War. I shared my own story about my first time in Israel as a teenager and the immense feeling of Jewish pride and connection when my brother became a bar mitzvah on the top of Mt. Masada. I shared the story of how my wife’s grandparents fell in love in Tel Aviv shortly after the Holocaust. And I shared about seeing Israel anew through the eyes of our Rodeph Shalom teens as they discovered this complicated country for themselves on one of our congregational trips. 

Our renewed task force is not working in a vacuum and in addition to our congregational voices, we are working closely with the URJ’s Israel Leadership Network, “a network of lay and professional leaders coming together to further the Reform Movement’s connection to Israel and Reform Zionism.” 

Reform Zionism is the belief in both Israel’s right to exist and security and the Paelstinian’s right to self-determination. After the conflict in Gaza last spring, Rabbi Maderer wrote an opinion piece in The Inquirer entitled, “My empathy for Palestinians does not diminish my devotion to Judaism.” She writes: 

“Any positions that entirely demonize one side or the other miss the humanity in both; any positions that entirely affirm the pure right of one side or the other miss the responsibility in both. Devotion both to Israel’s right to exist and the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, as taught by Reform Zionism… is not often appreciated by the far right or the far left. Moderation does not lack a stance; it denies the extremists and rejects a false binary model, holding space for multiple narratives and histories.”

The extremists that Rabbi Maderer writes about are pulling on the ends of the rope, refusing to accept multiple narratives. Reform Zionism is in the middle, trying to untangle the knot. So let’s get into the tangle. The line between anti-Israel comments and antisemitism has become blurred to much of society and we must clearly mark what is acceptable criticism and what is not. 

Let me begin by stating as clearly as possible, criticism of Israel is not automatically antisemitic. On multiple occasions, our congregation has invited civil rights activist Anat Hoffman, one of the fiercest critics of Israeli policy, who shines a light on the human rights abuses committed by the state against Arab-Israelis, women, and progressive Jews. Anat Hoffman is not an antisemite. We heard from former IDF soldiers as part of the group Breaking the Silence who spoke about the pain of seeing Palestinians suffer while serving in the West Bank. Those soldiers are not antisemites. And myself and other members of our clergy have spoken about policies of the Israeli government that go against our Jewish values. We are not antisemites. 

However, there are many instances when criticism of Israel crosses the line and clearly becomes antisemitism. One framework for determining if criticism of Israel is antisemitic is the “3D” test conceived by Natan Sharansky. The three D’s are:


Double Standards. 

And Demonization.

When people deny only the Jewish people’s right to self determination; when they characterize a return to our homeland of 3,000 years as a racist, white-colonialist endeavor and call into question Israel’s very right to exist — this Delegitimization is antisemitism.

When the United Nations human rights council calls out Israel for half of all their human rights condemnations — more than the resolutions against the regimes of Syria, Iran and North Korea combined, this Double Standard is antisemitism.

And when the Israeli Defense Force is characterized as terrorists, or Nazis, wantonly killing Palestinians in a “genocide,” this Demonization is antisemitism.

Delegitimization: the denial of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.

Double Standards: a different moral standard for Jews and Israel compared to the rest of the world.

And Demonization: the portrayal of Israel and Jews as evil, demonic, or other sinister stereotypes.

This summer, Ben and Jerry’s made the controversial decision to no longer sell its ice cream in West Bank settlements. While some applauded the decision and others criticized it, it is actually incredibly nuanced and a good example of the tangle that is the Israel debate in our Jewish community and beyond. In the spirit of understanding multiple perspectives let’s take a look at this tangled knot. 

I’m still not sure where I fall on this debate exactly but let me lay out some of the issues as I see them. First, this boycott only applies to West Bank Settlements – not all of Israel. This action is not the same as the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction) movement which often seeks to boycott all of Israel and ultimately, for many in the movement, to deny Israel of its right to self-determination. While our congregation does not support BDS because of these deceptive goals, the nuanced approach of only boycotting West Bank Settlements, while still selling ice cream in the rest of Israel, is actually a good refection of our Reform Zionist postion.

Second, any settlement boycott that applies only to the West Bank raises questions of targeting Israel with a double standard. I don’t know if Ben and Jerry’s sells ice cream in Tibet or Crimea or Western Sahara, and even if it does, it is legitimate for people to care about some issues more than others. I don’t find it to be automatically antisemitic that someone is more emotionally invested in what happens to Palestinians than what happens to Uighurs.

Third, a one-size-fits-all approach to settlements makes for bad policy, and that applies here as well. Not all settlers are hardline fundamentalist who believe that the entirety of the Biblical Land of Israel including the West Bank and Gaza are Divinely promised to the Jewish people. Some settlers are just average Israelis like you and me who are trying to buy a decent house in the suburbs and provide for their families. Decades of Israeli government policy, irrespective of which party was in power, promoted West Bank settlements that abut the Green Line and provided incentives for people to move there. These so-called ‘quality of life settlements,’ that the Palestinians are willing to cede to Israel as part of a land swap, are not the same as ideologically-driven, toxic, settlements deep inside the West Bank that are nefariously designed to destroy Palestinian contiguity. 

Lastly, given the history of boycotts against Jews, this is a sensitive topic. Comparing Ben and Jerry’s to Nazis is outrageous; denying Chunky Monkey to settlers is not the Nuremberg Laws or Kristallnacht, no matter how many people in your social media feed appear to think otherwise. Still, that does not negate the fact that there is a long and ugly history of boycotting Jews and restricting their economic activities.

Now the problem with all I just laid out – it won’t fit into a pithy social media post. While social media can be a tool for real dialogue, often it is used to oversimplify issues and lacks the subtlety that is needed to have an authentic conversation about a very complex issue.

Holding space for multiple perspectives requires empathy – listening to others and learning from them. Among the litany of sins that we communally confess today in our vidui is the sin of being stubborn. We chant in our ashamnu prayer, “keesheenu oref/We have been stubborn.” But keesheenu oref literally means “stiff-necked.” We are unable, unwilling to turn our heads to see another person. We are unwilling to look our friend, our neighbor, in the eye and seek to understand their point of view. We have refused to have empathy for others’ narratives. We have refused to be willing to bend, to change our opinions in light of new information. We have been fearful and acted based on our insecurities, which drive us to care only about our security. We have refused to grow or learn. Keesheenu oref/We have been stiff-necked. 

Our communal confession reminds us that we are one community and that we are all responsible for each other. And we have a responsibility to engage with Israel; to learn, to visit, to hear the stories, and to truly understand for ourselves. I love Israel; the land, the people, the culture, the food, the discomfort, the challenges, and the discourse. I pray that all of us can find our own connection to Israel as well this year.

We have space in our community for a multifaceted perspective of Israel and sharing those differing narratives with one another is what brings our community closer together. Let’s stop pulling on the ends of the rope. Let’s untangle the rope together. 

Shanah Tovah

*To join the Israel Engagement Task Force, contact Ned Hanover