Wednesday, December 05, 2007

If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem!

by Rabbi Michael J. Broyde

Michael Broyde is the Rabbi of the Young Israel in Atlanta, a law professor at Emory University, and a chaver in the Beth Din of America. Of course, none of these institutions neccessarily agree with the opinions expressed in this article.

This article is an elaboration on a shorter piece that was published this week in the Jewish Press by myself and Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein (link). Many of the thoughts contained in this expanded version are mine only, and present an elaboration and expansion of that essay. There are also a number of new ideas. Needless to say, Rabbi Adlerstein’s intellectual hand is present in this article, too, but he has – some would say wisely – chosen not to put his name on it.

Whether the Israeli government should consider returning part of Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority has become one of the hot topics of the day with many different American Orthodox organizations issuing stern pronouncements opposing even considering returning Jerusalem under any circumstances. I think many of these pronouncements and this posturing are mistakes on three different levels. The first is a matter of prudence, the second is as a matter of halacha, and the third is as a matter of American Orthodox Jewish policy.

Click here to read moreAs an opening matter, before discussing each of these three issues, it is important to frame the issue. Israel is at war in the Middle East on three different fronts, each of them undeclared, but quite real. It is at war with Hamas (and maybe even the Palestinian Authority) in the West Bank and Gaza; it is at war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and it is at war with Iran regarding its development of nuclear weapons. Activities completely normal and proper in peacetime are unwise in times of war. Calls for massive protests against possible Israeli decisions, no matter how compelling, have to be seen against this backdrop.

* * *

First, as a matter of prudence, American Jewry has to consistently broadcast a message of complete and total public support for the state of Israel. The Durban conference on racism in 2001 unleashed a torrent of anti-Semitism that had been suppressed since the Holocaust and made the hatred of Jews fashionable once again. While Israel succeeded in remarketing itself into a biotech giant and a go-to place for venture capital, the Arabs were busy doing their own rebranding of Israel. The relentless portrayal of Israel as an occupier and an aggressor has made Israel one of the most hated and detested countries on earth. Many campus faculties, labor unions, and church groups have been enlisted in a campaign to delegitimize the Jewish State. The combined depredations of President Carter, Walt and Mearsheimers’ book on the Israel Lobby, and others brought the battle to the United States this year in a larger sense than ever before. We used to hear trenchant criticism of the actions of Israel; today the rhetoric has shifted to criticizing and demonizing Israel’s very existence. This should be a profoundly sobering realization for all of us who care about Israel.

Differences of opinion abound within the Orthodox world on a range of topics regarding Israel. During wartime, such differences need to be muted. Left, right and center – all of us within the Orthodox world should understand that, as Martin Luther King once observed, when they talk about anti-Zionism, they mean the hatred of Jews. The Government of the State of Israel, like it or not, is seen by the vast majority of the population of this planet as the government of the Jews. We must realize this and understand how our words that criticize Israel can be misunderstood by others. Public advocacy against the policies of the government of Israel confuses supporters of Israel in general who see that even Israel’s most fervent advocates do not support the government of Israel. Many of Israel’s remaining supporters are genuinely confused by the internal divisions within American Jewry and by the diminished ardor that American Jews have for Israel. The Orthodox community functions as a model of commitment to Israel by those Jews who take their tradition and history more seriously. We should not abdicate that role. As a matter of prudence, the message of American Orthodoxy has to be that we fully and completely have unqualified support for the State of Israel and the American government needs to hear that in a very loud voice. If we need to express our concerns and indignations, we need to do so quietly (but forcefully) when the cameras are not upon us, the microphones are off and only the family is listening.

Failure to act as Israel’s unqualified advocate is also a message. It is not one Israel can afford. There are still tens of millions of people who respect Jews, the Jewish message, and wish to maintain good relations with us as a people. If we want their political support, they need to see that our hearts and souls are intertwined with the wellbeing of a land that is inseparably part of us.

We should also prepare ourselves for the possibility that the government of Israel will make choices that we might not fully support. If and when the people of Israel embrace options that we disagree with we should not become victims of our own rhetoric and be any less passionate in our support of the State of Israel even if we disagree with a particular decision. This last sentence is extremely important. We ought not make the division of Jerusalem an issue within our own community that is so important that if Jerusalem is divided, we walk away from our support of the State of Israel.

* * *

Second, as a matter of halacha, we need to firmly articulate our basic principles. There is no doubt that every Jew desires that every inch of the land that God gave us ought to be under Jewish control. We yearn for such a day, and we pray for Jewish sovereignty over all of the land of Israel. That is our ideal and the dictate of Jewish law. The reality is that achieving this goal does not seem to be possible without considerable cost – and that price is paid with the death of Jewish men and women, in the army and the general population of Israel.

Someday however, perhaps in a generation or two, maybe even in 2008, the other side will tire enough to value life over death, enough to stop spewing anti-Semitism in their classrooms and their airwaves, enough to recognize Israel’s right to exist, enough so that we no longer have to worry about Israel’s nuclear annihilation -- but not enough to completely give up their struggle without some territorial compromise on our part in return for genuine peace. What might that bring? Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l, said it eloquently and precisely in 1967
Indeed, we rejoice in the [capture of] the Western Wall, in the Cave of the Patriarchs, in Rachel’s tomb. I understand the holiness of the Western Wall. I want you to understand, I give praise and thanks to the Creator of the World for liberating the Western Wall and for liberating and for removing all Israel from the Arabs, so that it now belongs to us. But I don’t need to rule whether we should give the West Bank back to the Arabs or not to give the West Bank to the Arabs: we rabbis should not be involved in decisions regarding the safety and security of the population. These are not merely halachic rulings: these decisions are a matter of saving lives for the entire population. And if the government were to rule that the safety of the population requires that specific territories must be returned, whether I issue a halachic ruling or not, their decision is the deciding factor. If saving lives supersedes all other mitzvos, it supersedes all prohibitions of the Torah, especially saving the life of the community in Israel. I will say that as dear as the Western Wall is, the two million lives of Jews are more important.
We have to negotiate with common sense as the security of the Jews in Israel requires. What specifically these security requirements are, I don’t know, I don’t understand these things. These decisions require a military perspective which one must research assiduously. The borders that must be established should be based upon which will provide more security. It is not a topic appropriate for which Rabbis should release statements or for Rabbinical conferences.[1]

These remarks remain as valuable today as they were when the Rav presciently stated them forty years ago just after Jerusalem was reconquered. In the balance between settlement of the whole land of Israel and achieving genuine peace that saves Jewish lives, Rabbi Soloveitchik and many others (such as Rav Ovadya Yosef) think that long-term saving lives is more important, as a matter of Jewish law, than settling the whole land. Even those who do not agree with the fullness of this statement of halacha, agree that there is no need to endanger the whole of the state of Israel in order to seek to conquer the remaining portions. (There is clearly no obligation to conquer the whole of Israel at the cost of risking those parts that one already owns or the loss of the whole state through nuclear annihilation.)[2]

Of course, this view does not think that Israel ought to give back land NOW – and certainly not Jerusalem – without a real and tangible peace and a real partner in peace or real assurances that the concrete situation of Israel will be dramatically improved. But this view recognizes that when Israel encounters a genuine peace partner who seeks peace in the same way that we do, genuine territorial concessions, even of land that God promised us, is permitted by Jewish law in order to save lives. Thus, even if Yamit in the Sinai was part of the land of Israel’s biblical boundaries, halacha would sanction its return to Egypt as a price for peace with that neighbor. Indeed, we all see that the peace with Egypt was worthwhile and we are thankful that a successful land for genuine peace transfer took place

So too, this view recognizes that the threat of nuclear terror by Iran has to be factored into this calculus, and this calculation is exceeding complex and only for those deeply skilled and trained in this reality. Sometime a bad peace is better than a good war as a matter of tactics, timing and strategy. Very hard choices confront Israel on many different fronts and it is important that decisions that address matters of security correctly balance the many different fronts (Gaza, West Bank, Iran and Syria), along with the diverse factors (military, political, economic and social), and do so consistent with Israel’s global alliances (mostly with America).

Thus, the notion – sometimes advanced even by great Jewish organizations – that under no circumstances and no matter what the consequences, we ought never to consider returning parts of Jerusalem, is simply mistaken. On the contrary: The return of part of Jerusalem, like the amputation of the limb of a person, is mandatory when it is the best option available to preserve the state of Israel. And just as the decision to amputate is made by a doctor and not a rabbi, territorial decisions are to be made by authorized government leaders and military experts, not halachic authorities.

* * *

The third issue is as a matter of American Orthodox public policy. I am of the view that the American Orthodox community is generally best served by being publicly silent or supportive on matters of Israeli security. We are not sure of the new reality that Israel faces or the best path for its resolution. Situations that are not at all clear to most Israelis, however, seem to be obvious to the Orthodox Jews in America, and that is not the case.

In fact, if one thing is certain, it is that no one is clearly and consistently correct. No one has been shown to have an accurate predictive crystal ball that foretells the best decisions, and even the wisest of policy-makers seems to err in the Middle East. As one well-known policy advocate has stated, even a bad peace with the Palestinians will generate enough good will in the Arab world to allow military action against Iran, thus eliminating that threat to Israel’s existence. On the other hand, another astute policy advocate insists that the PA is completely incapable of making peace and no negotiations should take place, even about Ramallah, never mind Jerusalem. The variables are extremely complex and the knowledge available to the general public – even the well-informed – is very incomplete. That alone ought to cause individuals and organizations to hesitate before they issue categorical denunciations of policies and communications.

Thus, while Israelis are divided over what is best for Israel, American Jews need to recognize the inherent uncertainty in the situation and be supportive of the government of Israel on whatever it decides regarding matters of national security. Those who genuinely believe that they have a profound insight that Israeli military and political leaders have missed should contact Israel’s leadership privately and directly and not through public statements designed to coerce the Israeli government into one policy or another.

Let’s be even clearer. We American Jews live in the Diaspora as a matter of choice. Almost all of us could live in Israel if we really wished to. By staying here, we lose much of our right to advocate publicly, militantly or dogmatically against the policies of the government of Israel. Public advocacy of national security policies that are contrary to those of the government of Israel diminish us in three ways. First, it increases the likelihood that our foundational relationship with the state of Israel will be deeply eroded. Second, our own internal divisions increase the likelihood that policies that we all recognize to be bad for Israel will be adopted by the United States. Finally, it is genuinely unlikely that we outside of Israel are better able to craft policies that actually are more successful than those chosen by Israel’s own leaders. Furthermore, such conflicts confuse supporters of Israel in general who see that even Israel’s most fervent advocates do not support the government of Israel. I do not fear that American advocacy, either political or in the name of halacha, will actually sway the government of Israel on matters of national security – but I do worry that such advocacy diminishes American Jewry. What ought to be our role in America? We ought to advocate to the government of the United States – a firm and true supporter of Israel – that it should remain faithful to its historic support of Israel as America’s only true ally and the only democracy in the Middle East.

* * *

Given the clarity of the Jewish law, the obscurity of the facts, and the natural prudence present in this very complex situation, I think that the Jewish community in America – and particularly the Orthodox community in America – ought to change its policy and lower its voice.
Our first principle ought to be one of prudence, recognizing that the decisions are complex, the path uncertain, and that the duly elected government of Israel ought to be supported by the Orthodox Jewish community in America on matters of national security, once Israel makes a decision.

Our second principle ought to be that we seek policies which codify real peace, as these policies save the largest number of Jewish lives, and that we not seek policies which focus on the inherent sacredness of the land of Israel, no matter what the cost in Israeli blood.

Our third principle ought to be that to the extent that we American Jews feel a need to advocate policies, we ought to confine our advocacy to addressing the government of the United States, urging it to let Israel do as its own government thinks is wise.
As the conference in Annapolis concludes and real negotiations progress we need to recognize that the world is watching America and the people of America are watching American Jewry – and the eyes of Jewry are on the Orthodox community. We need to show our total and complete support for the State of Israel at this time with no reservations and no caveats. The State of Israel is America’s only true friend in the Middle East and if America’s Orthodox Jews do not provide Israel with its full and unqualified support, how can we ask the government of the United States to do that which we ourselves are not prepared to do?

[1] (I have translated the Rav’s Hebrew terms into English and the original can be found at: and the actual audio recording of the remarks of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik in Yiddish with simultaneous English translation can be found at
[2] For a deeper review of these issues, see Rabbi J. David Bleich “Of Land, Peace and Divine Command,” Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 16:56 (1988) and Rabbi J. David Bleich, “Withdrawal From Liberated Territories,” Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 18:101 (1989). For a detailed explanation of the view of Rav Avraham Shapira, see “A Rabbinic Exchange on the Gaza Disengagement” Tradition 40:1 17-44 (2007) and part II found at Tradition 40:1 49-70 (2007).

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