Israel’s Complexity: Climbing Down the Ladders of Inference by Rabbi Asher Knight – Yom Kippur 5778

In June, I met a recent college graduate named Brooke Davies.  Brooke grew up here in Charlotte, graduated from Hebrew High, was a leader in her youth group, and traveled to Israel with her Jewish summer camp. After matriculating to UNC, Chapel Hill, she remained active in the Jewish community. During Brooke’s senior year, she was elected President of JStreet U, a nationwide college movement that advocates for and educates about a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In late June, Moment Magazine wrote a feature article about Brooke and her passion for Israel. I shared the article to my Facebook page, congratulating her—it’s not every day that a well-spoken, articulate Charlottean young adult is featured in a nationally syndicated Jewish magazine. But my casual post ignited heated debate and spurred insults to both Brooke and me. One person slammed me and Brooke as, “just another self-hating Jew.”

This past May, a Conservative synagogue in Detroit cancelled a concert featuring internationally known Israeli musician, Noa. Why? Because the synagogue received credible physical threats from American Jews after it became public that the artist was an advocate for two state solution. Just let that sink in for a second.[1]

These heated, vociferous reactions are not just coming from the right. Mainstream and centrist Israel advocates have been attacked by the radical-left. Ironically, in the very same month that I was called a self-hating Jew for my so-called liberal views on Israel, I was also criticized for supporting an “apartheid government” while on our congregational trip to Israel.  I was told that I was personally complicit in “human rights-abuses.”

On college campuses, student groups are railing against Israeli scholars.  Experts in the fields of medicine, literature, music, and social sciences have been prevented from speaking. Why? Not because of the quality of their academic work, but because they happen to be Israeli. People who rightly abhor Muslim bans have no problem banning Israelis.

With everything going on in the world, we desperately want to live in the safety of our own ideological bunkers.[2] We are living in a world of partisan echo-chambers: the absolute left largely only listens to the left; the absolute right largely only listens to the right. And the center—even the right and left leaning center—just gets quieter and quieter, tuning out the chaotic din of the outrageously opinionated noise. The result is that it is the very people who don’t hold extremist positions, the people who can see scales of grey, who are falling silent and refraining from the debate altogether.

It is a huge mistake for us to be silent from debate and dialogue about Israel. It is in this holy space at Temple Beth El where we must be willing to have big and difficult conversations while respecting legitimate differences of opinion.[3]  Our tradition calls this Machloket L’shem Shemayim, “disagreements for the sake of Heaven.” Because, in a polarized world where sincere dialogue and debate are no longer treasured, if we don’t actively live the Jewish ethic of respectful disagreement here at Temple Beth El, where will we? V’eem Lo-Achshav Amatai? And if not now, when?

Indeed, Judaism is a tradition founded upon the value of disagreement and debate.

My rabbinic mentor, Rabbi David Stern, likes to say, “Two Jews, three opinions’ is not just a joke – it’s an ethic.” This principle of debate and dialogue was codified early in our tradition. The rabbinic sages, specifically the schools of Hillel and Shammai, seldom agreed. They differed on nearly every issue, from the sacred to the mundane. They even disagreed differently.

The students in the school of Shammai were taught to present their own opinions and arguments and to listen to scholars who primarily agreed with them. The students in the school of Hillel, however, began with the arguments of Shammai.  Then, after learning the arguments of others, they advocated for their own opinion, which was often deeply influenced by the ideas that they heard from others. Perhaps that’s why the school of Hillel won nearly every debate. Hillel demonstrates the Jewish tenet that there is always a diversity of beliefs, that diversity is to be respected and, crucially, learned from. Argumentation is the beginning of a conversation, not it’s end.

Nowhere is this truer today than in the issues surrounding Israel.  Unfortunately, the language surrounding Israel inside of the American Jewish community has shown us that we are not immune to the partisan world in which dissenting views are labeled as deceptive or disloyal as opposed to what they are: differences of opinion. This is not only bad for Israel; it’s tearing apart the American Jewish community and severely impacting those who are interested in supporting Israel but have legitimate differences of opinion.

I can take the critiques – I’ve lived in Israel, I speak Hebrew, and I’ve learned to make public statements. But for so many of us – writing or speaking publically about Israel feels charged and unsafe. And it is really hard for our college students, who are finding their Hillels marginalized from other student groups on campus. Just this week, I heard stories of students who feel like they can’t fight for racial justice, or be part of interfaith dialogues because pro-BDS groups assume that their love for Israel puts them in conflict with other causes.

But what makes it even more difficult is that just as these college students are being shunned by the non-Jewish groups, they then turn towards the Jewish community to hear voices that yell absolutist black and white dichotomies that question loyalty to Israel or devotion to humanity. We are in serious risk of losing the next generation of pro-Israel advocates. When ad hominem attacks are used to stigmatize and marginalize our fellow Jews, we don’t just dismiss the Brooke Davies of the world – who are deeply committed to Israel, we turn off the bystanders and undecideds who love Israel and are challenged because the faith they love is a Judaism of Justice that prompts them to ask difficult moral questions. If there is one thing that Jews have learned over the centuries, it’s that nothing good comes from blind loyalty oaths.[4]

This past July, I travelled to Israel on a rabbinic mission sponsored by AIPAC’s Educational Foundation. When I announced, I was going on an AIPAC trip, I heard disparaging comments from every conceivable side: I heard, “You’re going to be fed a radically right-wing AIPAC line!” I wasn’t. When I explained to some people that I was going to meet with Palestinian leadership in Ramallah and the West Bank, I was told that I was an anti-Zionist. I’m not. I purposefully chose to go on the trip with AIPAC because this specific trip was designed to allow rabbis to be students instead of leaders – and to explore complexity and nuance in new and different ways.

In meeting after meeting with Israeli or Palestinian officials, scholars and generals, progressive peace activists and right-wing hawks, I was stunned that each could articulate the other side’s points of view while staking their own claim. I don’t want to be Pollyannaish—they painted a picture that looks bleak. Extremist movements and trench digging on both sides are making peace between Israelis and the Palestinians untenable. But what floored me was the nuanced and complex dialogue happening in Israel that is simply being shunned here in the United States.

Last summer our staff participated in two days of retreats led by our Temple board member, Cyndee Patterson. Cyndee taught us something simple, profound and beautiful: she said that each of us use something called the ladder of inference.  We make inferences in seconds, nearly instantaneously. But the problem with the ladder of inference is that it leads us to assume that we know the solutions to other people’s problems. The further away we are from other people’s problems, the easier it is for us to climb up the ladder of inference.

Coming come down the ladder of inference requires us to be curious about the position of someone whose perspective is different than our own. The capacity for curiosity and humility in the face of difference is the hardest and most rewarding part of good marriages, healthy organizations, and strong societies.  And it’s needed now, more than ever.

When I tell people that I support the State of Israel, I hear the ladders of inference being climbed, almost immediately. Why can’t Israelis and Palestinians just make peace? If only the Palestinians did this. If only Israel did that. But like an onion, the inferences are missing the nuance that comes with uncovering each layer. Here’s an example:  While I was in Jerusalem in July, three Arab Israeli citizens used smuggled guns to kill two Israeli police officers near the Dome of the Rock. The police happened to be Druze—also Arab citizens of Israel. This was the first time that Arab citizens of Israel had committed an act of terror on Arab citizens of Israel.  In the days that followed, there were protests, violence, and the murder of a Jewish family by a Palestinian terrorist.

In conversations, I had with an Israeli Arab politician,[5] I asked how her community was explaining what happened. She reminded me of the layered onion. On the surface layer, it looked like an act of violence aimed at Israel by three fundamentalists. Peel the layer back, and we find another layer: the three men were funded by the Muslim Brotherhood in Qatar. Peel back further, and we see that Qatar is funding similar terrorism in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states through the Muslim Brotherhood and their ties to Iran. Peel back, just one more layer, and we find that this is all related to the recent power struggle over Middle Eastern energy and airspace, between Russia, siding with Iran, and the United States siding with Saudi Arabia.

In these situations, we desperately want to ascribe a “good guy” and “bad guy.” It is seductive to reduce complexity to easy explanations and to walk up ladders of inference. But nothing is easy in the Middle East. When we demand “peace now” to Palestinians and Israelis, the path to get there often brings more international meddling, more extremists jockeying for control, less peace and more death.[6]

The challenge for us is to help ourselves and the coming generations hold these nuances: to be steeped in love and affection for Israel and its history, to be able to argue the case for Jewish self-determination, to want that the Palestinians have a viable state that cares for her own people, and to discern the difference between acceptable criticism of Israel and delegitimitization or outright antisemitism.

We are going to explore these nuances here in Charlotte and at Temple Beth El.

Over the last year, our Israel committee completed an Israel audit of the congregation. They explored all the ways that we currently engage with Israel and are recommending to our board further steps we can take to create a love of Israel through her art, culture, literature, film, food, and learning opportunities. But it’s not just about attending Israel programming: we need to read Israeli papers and authors, change our language and expand our own understanding. When the issues appear to be black and white, we have to remind ourselves that it’s never that easy and seek out the nuance and complexity.

Be like Hillel: learn from competing ideas within Israel.

On October 15th at 7:00 pm, the Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council will host a lecture featuring two award-winning Israeli journalists who will help us explore the challenges facing the character and soul of Israel.

Then, on October 30th at 7:00 pm we will welcome Grant Rumley, a highly regarded expert in Palestinian politics. Mr. Rumley wrote the biography of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. I will share pictures and reflections from my recent trip to Israel and the West Bank as we discuss the prospects for peace. Be like Hillel: come learn about the political realities and dynamics facing both the Palestinians and Israelis.

Travel with us. In March, I will lead a congregational delegation to AIPAC’s Policy Conference. Contrary to many people’s ladders of inference, AIPAC’s Policy Conference is one of the few places where people on the political left and the political right gather together for serious exchanges about Israel and future of a Palestinian state. In coming years, we may have congregational delegations to JStreet and AJC.

Be like Hillel: help us erect a wide-tent to encourage everyone in our congregation to establish relationships with organizations that support Israel.

Please consider going to Israel with Rabbi Klass. We want as many people in our congregation to travel to Israel so that we can help ourselves come down our own ladders of inference by connecting with the people who make Israel the living miracle that it is. The trip is filling up, fast.

In the story of creation, when the world was unformed and dark, ruach Elohim, God’s breath, swept over the earth. That breath of God is greater than any of us: it gave light and form to our world.[7] It is to the ruach Elohim, the breath of God, where we turn to restore our own souls at this season. From that breath, may we find our voices again – needed now more than ever. Ruach Elohim, amidst the extremist voices, let your whisper of hope, help us dignify the complexity of issues and the diversity ideas in our midst. Help us understand that nuance isn’t an enemy; but makes for better thinking. May your whisper give us courage and strength to listen and learn from the wisdom of those who disagree with us, so that we can strengthen our own community and so Israel can be strengthened by way of our efforts. Roach Elohim – in the darkness of our age, spread blessing and light on the land of Israel, on all her people, over all of us – so we can be blessed with the hope of shalom, the hope peace.



[2] Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness
[3]  Rabbi Brad Hirschfeld describes this as “you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right.”
[4] Consider the case of Dr. David Myers. The implications are terrible. We will have difficulty recruiting young people to a serve the Jewish people when this is the minefield in which they will enter.
[5] Ghaida Rinawi-Zoabi, general director of Injaz: Center for Professional Arab Local Governance.
[6]Rabbi Ken Chasen “The Reductive Seduction” Leo Baeck Temple Rosh Hashanah 5778
[7] Genesis 1:2-3

One Response

  1. I was in israel during the same time with one of you congregants, Sally Parker.

    I live in Green bay and this is the speech I gave about our trip

    I have decide to encapsulate the talk tonight by giving it a title.


    When you go to Israel you can see what you have programed yourself to see or you can open your eyes. There are good people and bad people everywhere. If all you want to see is a wall that separates Israel from “Palestine” that is what you will see. I tried to show my children the good while still having them be aware of the bad.
    Our first few days we were in Jerusalem.
    A few miracles. If you arrive to Jerusalem on Saturday the city is asleep. Saturday night it comes alive! People of all ages are on the street. There is food fun and laughter. We were exhausted by midnight and life was still vibrantly going on. We visited the shuk across the street from where we stayed. It was a party. The miracle was who was at the party. You may hear derogatory reports of discrimination in Israel. About the Falashas black jews not being treated as equals. About the arabs not being a part of Israeli society. About all sorts of schisms. It is not so in the shook at midnight!! They are all there. They are sitting together or at tables next to each other. They are ALL having a good time.
    The next night after a exhausting day of exploration my son wanted to visit the kotel at midnight. We all walked thru the deserted streets of the old city, went to the wall and felt a calm wonderment that can only be described as holy. The peaceful night was a miracle but there was a hidden madness. 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 years ago I could have walked at midnight thru the old city via any gate and thru any quarter to get to the wall. In 1970 I used to wander the streets of the old city at night alone and unafraid. The streets stank because Israel had not finished installing sewers but it was safe. Now it no longer smells but it is unsafe to go thru the Muslim quarter or the Arab Christian quarter at night.
    The miracle is that All faiths can come and pray at the wall. The madness is that only muslims can pray on the temple mount.
    The next day we went down from Jerusalem into the desert. The madness of passing a wall and a checkpoint was not missed. Another group of miracles awaited. It was over 100 degrees and the desert dryness and sun was brutal. But there in a wadi was a spring of fresh sweet cool water. The spring had been channeled into a crude simple pool. The pool was maybe a dozen feet wide and twice that in length. There were hungry fish in the pool who nibbled on your toes and chewed off the dead skin on my heals. The physical natural miracle however was surpassed by the miracle of who was in this small pool. They were every color and every faith and spoke multiple languages. It was the light of day and not a party and we were all together enjoying nature.
    From Jerusalem we traveled north. Spent a day in the Arab city of Akko, visited the Bahai compound the Akko Mosque and the crusader ruins. The night was spent in Nazareth. Old Nazareth is about half christian and half muslim. It is a wonderful friendly place. The church of Mary is outstanding. In its courtyard there are ceramic, glass and mosaic depictions of Mary from churches around the world. There is a lesson in the highly varied perceptions of visions of Mary. They are colored by race and culture. The Thai Mary is a reminesent of a Hindu godess and the Vietnamese Mary is coy. They are all different and they are all the same. They all portray beauty peace and holiness. In Nazereth we learned a lesson that we saw throughout our trip. If there was a holy site either Jewish or Christian the Muslims had built a Mosque next to it.

    We headed further north. Before entering Tzfat we visited a hill that was a fortress and the beginning of a kibbutz before the 48 war. The pictures on the walls were of the bare dry rocky hills of 70 years ago. Those hills have witnessed the founding of Israel and another miracle. It was now a forest!
    Off to the Golan heights and more miracles. We went to a hill top where we could see Syria and the remains of the city Quinetra. The UN was there along with kids from Birthright and Korean christian tourists. After the tourists had taken their mandatory pictures with the blond haired blue eyed Scandinavian UN soldiers I asked the soldiers if they are observing the all to close battles in Syria. No I was told, they were there to enforce the 73 armasist. Madness! Then I pointed out the miracle to my kids. From our vantage you could not see a fence but you could clearly see the line between Israel and Syria. Where the vineyards and orchards ended was the border. Hakav hayarok in hebrew. The green line in english. A marked difference between two countries.

    We saw a 2nd century synagog that was being reassembled using computer identification of the stones to figure out where they went. A miracle of technology.
    Battlefields of the 73 war reminded us of the sacrifices and the madness that Israel has defended itself against. In the valley of tears where 500 Syrian tanks were destroyed 100 Israeli tanks also fell and their crews lost their lives.
    Down to the Hula valley and another miracle of a mistake reversed. In the 20’s a project was started to drain the swamps and turn the valley into farm land. Malaria was a big problem. Little did they know the ecological disaster that this would precipitate. The bogs dried out and the peat-moss caught fire. The wildlife left. Now they are reflooding the valley and recreating the habitat for otters, water buffalo, and migratory birds. It’s not perfect but it is a acknowledgement that we can correct our mistakes.
    Traveling from north to south we passed Israeli towns where the construction of new apartments was reaching skyward. We also passed Arab towns. Some were friendly living side by side with the Israelis some were not.
    Next off to the south and the kibbutz where I lived so long ago. Part of the miracle of Israel is the desert. Just add water and you have crops but the water comes at a price. The Kinnert is low and the dead sea is declining at a rate of 40 inches per year!! Israel recycles 96% of its waste water. More than any other country in the world but that is still not enough. The country has a parallel piping system which is painted blue. The recycled water is purified to drinking water standards and is used by farms and industry. Another large percentage of Israels water comes from desalinization but still the stain on the ecology is emence. Kibbutz has changed and most kibbutzim are now privatized. It is no longer from each according to their ability and to each according to their needs. The cold cruel world of capitalism is a reality.
    From there we headed deeper into the desert. In Mitzpe Ramon we watched Ibex cross the highway over a bridge designed just for them. 50 years ago it was a rare privilege to spot just one. Their numbers have rebounded and at 6 in the morning they were on top of the dumpster outside my hotel window.
    Down to Eliat and into the furnace. Yes it was 116 but I have a masochistic streak that loved it. Eliat comes alive at night. It is like a carnival. During the day we scuba dived and Milly earned her diving license! The coral and the fish and the eels were amazing. A few days earlier there had been a whale shark in the area. A minor miracle. But the fishermen from Taba had killed it. Madness.
    From Eilat to Kibbutz Ein Getty. We bathed in the dead sea and hiked thru a salt cave. Splendors that I can not begin to describe in so short a time.
    Kibbutz Ein Getty is a true oasis in the desert, another miracle. The trees that the kibbutz has planted are from all over the world. Milly sat under a huge Baobab tree which blooms at night and watched as bats pollinated the massive flowers. The pool at the kibbutz is huge and is the sight for the next miracle. Around the pool were people from all over Israel and a smattering of tourists. Most tourists go to the fancier hotels located right on the shores of the dead sea. However we could still hear hebrew, french, Russian and arabic. There were women in bikinis and a woman in a full burkah bathing suit. There were jews eating pizza and drinking beer and arabs smoking hookas. We ALL had a good time.
    On our trip my children learned about dozens of sects and religions who make Israel their home. Some of these groups are tiny with only a few hundred or a thousand adherents. They all help make Israel what it is. We saw natural, ecological and emotional miracles. We met with some of my old friends and old teachers and learned about their experiences with Israel.
    One more day of vacation to go and madness struck reminding us that in spite of the people who can get along, enjoy life together and coexist there are people who hate. Arabs from a city in Israel, not the west bank, a city in Israel, killed two Israeli guards at the temple mount with machine guns that they had hidden on the mount. The Israeli guards were not Jews they were Druse. As a branch sect from Islam the Druse are hated as much are even more than the Jews by the radical Islamists. The next morning as we were leaving we read the sad news that three Israeli west bank settlers were killed when they let an Arab thru their front door on erev shabatt.

    During this last week I have been digesting our trip. Does Israel have faults? Yes beyond a doubt and it acknowledges those faults and tries to better itself. Do I feel safe in Israel? Yes, without a shadow of a doubt. Would I recommend a trip to Israel? I feel without qualification that it is a place that everyone should visit BUT visit it with your eyes wide open and beware — it is a place of miracles and of madness.

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