Ask the Rabbis | What does it mean to be pro-Israel today?

By | Jan 05, 2012


Being pro-Israel today means being ever so cautious about what you read in the biased media about Israel. At the same time, it also means being ever so cautious about turning a blind eye to what is going on in Israel. I am a staunch defender of Israel in the face of the venomous anti-Israel rhetoric constantly being pumped into cyberspace and other media, not only by non-Jewish sources but by blind-sighted Jewish sources as well. We who are pro-Israel must become more informed about the history of Arab-Israeli tension, which goes back centuries further than 1948, and not live in the historical vacuum that is the source of the misinformation endlessly proliferating on both sides. Being pro-Israel today also beckons us to lift up our voices against certain governmental, religious and societal polity in Israel that are severely out of alignment with the Torah. Torah, after all, is our sole claim to this sacred land, our only copy of anything remotely resembling a real estate contract, and there are specific conditions outlined therein that are being blatantly violated. This threatens the survival of that fragile country far more than Iran’s nuclear program.

Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Westlake Village, CA


I have always thought that “pro-Israel” is a loaded term that allows for no nuance, like “pro-motherhood” or “pro-apple pie.” How can one be against it? But embedded in “pro-Israel” is a set of assumptions or expected commitments: “Israel right or wrong.” Or, “Never again.” Or, “Support Greater Israel.” The implicit message is clear: You’re either for us or against us. Any whiff of dissent evokes condemnation. Note how American politicians attempt to outdo each other in demonstrating their “stand by me” attitude of unflinching loyalty to Israel.

But what if one does have questions? Can one still be pro-Israel? For that matter, if the questions are directed locally, can one be pro-American? Isn’t healthy debate exactly what is needed to be pro-anything? Smart leaders surround themselves with aides who aren’t afraid to challenge and ask hard questions and deliver bad news. Smart countries do the same thing.

To the extent that “pro-Israel,” like “pro-life,” has become a proprietary word of a select group, it is no longer a useful label. What matters is whether all voices can be heard and whether what they advocate is in Israel’s best interests. Let the debate continue.

Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY


“We spend our time worrying about our physical well-being and the state of our neighbor’s soul. Better we should spend our time worrying about our neighbor’s physical well-being and the state of our own soul.”—Rabbi Israel Salantar

The Talmud reports that several rabbis tried to hunt for the yetzer hara toward idolatry and found it in the inmost sacred chamber of the Holy Temple, the Holy of Holies. So is it surprising if many Jews today who experience the state of Israel as the Holy Place have made it into an idol? Their “pro-Israel” stance requires obeisance to governmental policy, because the government is the priestly caste when the state is treated like an idol.

Here’s my “pro-Israel.” I celebrate Israel as a flawed, sometimes seriously flawed, instrument of safety, justice and democracy for all whom it governs—bearing a special relationship to the worldwide Jewish people and the obligation of all states to obey international law and to act with a decent respect for the opinions of humankind. To achieve wise policy, Israel needs not only support but active criticism of all sorts, from everywhere—Jews, Palestinians, citizens of every country and their governments.
Substantively, “pro-Israel” includes nonviolent efforts to end the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the blockade of Gaza and to convince the Israeli government to negotiate with the Arab League on its proposal for a regional peace treaty. “Pro-Israel” means supporting the Jewish state to reflect our deepest values as a people.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow
The Shalom Center
Philadelphia, PA


Celebrated Israeli author Amos Oz says simply, “There is more than one way to be pro-Israel.” Indeed, rather than fight over our differences, let’s celebrate the diversity of approaches. As in Temple times, when the “mainstream” and authorities attacked the rabble-rousing rabbis who would later compile the Mishnah and create our Jewish future, we can’t know which approach history will vindicate. We need respectful discourse.

Instead, we disenfranchise. Today’s right wing, especially, attacks groups like the New Israel Fund and J Street, while rightist extremists offer “price tag” arson and even death threats. Yet Oz reminds us that liberal Zionists are “loyal and devoted to Israel, no less and perhaps more than their militant brethren.” All should humbly rethink where our rhetoric, our advocacy or our silence can lead.

At a Jewish event, I was seated next to an old acquaintance. “Enough chit-chat,” he said. “Where do you stand on J Street?” I replied that I support their “pro-Israel, pro-peace” approach, advocating a democratic Jewish moral vision and helping retain global support for Israel. He replied, “They’re dangerous, and you’re with them; I have nothing to say to you, nothing.” Sure enough, this fellow Israel-lover spoke not another word to me all night. For Israel and Judaism’s sake, may “pro-Israel” mean something much more inclusive.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
Bethesda, MD


In Genesis 32, our forefather Jacob wrestles in the middle of the night with a mysterious being. Some commentators say it is a messenger of God. Others say this is a figurative wrestling match, in which Jacob engages in an internal struggle with his own personal circumstances. Regardless, Jacob is permanently transformed through the experience. The symbolic representation of this transformation is the changing of Jacob’s name to Israel, literally “one who wrestles with God.”

To be pro-Israel today is to wrestle. We love Israel, its land, its people. But we struggle with the challenges Israel faces, politically, spiritually, socially. Sometimes our wrestling is external—with friends, with political adversaries, with one another. Sometimes it is internal: “What does Israel mean to me? What are my obligations to Israel?”

To be pro-Israel today is to keep Israel in our hearts and minds: to pay attention, to learn about Israel past and present, to visit and see Israel with our own eyes, to dialogue, to wrestle.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Union for Reform Judaism
Fresno, CA


Support of Israel has four necessary components. First, one must be a Zionist. That is, one must agree that it is both legitimate and desirable for there to be a sovereign Jewish nation-state located in the historic homeland of the Jewish people. While the borders of the state may be debated, the need for it is non-negotiable. Second, one should hope for peace, prosperity and freedom in the land for all its citizens: Jews, Arabs and others. Third, Israel is the object of an anti-Semitic campaign of delegitimization on several fronts, including boycotts of people and products, divestment/disinvestment, calls for sanctions, attempts to prosecute Israeli leaders in the International Criminal Court, and labeling of Israel as an apartheid state. People who are pro-Israel must forcefully counter these campaigns, which call the very existence of the state into question. Fourth, those who are pro-Israel should cherish the fact that Israel is both a democracy and a Jewish state. Promoting tolerant and respectful relations between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Israeli Jews is critical. And supporters of Israel should recognize that despite Israel’s many challenges, the principles and ideals as articulated in the Israeli Declaration of Independence are compelling. Those who are pro-Israel should do all they can to enable Israelis to transform the vision of the founders into the reality of today.

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Springfield, MA


A comprehensive pro-Israel stance would recognize that the Jewish state is the chief expression of the Jewish return to history and history-making. It has taken on responsibility for Jewish fate and the Jewish future. Israel is a remarkable, nay, miraculous reaffirmation of Jewish life and creativity—particularly in the face of the death blow inflicted by the Holocaust. Furthermore, Israel is a vital democratic society (with all the human limitations and flaws of such). Despite being under siege since its birth, its ethical standards match or top those in the democratic West and are quantum leaps ahead of its neighbors and non-state enemies in the Middle East.

Despite its excellence, Israel is beset with enemies who seek to destroy it. It is the object of a fierce international campaign meant to isolate and delegitimize it. Israel needs all the friends and support it can get. Therefore, the tent of friends of Israel should be as wide open as possible—to include even friends who severely criticize it, its settlement policies, its approach to peace negotiations or its internal treatment of Arabs, women or other minorities. All critics should be free to speak, as in any democracy. An atmosphere of free debate, even if it allows unfair or one-sided criticism, increases respect for the cause of Israel.

In general, critics should be welcomed as friends, for one of the responsibilities of a friend is to criticize and thereby improve a friend (Leviticus 19:17). However, if critics deny Israel’s right to exist, or adopt a double standard gone wild (such as charges of apartheid or ethnic cleansing), they show that they are enemies. They should be critiqued and rejected, for they are accessories to attempted genocide.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
Riverdale, NY


Being a friend of Israel does not necessarily mean agreeing with or supporting every policy of the Jewish state, just as being a person’s true friend does not necessarily mean endorsing every course of action he or she undertakes. In fact, such simplistic pandering is not friendship at all. As King Solomon taught, the wise person adores his sharpest critic more than any other companion, since it is from the critic that he learns the most about himself. Authentic concern for the destiny of the state of Israel should manifest itself in an honest appreciation for its strengths as well as a sober reckoning with the weaknesses of its culture, government and social institutions. The existence of Israel as a Jewish state has conferred untold blessings upon us and brought much goodness into the world. At the same time, many aspects of modern Israel fall short of the lofty ideals to which we expect it to aspire and cry out for serious reconsideration and improvement. As friends of Israel, we should not be ashamed to acknowledge either of these very significant realities. Such an honest, comprehensive and straightforward appraisal will lead to deeper self-knowledge by the Jewish nation as a whole, and this will pave the way to genuine progress for our people in the future.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof
Magen David Sephardic Congregation
Rockville, MD


For a Jew to be pro-Israel is not necessarily to endorse any particular policy or position of the Jewish state. Blind submission is not required. Rather, it is to feel personally attached to and invested in the Jewish state—to feel, as with family, that without Israel one’s existence is incomplete. It is to experience deep pride in Israel’s vast achievements and unalloyed pain when Israel suffers or is attacked. And it is to go beyond emotions and take action to support Israel’s security and reputation, from writing letters to newspapers, to correcting misperceptions about Israel among one’s colleagues, to visiting the country and supporting it financially and morally.

For non-Jews, being pro-Israel means to embrace not just its intrinsic right to exist but the world’s intrinsic need for the Jews, who have enriched the world immeasurably and whose values serve as the foundation of Western civilization, to have a flourishing state where their light can continue to shine out to the rest of the world. And it is to accept that the Jews have been history’s most savaged victims and, as such, have unique security needs that must be upheld. Being pro-Israel means supporting pro-Israel candidates in one’s home country and being critical of one’s government when it adopts anti-Israel postures. It is making one’s voice heard in media where Israel is maligned or attacked. And it is accepting that where Israel goes, the rest of humanity goes. When Israel is attacked by fundamentalist Islam, the world is not far behind, as we discovered on the tragic day of 9/11.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Englewood, NJ

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