this a text version of my sermon from 3/26/16
It is the time of year when college admissions departments around the country are making their final decisions about which young people will and will not be admitted to their schools. High school seniors around the country keep a close eye on their email inboxes, waiting to hear if they got in to the school of their choice. Once they hear, the ball is in their court, and they begin to weigh various and sundry factors – what kind of financial aid package were they offered. Which school has better department in this or that subject area. Young people today also want to know what kind of work out facilities the school has, how new the dorms are, what kind of food courts are available to students, and even if Starbucks coffee is served in the dorms. At the same time there are deeper issues students ponder about going to college today, and something in the Jewish community that students are thinking about when they weigh their college choices, something that was not even on the radar screen when I applied to college 35 years ago, is what kind of atmosphere on the campus exists in terms of Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and comfortably being Jewish on campus, and Jewish life in general.
A young Jew who arrives on a college campus today might quickly discover that there are regular anti-Israel protests being held by student groups, not uncommonly supported by faculty, where an entirely one sided view of the Israeli Palestinian conflict is used to paint Israel in the worst possible light. The new student might find an active BDS movement on campus. BDS stands for boycott, divestment, and sanctions, and is a growing national movement that attempts to get organizations and institutions to cut off all financial connections with the State of Israel, to not use any Israeli products, or invest in any Israeli companies. And on campus the BDS groups often become repositories of anti Israel, anti Zionist, and sometimes anti semitic language and ideas that should make any Jew uncomfortable.
This week I read an article in the WSJ about a relatively new anti-Israel movement on some college campuses, called Israel Apartheid Week. This is often connected with the campus’ anti-Israel BDS movement, and becomes another series of activities on campus where Israel is accused of all kinds of ridiculous and blatantly false human rights violations against the Palestinians. Those of you who know my Israeli politics know that I am certainly left of center, and I don’t claim that Israel is perfect, and have not hesitated in the past to criticize Israel from this pulpit when I’ve felt Israel has gone astray. But the accusations leveled by the BDS and Israel Apartheid groups are so wildly false, the information they claim so totally inaccurate, and the poisonous atmosphere they foster so dangerous, for Israel and for Jews on campus, that we in the Jewish community have to first of all be aware of it, be educated about it, understand what it is and how it works. Secondly we have to speak out against it. And last – and most importantly, I think – we have to make sure that when our young people arrive on campus they know enough about what is really going on in the Middle East to identify misinformation when it is thrown at them, and should they choose, to actively engage in the debate.
The easiest part of that equation is educating ourselves. I know from emails I get that many of you are already aware and concerned about how Israel is being portrayed on campus today. There is plenty of information if you want to learn more, and if you want specific references or resources you can certainly be in contact with me or with Rabbi Saroken or the Cantor. The second piece – how we choose to speak out – is a bit trickier. There are issues of free speech here, and I don’t think we should be in a position of saying we want to entirely shut down the conversation on campus. But we can be vigilant, and when we have children or grandchildren at schools where we know anti-Israel sentiment is strong and the BDS movement is vocal and active, we can write letters to the administration – I would suggest to the president’s office – voicing our concerns and in a rational way acknowledging Israel’s challenges, while at the same time pointing out that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and that it is a nation grounded in the deepest values of human rights and freedom.
This brings me to the last piece – properly educating our young people. We can do it – just a couple of weeks ago I had a long conversation with a group of 11th and 12th graders about these very issues. But here is the problem – we cannot do it if we have no contact with the kids. And if they stop their Jewish education after their bar and bat mitzvah, we don’t have a chance. This is not the kind of stuff you can talk with a 10 or 11 year old about. But 15, 16, and 17 year old high schoolers are interested in this because they are thinking about college. They know it won’t be long before they are the ones sitting and waiting for that email from the admissions department. And they’ve heard about BDS. And they know something is going on on campus about Israel – but they don’t know exactly what it is. Most of our high schoolers do not have the tools they need to walk onto campus and engage in these debates. If we have them here we can teach them, we can study with them, we can give them those tools. But we need to have them here, and all too often today we don’t see them after bar and bat mitzvah.
We read from the Torah this morning the second portion of the book of Leviticus, continuing from last week a detailed explanation of the sacrifices that were offered in ancient times at the Temple in Jerusalem. Some of the sacrifices were offered when a person had committed a sin. So if you did something wrong – if you lied, if you stole something, if you knowingly violated a commandment – you offered this type of sacrifice, and you were absolved of your guilt. These are what we technically calls sins of commission – you actively participated in doing something wrong.
But the Torah also identifies a second category of sin – sins of omission. There is a special sacrifice for these sins – it was called the Asham. In this case the person hasn’t actively done anything wrong – they haven’t violated a commandment. But there was something they could have done, that for whatever reason they chose not to do. Here is the Torah’s language about the Asham – והוא עד או ראה או ידע אם לא יגיד – he was able to testify – he could have spoken out – but he was silent. In the Torah’s eyes, that is also a kind of sin, and the sacrifice is required.
This is one of those times when there are things that we can do. We can make sure we know what we need to know about BDS and about what is going on in terms of Israel on college campuses today. We can actively participate in that process, we can engage in the conversation by reaching out to the schools where we went years ago or where our children and grandchildren go today, letting them know we are concerned and we care. And most importantly of all we can make sure that our children and grandchildren have the love of Israel, and the understanding, the knowledge, and the tools they need to know truth from falsehood, and to without fear or shame speak out on Israel’s behalf for what is right and just.
may we all determine to engage in that work in the years ahead –