A Message from the President: Next Week in Jerusalem

Sunday, October 25, 2015

My family and I began last week in Europe, visiting with my son who is studying abroad for the semester in London. Even as we enjoyed the museums and history that make European cities so delightful, my eyes strayed frequently to my smartphone to follow reports of the building tension in Israel and to keep in regular contact with our team in Jerusalem. By Wednesday afternoon, I had heard enough, and I booked a flight to spend Shabbat with our community at our Jerusalem campus.

First thing Friday morning I met with our dean, staff and students, followed by a walk around West Jerusalem to assess the situation. There is palpable tension in the streets of the city, and the situation is not simple. Because of the atomized nature of the current attacks, more police and soldiers are now on the street corners, people are focused warily on everyone around them and passengers are somewhat jittery on public transportation. At the same time, the cafes are busy, young and old are strolling the streets, the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall and Mahane Yehuda (the Jewish market area). It is that strange mélange of normalcy and difference that has happened so many times in Israel’s recent past.

On campus, I enjoyed touring an exciting new exhibition that is part of the Jerusalem Bienniale at our beautiful Skirball Archaeology Museum. There, I heard our own Dr. David Ilan, Director of our Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology, engage with the curator, a prominent Orthodox artist, as a group toured the collection. Together they told riveting stories of history and contemporary art amidst ancient artifacts and modern reinterpretations standing side by side. At its opening a few weeks ago, hundreds of attendees visited the exhibition from sectors of Israeli society never before seen on our campus. This is just one of the many ways our Jerusalem campus is reinventing itself and expanding its relationship with the community around it. Culture and creativity offer a healthy alternative to the current state of disquiet.

Most importantly, our students continue to face this challenging situation with strength and commitment. Our outstanding team in Jerusalem provides regular updates, shapes the activities and travel of our students, and does everything possible to ensure their continued wellbeing. In my time with our students last Shabbat, the conversation focused on questions of Jewish leadership: How do I speak with my friends in North America about this situation so that they may understand it from a distance?  What can we do to help college students truly comprehend what is going on in Israel? And, how do Jewish leaders deploy themselves to help make long term change to this ongoing situation? These questions touched me deeply, and it bodes well for our community that this is what is on the minds of these emerging leaders of Reform Judaism and the Jewish people.

The main question remains, however: what will it look like next week in Jerusalem? What is the future of this situation? With the Middle East in turmoil, with Syria continuing to disintegrate and a refugee crisis growing more widespread, with ISIS and other terrorist groups and the looming longer term threat of Iran, what can we expect in the weeks ahead? Truthfully, it is hard to predict. The strong and justifiable response to each of the terrorist stabbings may create enough of a deterrent to reduce the number and severity of future attacks. At the same time, the mounting frustration and hopelessness of Palestinians and some Israeli Arabs may continue to spark further spasms of violence. The Temple Mount, in particular, has become a significant flashpoint that has the power to inflame and prompt violence, especially when coupled with the vast power of social media.

We live in an increasingly extremist world. In my thinking, our role as Reform Jews around the world is to ensure that the moderates never lose a profound and important public voice. The true danger in this situation rests in the ongoing acts of extremists on both sides, those who make no effort to examine the situation for the hope that may still reside within it. When some believe that there can absolutely never be any form of peaceful co-existence, all that is left is to work only for warped goals of harm to others through any means possible. Let me be clear: I do not believe in any way that there is a moral equivalence between those who commit terrorist acts and those who appropriate land from others for political gain, but we must acknowledge that both of these activities do lead to increased violence. We can only move forward when both sides acknowledge the claims and pain of the other and take real steps to compromise through a deep understanding of both sets of claims. It is only when we work together on education and economic opportunity, on improving safety and quality of life on both sides, and on seeing the problems and the opportunities of coexistence, that we can actually make progress together.

The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once spoke of segregation in the American South as the substitution of an “I-It” relationship for an “I-Thou.” He meant to say, I think, that if you never truly know the human beings on the other side of a conflict, if they are nothing more than an “It” to you, then you can ignore their humanity, and then, in a sense, anything goes, even the worst acts of violence.

Let us continue to be a voice for learning about the other, for replacing “I-It” with “I-Thou,” for analyzing what limits our ability to co-exist and removing it, for seeking understanding and eschewing the demonization and marginalization of those with whom we disagree. Of course, we must always be diligent to ensure the safety of our people, but it must be done in the context of ensuring the dignity and safety of every human being, and moving toward a long-term future of peaceful coexistence. When we raise our voices to do this, we help ensure that the next week in Jerusalem will be better than the last. 

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu