Where You Stand and What You Hear

Thoughts Regarding Israel AdvocacyI have just returned from the Policy Conference of AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee). This year’s convention was particularly exciting and provocative. Beyond the speakers of notoriety and prominence, however, I left the conference with a clearer and deeper sense of what it means to support and advocate for Israel. Indeed, that is the explicit mission of AIPAC.  Simply put, AIPAC is about knowing where you stand.

At the beginning of Parashat Bamidbar we read of the census of the People taken by Moses. In those first verses of the parasha, a familiar image is described.  In counting the people, each person would stand with his family, each family with its clan and each clan with its tribe: “Ish ‘al macahaneihu v’ish ‘al diglo – each person in his place, standing behind his flag”. In the Torah reading, there is a great deal of detail provided in describing the location of each family, clan and tribe and regarding how the Children of Israel oriented themselves around the “Ohel Mo’ed”, the Tent of Meeting. There are similar scenes elsewhere in the Torah, describing the arrangement of those standing around the Tent of Meeting, for the purposes of a military census. Everyone has a place to stand, knows his place, and knows who stands at his side. The gathering for the purposes of the census is described in objective and dispassionate terms. Each person stands in his place. This sort of description contrasts starkly with the description of the original gathering of the Jewish people in the desert, when the people stood at the foot of Mount Sinai.

After arriving at the foot of Mount Sinai, following the crossing of the Red Sea, the people were instructed by Moses to prepare themselves: “VeHig’balta et ha’Am Saviv” .  Here, there is no instruction given regarding where each person should stand. God simply instructed Moses to create a boundary beyond which the people must not go, “VaYityatzev BeTachtit HaHar“. And so, the people amassed near, but not too close, to the foot of the mountain in order to listen to God’s voice. According to the Midrash (Mechita) as God spoke, each person heard and understood that voice differently, each according to his or her intellect, strength and perspective. At Sinai, the people stood where they wanted, next to whomever they desired, each listening limited by their own capacity, outlook and according to their unique abilities and strengths. The experience at Sinai was a personal as well as a communal experience. Each person understood and perceived the message in his/her own, individual way.

The contrast between Bamidbar and Sinai is obvious. When the people stood around the Tent of Meeting, the description of that experience was clear and unambiguous. Each person knew where to stand and stood in that place. Perspective, intellect or strength did not affect where a person stood. At Sinai, on the other hand each person chose his own place to stand. Each person heard and experienced the Voice, the message and the mandate in his/her own individual way. These two experiences, Bamidbar and Sinai, create the tension and, at times the confusion, about the difference and significance between two notions, between where we stand, on the one hand, and what we hear and believe on the other. And today, nowhere is that distinction more important than in our support of and advocacy for Israel.

This year’s AIPAC conference was a gathering of 10,000 individuals of all stripes.  The highlight of the gathering took place on the last evening, Monday evening, as the members of the Congress of the United States were honored at the closing banquet. That festive dinner included 10,000 meals of which 3645 were served with the dressing on the side. But, the diversity in the room was far greater than that. Gathered that evening in a single room were:

  • Democrats and Republicans
  • Independents and Tea Partiers
  • Seniors, college and high school students
  • Men and Women
  • Whites, African-Americans, Asians and Latinos
  • Jews and Christians
  • Religious and Secular
  • Scholars, Professionals and regular folk

Fully two thirds of each house of Congress, as well as the leadership of each house, attended that gala dinner. And, what united this vast and diverse group was certainly not their outlook on social issues, their political persuasions, their gender, their religion or anything else. What united this group was the fact that everyone in that room stood with Israel as Americans. Uniting us was a common bond of love which we shared for the State of Israel. We were united in our support for our common goals, our commitment to freedom, democracy and human rights and for the fact that America and Israel share common enemies as well. The message of AIPAC, expressed over and over, loud and clear, was that to support America, its goals and values means to support Israel

At the AIPAC convention there was certainly no consensus among those in attendance regarding how to achieve the goals for Israel which we all support. The people at that convention do not share opinions regarding specific policies or specific positions of the Government of Israel, nor do we share answers to the most pressing issues before us, namely, how to proceed, which way to go, in order to achieve our common goals. Despite the fact that Pres.Obama spoke in language which some considered provocative, there was no unified opinion regarding the President’s approach to the Middle East or regarding differences he may have with Prime Minister Netanyahu. What was emphasized by AIPAC was not position or policy but the fact that we all stand, shoulder to shoulder, with the citizens of Israel, without regard to specific policies or positions. In Israel, Israelis are firm, passionate and deeply divided regarding how to solve its problems and reach an equitable and just peace. Yet, when called on to defend Israel, Israelis stand together. Similarly, our focus at AIPAC is not to find consensus among the 10,000 attendees with respect to Israeli policy.  Rather, our goal is to lend our support to the effort to defend Israel. Like Israelis, we stand with Israel.

Israel advocacy is not about the specifics of policies nor the positions adopted by individuals or political parties in Israel. Israel advocacy is not about whether or not one agrees with Pres. Obama or with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Israel advocacy is about knowing where we stand with respect to our support for Israel. Israel advocacy means standing with Israel. It means recognizing that the bonds between our countries must be continually strengthened and reaffirmed. It is about expressing gratitude to the United States of America for its unwavering support of Israel. It is about helping, as Americans, to assure that the support of Israel by the Congress of the United States is continually renewed and strengthened. In short, one might say that Israel advocacy is about standing and being counted in the way that our ancestors were counted as in Bamidbar. Where we stand on particular policies and positions, how we view and understand Israel’s predicament and how we believe Israel can best achieve her goals, are personal, partisan issues.  These are the kinds of positions and issues which are resolved individually. They are resolved according to one’s perception of the world, the values and priorities which we cherish as individuals and according to the message and mandate as one understands it.  Like those who stood at Sinai, each of us today hears and understands differently.  And, as I see it, the American Jewish community has become confused over what it means to stand at Sinai and what it means to stand in Bamidbar. Specifically, advocating on behalf of Israel is about standing in Bamidbar, not about standing at Sinai.  Well intentioned are groups on the left and the right in this country, that confusion is clearly evident.

Z Street is among the latest political groups emphasizing strong support for the policies of the State of Israel. But in their support, they have created litmus tests which one must pass in order to be considered a strong supporter of Israel. If one opposes certain policies of the government, if one disagrees with the way in which democracy is expressed, or not expressed in Israel’s policies, one is considered beyond the pale.  One who does not agree with the policies of the Israeli government is not only castigated by Z Street.  One is considered to be not a supporter of Israel.

On the other side, J Street and its supporters believe that Israel would be best served by different policies regarding settlements, compromises and engagement. Their goal therefore, is to persuade and lobby the Congress of the United States to support policies different than those endorsed by the State of Israel and to pressure Israel and its government to support those policies and positions. This approach cannot be considered Israel advocacy.

In my opinion, individually and even among ourselves as Jews, we may dispute, disagree, and even denigrate the State of Israel. But in the end, support of Israel requires us to stand with the people and its democratically elected government. And so, when Z Street makes support of Israel a partisan issue, or when J Street tries to use American influence to pressure the government of Israel to change its policies, neither effort helps to increase consensus within the pro-Israel community. Each of these tactics is divisive, destructive and hurtful to Israel and many of her supporters. These organizations believe that standing with Israel is similar to standing at Sinai. I, however, believe that standing with Israel is like standing in Bamidbar. And for the security, safety and viability of the State of Israel to remain strong and unshakable, Israel needs all of us today standing with her, side to side, shoulder to shoulder as our ancestors did when they stood around the Tent of meeting. And, looking ahead to September and the UN vote regarding the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian State, Israel needs every one of her supporters to stand together with her.

We, in this country, who see ourselves as supporters and want to be advocates of Israel, must distinguish between Bamidbar and Sinai, between vision and approach, between principle and politics. Of course, each of us sees politics, policies and other subjective issues differently.  And we see these things passionately from our individual perspectives.  But to be an Israel advocate means, at times, that we must put our partisanship and personal perspectives aside in order to support a principle larger than any group or individual. That is the kind of support which AIPAC engenders.  This, in my opinion, is what it means to stand with and be an advocate for Israel.  This is what it means to support Israel’s right to defend herself and her right to fight for survival. This is what it means to stand with Israel, shoulder to shoulder, in her seemingly endless struggle for safety, security and peace.

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