Meet people where they are, but not on Israel

To concede to anti-Israel slanders is already to lose the argument.

The packed beit midrash of the Sderot Hesder Yeshiva, May 12, 2021. Photo by Josh Hasten.
The packed beit midrash of the Sderot Hesder Yeshiva, May 12, 2021. Photo by Josh Hasten.
Rabbi Uri Pilichowski
Rabbi Uri Pilichowski
Rabbi Uri Pilichowski is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. The author of three books, he teaches Torah, Zionism and Israel studies around the world.

Rabbis in Europe during the alter heim—the pre-Holocaust period—were responsible for answering their community’s questions on Jewish law. The rabbi usually delivered a speech only twice a year, on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the Shabbat preceding Passover.

Most of today’s rabbis understand that their role has now become multifaceted. Rabbis teach, encourage greater observance and some even discuss politics. Zionist rabbis discuss Israel and issues related to it. Kiruv—encouraging non-observant or unaffiliated Jews to embrace the beauty of Torah and the mitzvot—has become a large part of every rabbi’s job.

Kiruv often involves the technique of “meeting people where they are.” That is, when teaching someone who isn’t observant about the mitzvot, emphasizing what they’re doing wrong isn’t effective and will likely turn them away from Torah. A slow and patient introduction to enjoyable mitzvot like Shabbat meals, Hanukkah candle lighting and Simchat Torah celebrations is preferable.

Most rabbis understand this and practice it every day of their lives. But many rabbis believe that because a slow introduction to Torah works for mitzvot and halacha, it must also work in all other areas. Unfortunately, when it comes to Israel, this approach is incorrect.

Many, but thankfully not all, members of the young generation of Jews are highly critical of Israel. Hoping to connect with this generation, many rabbis make the mistake of trying to “meet them where they are.” That is, they criticize Israel.

They will defend Israel’s counterterror raids, but often introduce this defense by acquiescing to the anti-Zionists’ claims about Israeli “occupation” and “oppression.”

“Sure, Israel denies Palestinians their rightful freedoms,” these rabbis concede, “but you have to understand Israel’s security needs.” This is a dangerous approach because, in the end, it undermines support for Israel by granting legitimacy to anti-Zionist slanders.

When a rabbi tells their congregation or students that Israel steals Palestinian land, mistreats Palestinians or practices apartheid, they are not meeting their audience where they are or opening their minds to a different perspective. They are reinforcing the lies of Israel’s enemies.

Moreover, there is a significant difference between meeting someone where they are on Torah observance and doing so on Israel. When rabbis encourage non-observant Jews to become observant, these rabbis are not actively permitting violations of halacha. There are no general allowances for such a thing. Rabbis should apply the same principle when discussing Israel before a critical audience.

If a rabbi wants to support Israel, he must do two things: First, don’t defend Israel, because Israel requires no defense. After 75 years, Israel is older than half the nations in the world. It has one of the world’s top economies and a first-rate military. Its people are the fourth-happiest in the world. It is widely praised for its treatment of minorities. Supporters of Israel only weaken their case by trying to answer anti-Zionist slanders instead of touting these extraordinary achievements.

Second, a rabbi can simply discuss their personal connection to the Land of Israel and why it means so much to them and to the Jewish people. They can teach sermons on the importance of the Land of Israel in Jewish literature, from the Torah all the way to contemporary rabbis. They can encourage their congregants and students to visit Israel and create their own connection to the Jewish state.

Rabbis play an important role in advocating for Israel. Because rabbis are community leaders, teachers and role models, many look to them for guidance and moral direction. When a rabbi supports Israel, the rabbi’s congregants, students and followers are taught that Israel is a nation worthy of the Jewish people’s support. In a world that follows “influencers,” a rabbi can be a powerful influencer on behalf of the Jewish state.

Rabbi Uri Pilichowski is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. The author of three books, he teaches Torah, Zionism and Israel studies around the world.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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