Author Archives: David Elcott

David Elcott

About David Elcott

David Elcott is a lecturer, community organizer, and organizational consultant who has brought his insights and analyses of contemporary life and our relations with the wider world to well over 100 communities across North America. David holds a Ph.D. in Political Psychology and Middle East Studies with a specialty in Islam and Arab culture. Over the course of his career, he has been Vice-President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, U.S. Inter-religious Affairs Director of the American Jewish Committee and Executive Director of Israel Policy Forum. Author of A Sacred Journey: The Jewish Quest for a Perfect World and oft quoted in the Jewish and world media, David received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in Political Psychology and Middle East Studies. In all his work, David commits with a passion for social justice, peace, advocacy of the Jewish people and communal change.

A Tough Balancing Act

Let me make it clear from the outset: I think some of these people and groups I am about to list are completely wrongheaded, some of the cases make me very angry, and I am no defender of those who try to delegitmate Israel. I have fought battles with those calling for divestment against companies doing business in Israel and have written articles saying that responsibility for the Iraq war and for American policy toward Arabs or Palestinians belongs to Rumsfeld and Cheney and Bush, not the pro-Israel lobby. There are some Israel bashers who, if they scratched themselves a bit, would recognize that they are not free from anti-Semitic stereotypes. We are not paranoid when people attack Israel — there is a lot of vicious hostiltiy out there.

But … yes, the but is there. How do we best serve Israel’s longterm vitality and security and the integrity of our own community here in the U.S.? That is a pragmatic not a truth based question.

I am thinking about the big headlines over the last few years. There was the Columbia case against the Middle East Studies Department, then AJC and ADL were accused of silencing Tony Judt. Jimmy Carter and Walt-Mearsheimer published books that were the talk-of-the-town after we attacked them. Next was the outcry over an Arabic cultural school that led to the principal’s resignation and then a new tenure battle (following the one at De Paul University) with  Barnard College professor Nadia Abu El-Haj. The David Project, out there in our name, is being sued by the Islamic Society of Boston in an ugly battle. These are the big ones. There are many more.

Jews made it in this country, broke through the quota barriers, the discrimination, the tacit “Gentleman’s Agreement” by fighting for freedom of speech, the right to be public in our Jewishness and even demonsrate for Jewish interests, from Israel to Soviet Jewry. I am proud of our power and our willingness to be out there.

Here’s the rub. The more we threaten and assault and use our power to silence, to challenge tenure committees and public speeches, attack authors and publishers, the more we begin to look and sound like the them who didn’t want us to be part of this country, or at least, not part of this country in our unique Jewish voice and character. For the vocal and militant Jewish crowd, swinging out at every critic of Israel or of Jewish power must feel heroic. But I wonder whether the rest of us feel proud or, rather, a bit edgy that we are acting like the power elites of prior generations who tried to hold us down and silence us.

I feel much more confident that mature, intelligent and nuanced responses to the Israel and Jewish power bashing serve Israel’s interests much better than bashing back, that is, if we really believe that, in spite of her imperfections, Israel deserves our support. Often, the volume of our protests against those who disagree seems to correlate with our doubts and fears about Israel. Less attack and more reason would do us, Israel and dialogue in this country good.

From Robben Island to Yad Vashem

I spent part of the summer in South Africa spending time in the black townships outside Cape Town with an amazing organization called Ikamva Labantu that has spent decades building an infrastructure for the formerly disenfranchised and still impoverished Africans. There is much to do in a country still divided by race and privilege, but my wife Shira and I were blown away by the progress we saw there.

Then I flew to Israel to work with colleagues on figuring out ways to help end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is 4,600 miles from Cape Town to Jerusalem, but the two felt like a million miles apart. The sad fact for me, a committed Jewish Zionist: During the 1990s, both South Africa and Jerusalem had the chance to resolve their conflicts. South Africa succeeded and Jerusalem failed.

What the two conflicts shared: Warring populations, terrorism, dual claims of land and history, divisive ethnic identities, huge anger, a sense of utter futility and hopelessness, a belief that violence is the only path.

There are crucial differences: South Africa had an overwhelming black African population forced by European colonialists into an apartheid world. Africans sought democratic rule and definitely wanted the white population to remain. The Holy Land holds two ancient populations almost equally divided in size, each with the power to do terrible damage to the other.

Apartheid effectively describes the former world of South Africa, not Israel. The situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories is one of two nations in conflict. Palestinians do not want Jews in their territory while Israel is home to a substantial Arab minority even though the polls show that half of Israel’s Jews want their Palestinian neighbors out.


Choose Life

Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

The story of our people begins with a song of triumph and freedom at the Red Sea and ends with the final song of Moses as we stand ready to enter the land of Israel. The unequivocal victory over Egypt has given way to ambiguity. Physical survival is assured, but spiritual health is still in question.

Neither God nor Israel has abandoned each other in spite of disappointments and anger, but the frustrations of God are clear, as if God must be convinced to protect the people of the covenant. Israel seems, as always, to be searching for itself, hoping to find in alien gods and other cultures a greater sense of wholeness.

Israel is uncomfortable with its status as a sacred and unique people, its obligations to follow God rather than the commonness of its neighbors. It is against the people’s longing for the banal and the ordinary that Moses critiques:

O dull and witless nation,
Is not God the Parent who created you,
Fashioned you and made you endure

(Deuteronomy 32:6).

The commentators jump on this, realizing that the rejection of Torah is not toward a higher goal, but a repudiation of the Jewish mission to be a covenantal people. It is not simply that the environment around us is so compelling, but that we are tired of the burden. Sapped of energy, Israel displays spiritual exhaustion and disbelief that the world can be redeemed.

In the last words our tradition attributes to Moses, this prophet of prophets looks into the soul of the Jewish people and fears our desire to "escape from freedom." Moses calls on mountains and sky, on all the nations and past generations of Jews to witness the choice Israel must make–and he implores us to choose life, to affirm the covenant: "For this is not a trifling thing for you; it is your very life, through it you shall long endure…" (32:47).

A Flawed Hero

The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

The children of Israel are recalcitrant and undependable lovers who reject their covenantal responsibilities for a piece of meat, a golden calf, a sexy Moabite body. They are children, in fact, infantilized by the slavery of their upbringing and unable to endure the incertitude and ambiguities of freedom.

Against the spiritual immaturity of the Israelites stands Moses. He has the voice of the prophet, confronting evil, yet remains humble. He demands that they understand the Torah they are receiving, and refuses to accept either God’s or the people’s demands that his status be elevated to that of demigod. Yet the Torah is unequivocal–Moses is fatally flawed. He is a wanderer, condemned to die in the desert, forbidden entry to Eretz Israel (the land of Israel) and denied the honor of leading his people to the final homecoming.

The Israelites are addicted to miracles and martial law, to appetite and apostasy. Moses is the benevolent leader who chides and dictates, but cannot liberate his people to stand on their own feet, to be independent of his will. The result is inevitable. The people rebel once again and, in frustration and disappointment, Moses finally responds: "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?" Moses hits the rock, water pours out and the people temporarily quench their thirst.

God reacts immediately: "Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm my sanctity in the eyes of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land." At the very moment Moses needs to wean the Israelites from their dependence on him and turn them to God and Torah, he credits himself for a quenching miracle.

He is a hero of mythic proportions who can calm an angry God, yet chastise and redirect his people when they panic. He is the ideal leader for the desert, the only one who can give direction and purpose to the wanderings. But he is not the leader for the freedom of homecoming, the one to build a covenantal community in Eretz Israel.

Different Leaders For Different Times

The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Turn it over and over, our tradition says, and all can be found in Torah, even principles of democracy hidden in the language of revolution. Korah, a relative of Moses and Aaron, leads a rebellion in the desert in which he and his cohorts are killed and their treason condemned by God.

The desert is a fearful place and the Israelites are a frightened, inchoate mass of refugees. To demand the overthrow of Moses and Aaron as they attempt to bring the children of Israel from slavery to freedom would have undermined the liberation and thrown the covenanted people into anarchy. Korah’s rebellion was an act of personal aggrandizement roundly condemned by the tradition. But his words, his critique of Moses, remain as verses in the Torah that we continue to read year after year.

Korah said to Moses and Aaron: "You have gone too far! This whole community is sacred (kadosh), all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the congregation?" The words may be heresy for an embattled people in the desert, but ring truer at the latter part of the 20th century.

The rabbis tell us to judge a leader within the context of the age in which he or she lives. Moses succeeded in the desert, but would have failed in Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel). King David was a hero in founding a state, but could not insure its survival. The rabbis provided a remarkable structure for life in Diaspora, but cannot structure Jewish life in Israel.

While Korah would have destroyed the Israelites in the desert, his words are a charge to the Jewish people today. The will of God can be located in the democratic decisions of the Jewish people if we actualize our potential for sacredness and allow God to reside in our midst.

God Was In This Place And I Did Not Know

Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

Jacob runs for his life, fleeing the fury of the brother from whom he has stolen the patriarchal blessing and the father he has deceived. He stops for the night, for the sun is setting. The next day he will cross over into another land, a new family and a world that knows nothing of a covenant with God.

 Jacob has reached the borders of his life with no assurance that the blessings of power, wealth and progeny he has received from his father, Isaac, will ever be fulfilled. Jacob dreams of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending. He envisions God at his side, renewing the covenant made with his father Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham:

For You and Your Descendants

The ground upon which you lie I will give you and your descendants. Your progeny shall be as the dust of the earth, spreading out to the west and the east, to the north and south. All the families of the earth will bless themselves through you and your descendants (Genesis 28:14).

Jacob awakens from his sleep and says: "Surely there is God in this place and I did not know." What is it that he did not know? Two Hasidic masters provide contrary yet equally remarkable insight for us. Each responds to Jacob’s confusion over God’s presence.

One explains the place where God was found was in the "I"–the self of Jacob. Consumed with anger, fear and deceit, Jacob suddenly becomes aware of the potential divinity with himself, the place where God can reside.

The second intuits the opposite. At the very moment that Jacob becomes aware of God’s presence, he exclaims: It is "I" (the self) that I do not know." Only when I am not filled with myself, when I empty myself of the ego and self-serving explanations that encrust me, can I truly experience God’s presence. Both remind us how ever-present God can be and how easy it is to say "But I did not know."

Recognizing The Heir

Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

We locate the initial covenant that binds us as Jews in the encounter between God and Abram. God promises Abram land, power, fame, and progeny. Abram agrees to leave his home, people, and culture to begin anew in Eretz Israel, the land of Israel. Abram should be satisfied. He gains great wealth, his herds and flocks graze on the promised land, and he is in a meaningful relationship with God. But Abram is miserable, for he has no one to inherit all he has built. And he is confused–three times he tries to identify an heir, and each time is rebuffed by God.

Abram, upon leaving his home for Eretz Israel, takes his wife and his nephew, Lot. Lot has potential–he is family, he is willing to go with his uncle, and he settles in Eretz Israel. Abram must have high hopes, but they are misguided. Lot fails repeatedly to distinguish himself as a potential heir. He cannot share the land with his uncle so he moves into an evil town that will eventually cause his downfall. In the end, he fathers the Moabites and Ammonites, sworn enemies of Israel.

Abram then turns to his faithful servant, Eliezer, who clearly is a righteous man. But when Abram offers Eliezer as a possible heir, God must correct him again. To bear the covenant, Abram is reminded, one must be of the family of Abram. Eliezer fails on this account.

What About Ishmael?

Finally, Abram has a son, Ishmael, born to his wife’s handmaiden. Abram is thrilled, but is once again reprimanded for not seeing the essence of the covenantal connection. The heir will come from Sarah, not from an Egyptian slave woman. Abraham cannot hear, painfully responding, "Oh that Ishmael might live by Your favor!" God chides Abraham, confirming that Abraham has little awareness or sensitivity to the family dynamics in which the covenant will be played out.

The commitment to uphold the covenant by sustaining and nourishing the family will not come through Abraham, who will try sacrifice Isaac, but through Sarah, who will fight fiercely to protect him. Her insights into the power of human relationships and the central role of the family set a model that fundamentally challenges our commitment to uphold Jewish families today.