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Israel & Immigration (RH2 5776)

I make it a priority to speak about Israel every year, and this year is no exception. But what to share with you? I could tell you that I love and unequivocally support Israel and that I want you to love and support the Jewish State too, but that would not being saying anything new or surprising even to someone who has never heard me speak before after all I am a rabbi and that is how most rabbis feel. And I’m still torn between wanting to call Israel out for the things she does that I find to be immoral or unethical, but I find that difficult to do when so many have hatred and hostility in their hearts regarding Israel and I would never want my constructive criticisms which come from a place of caring and concern to be used against Israel by those seeking to do her harm.

Daniel Gordis had an interesting piece in the opinion section of the Jerusalem Post not long ago entitled, “A Dose of Nuance: How to speak about Israel during these High Holy Days”. He says, “Don’t speak about peace...Everyone with a brain knows Judaism treasures peace. But people who can read also know that peace is not going to happen anytime soon.” He says, don’t speak about the Iran deal while it is a critical issue, there isn’t much to be said that hasn’t been written already and neither side is going to convince the other. I am regularly assailed by those who hate the deal and want me to speak out against it and those who show me documentation that it really is a good deal and will keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons. But that’s not a debate for us today.

He suggests staying away from discussions of war, Palestinians and the place of Israel on the American college campus. So what does he tell us to talk about?

He points out that most American Jews have not read any complete books about Israel, so he posted 30 books worth reading about Israel. If you can’t find his list, I will post it on the synagogue website for anyone who is interested.

CLICK HERE to download the list

He suggests that now might be a good time to ask some of the deep conceptual questions about Israel that were asked when Israel first appeared, but have not been talked about for a while. Is Israel more than a solution to a refugee problem? What would the world look like without Israel? What would it mean to American Judaism? His point being not fear, but gratitude; he thinks that now would be a good time to change the discourse that we have been having about Israel as American Jews. Perhaps, he’s right.

Earlier this year at a synagogue Board meeting, someone asked who here is a Zionist, expecting every hand in the room to go up, but that’s not what happened. Those who raised their hands could not for the life of them understand how there were people who didn’t see themselves as Zionists. Those who didn’t raise their hands couldn’t understand what Zionism had to do with being a leader in a Conservative synagogue. It quickly became clear that there was not one working definition of Zionism being used. There were some who thought that being a Zionist was one who believed in a Jewish state in the Land of Israel while others thought of it as those who want to live in the land.

The truth is that defining Zionism is not so easy and over the years different Zionist factions have emerged who don’t always agree with each other – there is Religious Zionism (Rav Kook), Political Zionism (Herzl) & Cultural Zionism (Ahad Ha’am) just to name a few. Probably the simplest definition that I have seen is:
Zionism is the belief in a Jewish homeland for the Jewish people, in Israel.

Lest there be any doubt, let me assure you that Conservative Judaism is unequivocally a pro-Zionist movement! We have our very own Zionist Organization called MERCAZ USA, I am a member and I hope that after Rosh Hashanah all of you will become members too! Every American Conservative Jew should consider him or herself to be a Zionist. So what does this mean? MERCAZ USA supports what is known as the Jerusalem Program:

  1. The unity of the Jewish people, its bond to its historic homeland Eretz Yisrael, and the centrality of the State of Israel and Jerusalem, its capital, in the life of the nation.
  2. Aliyah to Israel from all countries and the effective integration of all immigrants into Israeli Society.
  3. Strengthening Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state and shaping it as an exemplary society with a unique moral and spiritual character, marked by mutual respect for the multi-faceted Jewish people rooted in the vision of the prophets, striving for peace and contributing to the betterment of the world.
  4. Ensuring the future and the distinctiveness of the Jewish People by furthering Jewish, Hebrew and Zionist education, fostering spiritual and cultural values and teaching Hebrew as the national language.
  5. Nurturing mutual Jewish responsibility, defending the rights of Jews as individuals and as a nation, representing the national Zionist interests of the Jewish people, and struggling against all manifestations of anti-Semitism.
  6. Settling the country as an expression of practical Zionism.

So, to be clear, to be a Zionist today does not mean that you intend to go and live in Israel, although I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that it is a mitzvah to do so; but being a Zionist means believing in and supporting the endeavor we call the State of Israel – I hope that is something that you can and will do.

I want to focus now on one specific platform position, the integration of immigrants into Israeli society. It is a goal, not yet, a reality; making Israel much like us, here in America, where immigration is a hot button political issue. In my humble opinion Israel did not do a great job of integrating the Mizrahi or Eastern Jews when they came from Arab lands after the birth of the State, they did an even worse job of integrating the Ethiopian Jews when they arrived a generation later. And the current refugee crisis in Israel is actually non-Jewish Africans who have come seeking asylum most of them from Eritrea. They currently number close to 50,000. Some live in south Tel Aviv in very poor conditions, but others are held in remote desert camps – where they live in limbo, not being deported, but not allowed to live freely in Israel either.

But the big refugee problem is the one playing out in hearts and minds across the world since the picture of little Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach drown after his Syrian family attempted to get to Greece seeking asylum. There are many in the Jewish community and also specifically in Israel who have said what happens to Syrians is not our concern. They have been trying to kill Jews and destroy Israel for the last 60 years, so if they want to have a civil war or they want to leave Syria with only the clothes on their back that’s all fine, but not our concern.

But we are Jews, we are called to be Or lagoyim, a Light unto the nations. It is our job to bring Torah values to bear in our lives. Living a life of Torah is rarely easy which is why so many do not really try. Torah makes demands upon us that we don’t really want to deal with – the Torah tells us what we should and should not eat – the Torah tells us when we should and should not work – and the Torah reminds us of the moral imperatives our people, “Lo ta’amod al dam rayecha” “Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” (Lev. 19:16); the rabbis never one to limit themselves to the literal meaning of a text, understand this to mean that there is no such thing as a Jewish innocent bystander, if help is needed and you are in a position to help, then you are obligated to help. On Selichot night, we discussed the Jewish concept of sin, most appropriate to this season of the year. The Hebrew word for sin is chet or to miss the mark as in archery, you aimed, but you didn’t hit the target. So for us to sin is to miss the mark, when we could help, but don’t help, we have sinned. And there is no better time to contemplate and question our own behavior then during these Aseret Yimey T’shuva, these Ten Days of Repentance.

The Torah also reminds us, “v’ahavtem et-ha’ger, ki gerim heyitem bi’eretz mitzrayim” “You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:19) Having been mistreated at the hands of our task masters, the Haggadah reminds us annually that we must be sensitive to the needs of others. From the Jewish experience in the Shoah, the Holocaust, we know firsthand what it is means to be unsafe in your own home, to be forced to flee towards safety, to be thwarted at borders, to be turned away and even to be returned to die. In need only mention the St. Louis, an ocean liner that set sail from German in 1939 with over 900 Jewish refugees on board crossing the Atlantic bringing them to freedom, but when they arrived in Cuba, they were refused entry and so they came to the US, but we too denied them entry as did the Canada too. Eventually, with no port of call willing to let them land, the ship was forced to return to Europe, it is estimated that 25% of the passengers died in Nazi concentration camps.

So how can we stand idly by as European countries build fences and put barbed wire on top to keep the Syrian refugees out? There are millions of refugees of the Syrian civil war seeking new lives in Europe and the Middle East, not to mention millions more displaced within Syria itself. Attitudes seem to be changing; the question is what constitutes enough? It is estimated that currently there are 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, 1 million in Lebanon, a country of only 4 million; perhaps another million in Jordan, half a million in Saudi Arabia, although technically there are zero in Saudi Arabia because they don’t define them as refugees; there are a quarter million each in Iraq and the United Arab Emirates. In Europe it is estimated that Germany has received ~100K requests for asylum, Sweden 65K, Hungary almost 20K, Denmark 11K, France 7K, but they have said they will take 24K; UK 7K, but will take 20K. Here in the US we have taken in ~1500 and President Obama has said that we should resettle 10K. Canada has also agreed to take 10K, Australia has said they will take 12K.

There are some who have said that taking in Syrians will allow terrorists to sneak in too. At least here in the US I’m told that asylum seekers are checked more carefully than almost any other group that is admitted into the country. But even beyond that there is an ancient rabbinic midrash that was posted by my colleague Rabbi Stephen Weiss, who first proposed speaking about the refugee crisis. He credits Rabbi Avis Miller with pointing him in its direction.

Midrash from the Tanchuma shared by Stephen Weiss From Avis Miller:

IT IS NOT HAGAR'S TEARS THAT GOD HEARKENS TO, BUT THE VOICE OF THE CHILD ISHMAEL, AND GOD PROVIDES A WELL OF WATER TO SLAKE HIS THIRST. TWICE WE ARE TOLD THAT GOD HEARD THE VOICE OF THE LAD. BUT THE SECOND TIME, A SMALL AND SEEMINGLY EXTRANEOUS PHRASE IS APPENDED. WE READ: AND GOD HEARD THE VOICE OF THE LAD "WHERE HE IS", IN HEBREW, BA'ASHER HU SHAM. (Gen. 21:17)

COMMENTATORS THROUGH THE AGES HAD TO EXPLAIN NOT ONLY THESE THREE WORDS, BUT THE LARGER PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION OF HOW GOD COULD SAVE ISHMAEL, WHEN LATER IN HISTORY THE ARAB PEOPLE WOULD CAUSE THE JEWISH PEOPLE SUCH GRIEF. THESE TWO CONSIDERATIONS, ONE TEXTUAL AND ONE HISTORICAL, OVERLAP IN AN ANCIENT LEGEND, A MIDRASH, FOUND IN THE RABBINIC COLLECTION KNOWN AS TANCHUMA, AND LATER QUOTED BY RASHI:

ACCORDING TO THIS LEGEND, WHEN ISHMAEL WAS DYING IN THE WILDERNESS, THE MINISTERING ANGELS APPROACHED GOD'S THRONE WITH INFORMATION FROM FUTURE HISTORY. "MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE," THE ANGELS SAID TO GOD, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING? IF YOU SAVE THIS LAD TODAY BY GIVING HIM WATER FROM A WELL, THEN HIS DESCENDANTS WILL ONE DAY KILL WITH THIRST YOUR CHOSEN PEOPLE, THE CHILDREN OF ISAAC. LET ISHMAEL DIE NOW, FOR THE SAKE OF WHAT HIS OFFSPRING WILL ONE DAY DO TO A PEOPLE YOU LOVE."

AND THE ANGELS SHOW GOD THE DAYS AFTER THE DESTRUCTION OF THE FIRST TEMPLE BY THE BABYLONIANS. NEBUCHADNEZZAR IS CARRYING OFF THE JUDEAN CAPTIVES. AS THEY PASS THROUGH ARABIA, THE JEWS TURN TO THEIR CAPTORS: "WE BEG OF YOU, BRING US TO OUR COUSINS, THE CHILDREN OF OUR UNCLE ISHMAEL, WHO WILL SURELY HAVE PITY ON US AND GIVE US SOMETHING TO SLAKE OUR THIRST."

AND WHAT DID THE ARABS DO? THEY INDEED CAME, BEARING SALTED MEAT AND FISH AND WATER-SKINS -- INFLATED WITH AIR. THE ISRAELITES, BELIEVING THE SKINS TO BE FULL OF WATER, DRANK DEEPLY, WERE FILLED WITH AIR, AND BURST.

GOD VIEWS THE FUTURE, AND THEN HE ASKS THE ANGELS: "WHAT IS ISHMAEL RIGHT NOW, RIGHTEOUS OR WICKED?" AND THE ANGELS ARE FORCED TO ADMIT: "AT THIS MOMENT HE IS ONLY A LAD, AND HE IS RIGHTEOUS." SO GOD INFORMED THE ANGELS: "ACCORDING TO HIS PRESENT DEEDS WILL I JUDGE HIM."

"I WILL JUDGE HIM 'BA'ASHER HU SHAM', IN HIS PRESENT STATE, NOT ACCORDING TO WHAT HE OR HIS DESCENDANTS MIGHT DO SOME TIME IN THE FUTURE."

WE CANNOT KNOW THE IMPACT THIS MUSLIM MIGRATION WILL HAVE ON EUROPE or in this country. ALL WE CAN DO IS ECHO THE TEXT OF THE TORAH AND THE MIDRASH, AND WORK TO SAVE THOSE NOW INNOCENT REFUGEES ESCAPING THE RAVAGES OF WAR AND TERROR — BA'ASHER HEIM SHAM, from WHERE THEY ARE NOW.

I want to end with a prayer for the Syrian Refugees written by my colleague David Greenspoon:

Almighty God,

Today during this holiest of times, we pray as a Jewish community for the refugees of Syria, people who do not love us, for they have been taught to fear and despise us. Yet today, we have no choice but to hold them in our hearts, for they have been betrayed by their own government, and all but abandoned by the governments of the world. The images of bodies ravaged by chemical weapons, of lifeless toddlers whose parents’ desperate gamble did not succeed, of men and women and children with and without their families who look too normal to be refugees, are inescapable. We look at them and know that we cannot hate them, for they are not monsters. They are the victims of monsters and we know all too well what that means.

Source of Compassion, we have not forgotten that you heard the cries of Hagar as she watched our cousin Ishmael suffer near to death; you visited her with the promise of life. Today we pray that you hear the prayers of innumerable Mothers Hagar as they lift their hearts to you on behalf of their children and loved ones. Guide them to safety and shelter. We pray you protect your holy messengers from among all the worlds’ righteous who seek to make your presence felt as a source of comfort for those seeking relief from war, violence, and death. We ask that you send consolation to those bereft of home and hearth and those who have suffered the loss of loved ones; may those suffering trauma and those in bereavement find wholeness and healing. Most of all dear God, cause your spirit to dwell within all of your human children so that the words of your prophet come to fruition: that nation shall not lift up sword against nation—even its own people—and that war will be unlearned from the earth.

Amen

Thu, January 23 2020 26 Tevet 5780