Standing up for the land

By Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Parashat Shelach Lecha

It can be tough to take what may seem like an unpopular position against very loud voices trying to shout you down. In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, a group of 12 Israelite scouts reconnoiter the land of Israel and come back to share their report with Moses and the people. Ten of the 12 scouts bring forth “dibbat ha’aretz” — spreading calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, opining that the country is “one that devours its settlers” and that “all the people that we saw in it are men of great size… we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:32-33). Only two of the 12 scouts — Caleb and Joshua — rejected this narrative and said that “the land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land… a land that flows with milk and honey… have no fear” (Numbers 14:7-9). And yet their message of hope and optimism was offered against a rising tide of cries amongst the Israelites who bought into the report of the 10 other scouts. Caleb and Joshua were forced to tear their clothes in mourning and even their very lives were imperiled as the whole community threatened to pelt the two of them with stones for standing up and calling on the Israelites to ignore these loud and negative voices and stay the course on their journey to the land of Israel.

This biblical story hits unnervingly close to home in light of the events of recent weeks. Israel was bombarded with over 4,400 rockets by Hamas during the latest hostilities, and yet myriad attacks against Israel in the war of public opinion have broadened the conflict to many fronts. This conflict has also enveloped Jews everywhere, in the form of a marked increase in antisemitism and antisemitic violence in the U.S. and worldwide. While these attacks are no doubt a different type of danger than indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, they also imperil Israel’s standing worldwide as a nation-state that is both Jewish and democratic in its nature. Even more alarming is the toll this “Instafada,” as some have dubbed the rapidly multiplying social media attacks on Israel, is taking on the American Jewish community, dividing it from within based on perceived loyalty tests and simultaneously undermining the seemingly increasingly fragile bond of Jewish peoplehood between American Jews and our Jewish homeland of Israel. As Rabbi Brad Artson, the dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, one of Conservative Judaism’s two U.S.-based rabbinical schools, recently commented in an open letter to the Forward, responding to the contents of an extremely concerning one-sided pro-Palestinian and effectively anti-Zionist/anti-Israel letter penned by more than 90 rabbinical and cantorial students from around the U.S.: “There wasn’t a word about Ahavat Yisrael — a love and solidarity with our fellow Jews in Israel, with the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in our own homeland, to the very real sacrifices this experiment in Jewish national self-expression has imposed from its inception.”

Doesn’t Israel have a right to exist? To defend itself from attack by a terrorist organization whose very foundational charter calls for the killing of Jews and obliterating Israel from the map? To offer safe haven for Jews experiencing antisemitism wherever they might live worldwide? To be treated like other democracies in the world rather than being held to a double standard, or, even worse, being compared unfavorably to totalitarian regimes? Why must so much of the current “analysis” of this incredibly complicated Israeli-Palestinian conflict devolve to overly simplistic, irrational and one-sided attacks on Israel? And isn’t it OK to feel intense pain and grief at the loss of human life on both sides of the conflict, while simultaneously emphatically holding Hamas responsible for putting both innocent Israelis and Palestinians in harm’s way? 

All these questions loom larger than ever right now as we struggle to make our side of the narrative heard against many loud voices trying to shout us down. Like our biblical ancestors Caleb and Joshua in their passionate disagreement with their fellow Israelite scouts, we cannot relent. We must continue to speak up and speak out tirelessly in defense of our Jewish homeland of Israel through whatever channels we can, within our community, in water-cooler conversations and on social media. The stakes could not be higher: The future of that promised land Caleb and Joshua saw flowing with milk and honey, and American Jewry’s relationship with it, hangs in the balance.

Rabbi Ari Sunshine is the senior rabbi at Congregation Shearith Israel and the president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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