Thursday, September 25, 2014

Shanah Tovah: Reflections on a Rosh Hashanah Sermon

The Jewish New Year (in contrast to analagous versions of the holiday in many other cultures) is a time for reflection rather than celebration, the rabbis say. Not only is the day a "Yom Tov," (i.e. a "sacred day" on which Jewish Law prohibits working, driving or using most electronic implements) but the prayers repeatedly emphasize a cry for penitence for human sins, a demand that symbolically carries over into the afternoon ceremony of tashlich and the Yom Kippur holiday 10 days later. It is in this spirit that I seek to critically reflect on remarks made by Rabbi John Rosove during the Rosh Hashanah Schaharit service I attended this morning at Temple Israel of Hollywood.
Showing signs of both nervousness and distress as he began to speak, Rosove opened by expressing his desire to "talk about Israel," in light of the Gaza War.
 This seemed to begin the sermon that I had been hoping to hear, given the qualms I have developed about Israel's occupation and politics of aggression. Knowing Rabbi Rosove's membership in the Liberal Zionist group, J Street, I was expecting at least some honest reckoning with the Israeli government's cavalier actions (not only towards Palestinian civilians but Israeli soldiers) in the latest round of violence in Gaza.
Sure enough, Rosove, began his speech with a brief paean to the "one-thousand Palestinian civilian dead" in Gaza. But just quickly as he threw out the baby, so went the bathwater: "there is no doubting either," Rabbi Rosove averred, "that Hamas is an anti-semitic organization that would murder every Jew in the world if it could."
Oy! One of the most alarmist Hasbara statements that I have heard (since when has Hamas murdered Jews overseas?), which is surprising since I have so many Likud-leaning friends. Rabbi Rosove followed up by noting that Hamas had a "plot" involving the tunnels, that if successful, would see thousands of militants popping outside "Kibbutz dining halls across Southern Israel...on this day" (i.e. Rosh Hashanah), repeating another trope of the Israeli foreign ministry. Never mind that, as Larry Derfner points out, the "tunnels" were never used by Hamas until Israel attacked (i.e. that the tunnels served a offensive rather than defensive purpose").  Learning of this news, said the Rabbi, turned him from an opponent of the war (for "strategic reasons") into a supporter: from that point on, I gradually began to block out the rabbi's predictable language.
At one moment, the rabbi began to digress from more predictable Hasbara to an attack against "those who use the bully pulpit to determine who (what) is pro-Israel," a not so thinly veiled reference to the Stand With Us crowded. But only a few minutes later, in discussing the painful "division" that had emerged within the American Jewish community, Rosove (while addressing the "hawkish" and "moderate Zionist" as brothers) demanded that those "liberal universalists" in the community who supported the BDS movement, do so as "individuals, not as Jews."  So much for taking on the bullies, Rabbi.
As I listened, I could hardly believe that I was listening to a man considered one of the more liberal Rabbis in Los Angeles (and who at various times, in various capacities, has argued against the Occupation). On the one hand, I could see a generational perspective at work: coming of age in the wake of the Six-Day War, an episode in which Israel's survival seemed genuinely threatened, has carved a lasting (if not misleading) impression of Israel as the "Jewish" underdog. Furthermore, too many Jews-even those who position themselves as liberals, take the Israeli government's wartime propaganda as absolute truth rather than promotional material. Finally, since the year 2000, many "liberal zionists" (both in Israel and the Diaspora) have fallen for Ehud Barak's spurious mantra that Oslo failed due to a lack of a Palestinian "partner." As the years pass by and one misguided conflict flows into the next, these "disappointed" liberals too sadly entrench themselves in their hardnosed "realism." I thought this last war might have been a wake-up call for many, but rather I only see intensified bitterness, tribalism and misunderstanding.

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