Exactly two years ago, I stood beside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and opposition leader Member of Knesset Isaac Herzog, at Israel’s first celebration of American Jewish contributions to the state of Israel. A full day of events sponsored by the Ruderman Foundation and hosted by MK Nachman Shai allowed the world to marvel at the strength and cohesion of the Jewish people. I spoke about my father and the unconditional love he had for the Jewish State, and I spoke about my hope for the future and my concerns.
I was so proud to represent The Jewish Federations of North America at this event. It is hard to believe that it has been two and a half years since you honored me with the position of chair of the JFNA’s Board of Trustees. As I reflect on this period and the challenges we face as a community and a people, I remain optimistic, but also concerned.
While the Jewish people share many things in common, we are upended by divisions that impede our central task of building a strong, cohesive community, one that engages Jews of all backgrounds – especially our young people – in our sacred work and the joys of our tradition. Please understand me: differences of opinion are healthy. They help us to learn more about complex problems and reach solutions. It is when we stop listening to each other and caring about one another that I get concerned.
I am optimistic, because so many lay leaders and professionals, whom I have had the honor to meet and work with these past several years, represent the best of Jewish values. They are committed to making sure that we preserve those values to ensure a vibrant Jewish future for our children and our grandchildren. To me, those values are based upon an understanding that each and every one of us has a responsibility to one another and to the world at large; to continue to repair the world consistent with the values in our Torah. And I never forget the lessons of the great teacher Rabbi Hillel who, when asked to explain the meaning of the Torah while someone stood on one foot, said “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. Everything else is commentary. Go now and study it.”
Two weeks ago, both my concerns and my optimism crystalized in one moment. My optimism was reflected by the opportunity and privilege I had to attend the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. My concerns were manifested in the reaction by so many to what took place at the Gaza border with Israel.
Witnessing the opening of the Embassy was an extraordinary privilege. Jerusalem has been the center of Jewish life from biblical times and the capital of Israel for the past 70 years. It is where the Knesset, the Supreme Court, the Prime Minister and the President are located. Yet Israel has been the only allied nation, in which the American embassy was located outside the country’s capital. Israelis were overwhelmingly positive about the opening of the embassy, with some 73% in favor of the move. (I think we all know that 73% of Israelis rarely agree on anything.)
I looked around the crowd and was struck by the excitement of everyone who had come together to witness the event. The crowd included many friends from both Israel and the United States – all people who care about Israel and the Jewish people.
At the same time, there was provocative violence along the Israel-Gaza border. Hamas had spent months orchestrating a mass-scale attempt to infiltrate into the State of Israel to mark what Palestinians called “a day of rage” with specific instructions to go into Israeli communities located several hundred yards from the border and kill Jews. As a result unfortunately there were more than 60 Palestinian deaths. The loss of any human life is tragic. By Hamas’s own admission, 90% of those killed were militants. It is clear that the violence at the Israel-Gaza border — which was renewed today — is the fault of the Iranian-funded terrorist group Hamas; and the world must hold them accountable.
I understand there are different views in our community with respect to Israel and its relations with the Palestinians. There are also different views with respect to whether or not this was a good time to move the Embassy. Regardless of your opinions on these matters, we must strive to better understand the complexities of the issues surrounding Israel and our relationships with Israel. We have to be open minded and understanding enough to allow ourselves to find merit in the decisions of those we may otherwise usually disagree with. These are complex and emotional issues; caring, informed and intelligent people can and do have different views, all acting in good faith, and with deep love for Israel.
At JFNA, we bring together the whole community, left, right and center. As my term as chair winds down, my hope for all of us, as we look to the future, is that we work harder to hear and understand one another.
We have survived and made a significant difference in this world for over 3,000 years because of our common values and tradition. It is also what propels us to do the sacred work of caring for people in need all over the world. The very best in us is imperiled when we let grievances and disagreements rise to the level of disrespect and enmity. Our people look to us as leaders to guide them through this wilderness. Let’s be true to our task of being a light unto the nations – and to our own people.
Richard V. Sandler is Chair, Board of Trustees of The Jewish Federations of North America