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Who Speaks for the Jews On and Off Campus? Jewish Voices in Conflict©

Updated: May 22




Parashat Emor 5784/2024


When I was a kid, and there were no referees on the sports fields, we argued about calls, one team against the other. Do you know what almost ended every argument? When someone on one’s own team opposed the leader arguing, the opposing team’s captain would say, “See! Even someone from your own team disagrees with you!” 


Your team captain might scream, “OK, but he doesn’t speak for us!” But it doesn’t matter to the opponent. They can care less about the health of your team dynamics; they want to win. 


This is our relationship with disagreement as know it today; we discourage it because we are scared. And when it comes to Jews, we do not like to air our dirty laundry to the public because of the question that is in the back of our minds at all times: what will the non-Jews say? 


We are in a similar moment, of Jews pitted against each other, Zionists versus anti-Zionists. 


But the truth is, those who oppose the self-interest of the overwhelming majority of Jews by supporting Israel’s right to exist point out that Jews are on their side. To paraphrase the head of the Columbia protest movement, who I heard interviewed on TV, “We are doing this for the liberation of the Palestinian and Jewish people. Jewish people stand with us here together. We even had a Seder, so these protests are very Jewish.” So which ones are the Jewish students? Who speaks for the Jews? How do we determine who speaks for the Jews? Is it the protestors who led Anti-Zionist Seders with the protestors at the Gaza Solidarity encampments or are they the protestors carrying Israeli flags outside? 


I know what you’re thinking, and guess what…I agree with you 100%, but that doesn’t mean that we are right. 


We talk a lot about Jewish unity, and there is a reason for it: if we do not speak with one voice, then who speaks for us? 


Jewish unity is so rare that it only happened once in the 40 years of the Wilderness, when Bnai Israel accepted the Torah as one person, with one heart. 


Of course, there are plenty of examples of Jewish disunity, and here is just one that will resonate with us here today. 


About a century and a quarter or so ago, when Zionism was just beginning, the first Zionists sought a place at the table of the organized Jewish community. The leadership of the Central European Jewish communities turned them down. They refused to grant the Zionists a place within the community structure. These Zionists, they said, endanger our place within the general societies that Jews live in with their dangerous teachings. They do not speak for us. 


Their main opposition were German rabbis, from Reform and Orthodox streams (a rare moment of Jewish unity among the different movements in modern Judaism), and the established German Jewish community.  I want to read you their response to the publication of Theodore Herzl's, the father of modern Zionism, Die Welt, a weekly Zionist newspaper, and Herzl's call for the first Zionist Congress:  


“As long as Zionists wrote in Hebrew they were not dangerous, but now that they are writing in German, they must be opposed...what more can one say, if people are so naive as to believe that the Western European Jews will hand over their money to purchase Palestine from the Turks and to create a Jewish organization that will reverse the entire development of the Jewish nation.  1800 years ago, history made its decision regarding Jewish nationhood through the dissolution of the Jewish state and the destruction of the Temple...we ask the Zionists then, in whose name and by what authority do they speak?  Who gave them a mandate to call for a congress in Munich?  We are protesting against the organizers who claim to speak for all of Jewry, but behind whom stands not one single Jewish congregation.  We are convinced that no Rabbi or Director of a German congregation will appear at the congress.  This will be demonstrated to the entire world that German Jewry has nothing in common with the intentions of the Zionists.”


Because of this letter, which led to a storm of protest, Herzl was forced to move the first Zionist congress from Munich to Basle, Switzerland.  

Just think about that - the first Zionist Congress was almost in Munich, a city that makes the hair stand up on every Jew’s neck because it became the capital of antisemitism in Europe after World War I. 


The reason was that a certain type of Jewish unity, in the form of a joint statement from the Reform and Orthodox movements, prevented the Zionists from holding their first conference in Germany. 


But the even more interesting thing is that the Zionists were the minority movement at the time. 


So who spoke for the Jews? The German Reform and Orthodox communities, or the Zionists? We know the answer now - the side that survived. 


In this week’s parashah, Emor, we are given the calendar of sacred time, one of the things that unites us as a people - a shared calendar, and the items we use to celebrate these holidays - sacrifices, and in the case of Sukkot, a Sukkah and the four species - the lulav and etrog. The Midrash gives several examples of the symbolism of each of the four species. Here is one that I think is relevant for us today:



“The fruit of a beautiful tree”: This is Israel. Just as the Etrog has taste and smell, so too are there among Israel individuals who study Torah and perform good deeds.

“Palm branches”: This is Israel. Just as the palm has taste but no smell, so too are there among Israel individuals who study Torah but do not perform good deeds.

“A myrtle branch”: This is Israel. Just as myrtle has smell but no taste, so too are there among Israel individuals who do not study Torah yet perform good deeds.

“Willow”: This is Israel. Just as willow has neither smell nor taste, so too are there among Israel individuals who neither study Torah nor perform good deeds.


What does the Holy One blessed be He do to them? To eradicate them is not possible. Rather, the Holy One Blessed One said: Let them all be bound together in a single bundle and they will atone for one another. If you do so, at that moment, I will be ascendant [mitaleh].”


It’s a beautiful teaching, but I’ve always been confused by the last part - What will God do with the parts of the lulav that God doesn’t like? It gives the teaching a bit of spice, doesn’t it? There seems to be a judgment on one of them, but you don’t know which one. The commentators all say that it is, of course, the Etrog, containing both Torah and wisdom and behave in that way. I, for one, hope they are correct! But that’s not what the text says; it says that one atones for the other. 


So who speaks for the Jewish people? I know who I think speaks for the Jewish people, but that is out of our control. As our Sages taught, all the different species of Jews are Israel. 


But I found a teaching that might help us. In the Talmud (Ta’anit 11a), we read, “is taught in (another) baraita: When the community is immersed in suffering, a person may not say: I will go to my home, and I will eat and drink, and peace be upon you, my soul.

בִּזְמַן שֶׁהַצִּבּוּר שָׁרוּי בְּצַעַר, אַל יֹאמַר אָדָם: אֵלֵךְ לְבֵיתִי, וְאוֹכַל וְאֶשְׁתֶּה, וְשָׁלוֹם עָלַיִךְ נַפְשִׁי.

Perhaps this is the litmus test - Jews do not ignore the suffering of their fellow Jews. 


Jewish students at Columbia held a press conference on April 24. Their spokesperson, Sarah Borus, a student at Barnard, said: “Right now, Israel is literally starving millions of Palestinians in Gaza, killing children, bombing homes, hospitals, and universities, where there are thousands of young students just like us. We are here today as Jewish Columbia and Barnard students who were arrested and suspended for peacefully protesting in support of Palestine….“[My father] and my mother made sure that I knew being Jewish meant to join together with other oppressed people because only collective liberation will keep us safe. That lesson of solidarity always extended with solidarity with the people of Palestine. The ‘Gaza Solidarity Encampment’ is a reflection of the Jewish tradition of togetherness and liberation.” 


But nothing was mentioned about how their fellow Jewish students who disagreed with their views were being impacted. And nothing about the Israeli victims of October 7. 


Hundreds of Jewish students at Columbia penned a response titled: In Our Name: A Message from Jewish Students at Columbia University


“To the Columbia Community:

Over the past six months, many have spoken in our name. Some are well-meaning alumni or non-affiliates who show up to wave the Israeli flag outside Columbia’s gates. Some are politicians looking to use our experiences to foment America’s culture war. Most notably, some are our Jewish peers who tokenize themselves by claiming to represent “real Jewish values,” and attempt to delegitimize our lived experiences of antisemitism. We are here, writing to you as Jewish students at Columbia University, who are connected to our community and deeply engaged with our culture and history. We would like to speak in our name.” 


I highly recommend reading the entirety of this letter, but I want to include just one part:


“We sounded the alarm on October 12 when many protested against Israel while our friends’ and families’ dead bodies were still warm.

We recoiled when people screamed “resist by any means necessary,” telling us we are “all inbred” and that we “have no culture.”

We shuddered when an “activist” held up a sign telling Jewish students they were Hamas’s next targets, and we shook our heads in disbelief when Sidechat (social media app) users told us we were lying.

We ultimately were not surprised when a leader of the CUAD encampment said publicly and proudly that “Zionists don’t deserve to live” and that we’re lucky they are “not just going out and murdering Zionists.”

We felt helpless when we watched students and faculty physically block Jewish students from entering parts of the campus we share, or even when they turned their faces away in silence. This silence is familiar. We will never forget.”


It is the lack of compassion that I find to be the most disturbing. Whether we like it or not, as Jews, we are all in the same boat; we have seen this time and time again. When they came for us, they didn’t ask what synagogue we attended, if any, or if we voted for the liberal or conservative party. 


We believe in the concept of ‘Kol Israel Zeh Ba Zeh - every Jew is responsible for one another'. Perhaps this is what Jewish unity means, at least at this moment. It doesn’t mean we agree with our fellow Jews or even like them all the time, but we are responsible for them, whether we like it or not. And as Jews, we are responsible for one another. It pains me to see Jews who protest against the Jewish state so blindly that they can’t see the suffering of their fellow Jews. 


And on the other hand, we cannot turn anyone away, even if they don’t speak for us. A Jew who protested against Israel but who has to flee their country because they are a Jew will not be turned away from Israel. 


The two words that the German-Jewish leaders who signed the letter opposing Zionism and their descendants who may have survived the Nazi Holocaust heard were not ‘told you,’ rather, these words:  welcome home. 


Now that takes strength and courage. 


I hope we, too, can have the same strength and courage to do the same. 

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