A Tale of Two Rabbis as Passover Draws Near

By Donna Nevel

An event is taking place in New York City on April 4th to discuss the following questions: Is Israel—or can it be—a democracy? Is there—or can there be—equality in Israel? Can a Jewish state be democratic? The current realities in Palestine/Israel, and deep concerns about justice and equality, make this conversation urgent. Two high-profile rabbis in New York City played key, and starkly contrasting, roles as the planning for this event unfolded.

One rabbi did not want the conversation to happen at all—at least not in any space over which he had control.The very mention of BDS in the flyer announcing the event—that this panel had grown out of questions asked at an earlier panel on BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions]—made the conversation, in his words, “beyond the pale;” it was not going to take place in his “home.” And so he had his assistant cancel the contract the synagogue had signed to rent out its space for the event. (Only when we held him to account with his contractual liability did he grudgingly back down, telling us he wished we would go elsewhere and demanding that we not use the name of the synagogue even as part of the address in our promotional materials lest the synagogue suffer “reputational harm” for which we would be held responsible.)

But there is another rabbi in this story—the one who opened her arms and her synagogue and said: “I am disturbed by the trend in the Jewish community to censor discussions about Israel and Palestine. I feel like it’s my moral responsibility to make sure this burning issue that’s facing us as a Jewish people gets a complete debate and discussion.”

What is the message we want to convey to our children during this Passover season, a holiday that embodies a commitment to asking questions and pursuing freedom and justice? Do we want them to learn that being Jewish means shutting down conversations that might challenge us to act more ethically? That some questions about what we do and how we treat others are “beyond the pale” and so we must not address them together as a community? Or do we want them to experience being Jewish as encouraging honest and genuine and open discussion about hard issues that might help us discover how we can support what is just and what is right? Which rabbi’s words would we like to resonate with our children?

As the Israeli occupation becomes more and more entrenched, as basic civil liberties and human rights are increasingly being eroded, and as the Israeli government continues its expansionist policies in the name of the Jewish people, aren’t questions like the ones above screaming for our attention? As the Palestinian people continue to struggle for liberation, we can and should demand no less from our rabbis and from our institutions than a full commitment to asking these tough and urgent questions and challenging ourselves about the ways we can most meaningfully participate in pursuing justice. And what better time to insist upon this than during Passover?
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Donna Nevel, a community psychologist and educator, is a long-time organizer for Palestinian/Israeli peace and justice. She is one of 15 cosponsors of a program on April 4th being held at 7 PM at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City.