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Ben-Dat: Toppling the Jewish canopy


Anyone with even the flimsiest familiarity of the siddur, the Jewish prayer book, knows that almost all of its supplications are written in the plural form. They are spoken, whispered or sung by the individual, but the prayers themselves – their language, sweep, intent and meaning – are for the sake of the entirety of the Jewish people.

Examples appear on every page of the siddur. Here are two.

In the Amidah, the central pillar of each of the daily services, we entreat God for the good of the larger group. “Shma koleinu” (listen to our voice) is characteristic of the pleadings in the prayer.

Likewise, as a mourner recites the Kaddish, he or she concludes this unique Jewish affirmation of faith in God during a period of personal loss and grief by imploring the Almighty to “make peace for us all and all Israel.”

This is, simply, how Jews have always prayed. It is a remarkable feature of Jewish prayer, but it’s not surprising. After all, Judaism is a sheltering canopy of three poles: faith, land and people.

Customs, traditions and ritual observance have evolved, but always under the cover of that canopy. If one of the poles is knocked away, the resulting Judaism is diminished. Indeed Judaism – to borrow a phrase from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – in its truly radical, prophetic, communally oriented sense, cannot stand without the sustaining strength of all three elements.

It is this understanding of Judaism that makes certain statements allegedly made at the recent J Street conference in Washington, D.C., by Rabbi Ayelet Cohen of the New Israel Fund particularly distressing.

(Since Rabbi Cohen’s remarks appear to have only been posted on a notoriously anti-Israel website, we cannot be sure they were accurately reproduced. It is therefore the ideas, not the individual, with which I take issue. It is the ideas that we must expose as wrong, as well as destructive.)

“For many of us, and we see this in many communities of North American Jews, across movements, affiliation, across religious connection, people who were deeply connected to Israel are tired, they are constantly feeling a need to justify why they feel connected to this place (Israel), they’re constantly disappointed, experiencing a lot of shame about this place – always hoping that it will rise to the occasion, be something that it’s not,” Rabbi Cohen said, according to the news website Mondoweiss.

“I’ve spoken to some rabbis who have slowly taken Israel out of the Hebrew school curriculum, and no one noticed.”

It would be ignoring reality to deny that there is a growing rift between some American Jews and the State of Israel. A rift, however, is not a rupture. Yet statements such as this lay a path that leads to rupture.


What Rabbi Cohen reportedly offered was an example of the “woke” lament of Jews who call themselves progressives. They are “tired,” “disappointed,” “ashamed” of Israel, and are even removing it as a subject in school. They reject Israel because they reject the policies of its government, as if the current government – or any duly elected government – comprises the totality of that country’s people and is not in fact transitory.

They have overlain the template of their own slender, cloistered American milieu upon the very different milieu in which Israel exists, without making any allowances for the threats and dangers that Israelis confront every day, but that the progressives are able to mostly ignore. And, of course, they make no demands of reciprocal civil behaviour upon Israel’s neighbours, nor do they appear to even have any expectations of such conduct.

Progressives have been told that they can maintain a relationship with Israel by telling the stories of “the Israelis who are the opposition, who are the resistance.” This progressive approach to connecting with Israel may indeed prevent a total rupture between the two communities. But it does so by demonizing the majority of Israelis, and toppling the Jewish canopy. 

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