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Israel (RH2 5778)

It is important for us to talk about Israel, it is also challenging. I love Israel and I hope that you do too. There was a time when I could have counted on that as a given, but that day has past for now and I can only look forward to the day when it again will be a fact of life in the American Jewish community.  You may not realize it but one of the most central prayers of Rosh Hashanah is the Aleinu.  Aleinu began as an introduction to the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service and grew to be so popular that it became a part of every service we do.  It has two paragraphs, one about our particularism as Jews and one that is universalistic; we have both those strands inherent in our Judaism. 


Our particularism makes us staunch defenders of Israel as our homeland.  We understand that Israelis live in very dangerous neighborhood, where many hate them and try to do them harm.  If the IDF did not defend the population so successfully there would be no Israel. Israel faces terrorist with knives, guns and bombs; hostile governments in Europe, and a world that supports the BDS movement. All of these scare us and concern us for Israel’s safety and security. 


Our universalism makes us the descendents of the prophets of the Bible who rail against corruption and defend the rights of the downtrodden.  Long gone are the days when Israel was seen as the small David like underdog, fighting against the Goliath of the combined Arab states.  Today Israel is a strong and independent state with authority over approximately 6 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  When we see the security barrier dividing Palestinian villages, checkpoints with long lines to enter Israel, and the disparity of resources it disturbs our sense of fairness and equity that are cornerstones of American Judaism.  It is no wonder that there are many who currently have such mixed feelings about Israel.  It is important to remember that Israel is an amazing accomplishment, worthy of our respect and support even when we may not agree with every policy or action she takes.  It was Hillel who taught: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, then what am I? We are both particularistic and universalistic in our outlook.


This is a year of anniversaries for Israel. In Aug. 1897 the First Zionist Congress took place; 120 years ago Theodor Herzl convened Zionists in Basel, Switzerland.   He infused us with his vision – Im tirzu ainzo agada, If you will it, it is no dream! This was the birth of the WZO – the World Zionist Organization.  They adopted Hatikvah as their anthem.  Since the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE for 2000 years, Jews prayed for a return to Zion and Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel.  It was Herzl who turned a yearning into a political movement.


This year we observe the centennial of the famous Balfour Declaration.  In Nov. 1917 this document gave official recognition to the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine from the British government. It did not establish the state of Israel, but was an important stepping stone in the process. However, it is actually a rather complex document for being such a short statement.  It reads,


His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.


The first part came to be, the second clause is still an aspiration, but not a reality.  The Jewish and non-Jewish populations living in harmony is still very far from being actualized.  And the third part, the status of Jews in other countries is a difficult topic as well. There were close to a million Jews living in Arab/Muslim lands when Israel became a state.  What happened next depends upon the narrative you accept; there was an Exodus of Jews from those lands to the newly established state.  We talk about the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands; they talk about Jews as willing immigrants to the newly established Jewish State. Just as there were Arabs who fled homes in Palestine to escape the new Jewish State and there were those who were driven out, I suspect that the truth is not a nice neat package, but rather a complex mix. There is no question that we left lands across North Africa and throughout the Middle East that were rife with poverty, political instability and anti-Semitism. We hear very little of the Jews, who regardless of motivation left most everything behind when they left, because Israel went out of its way to integrate them into the fabric of the new country while their Arab neighbors did nothing to integrate the displaced Arabs.


Here at home, Louis Brandeis became the father of American Zionism, he introduced the notion that one could support the Jewish State and still be a loyal and patriotic American. He spoke to American rabbis who feared being considered disloyal to this great nation of ours. Brandeis said, “Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent patriotism…Every American Jew who aids in advancing the Jewish settlement in Palestine, though he feels that neither he nor his descendants will ever live there, will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so.” This was a transformative time for American Jewry. 


This is also the 70th anniversary of the UN General Assembly Partition Resolution 181, calling for the establishment of two independent states, one Jewish and one Arab.  Israel declared itself to be a sovereign state; while the Arab states declared war upon them, and the War of Independence was fought.  Again there are differing narratives of what transpired, we viewed it as a moment of victory, while the Palestinians refer to it as the Naqba or catastrophe.  Jordan ended up in control of the West Bank of the Jordan River and Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip, both areas that had been slated to be part of the new Arab state.  This is the basis of the two-state solution advocated by some and rejected by others for achieving peace in the Middle East.


This year we also marked the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War.  Surrounded by 500,000 hostile troops, 5,000 tanks and almost 1,000 fighter planes, Israel repeatedly appealed to her neighbors and the international community. But no help was forthcoming.  The Six-Day War proved that Israel must always be able to defend itself—by itself— against any threat.  The results of that war saw Israel gain control over the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem and the Sinai Peninsula. Jerusalem and the Golan were annexed as part of Israel proper while the other areas were treated differently.  Sinai was returned to Egypt as a part of a peace deal signed in 1979.  The Gaza Strip and the West Bank have been at the core of the Israeli/Arab conflict for half a century.  On one side there are Israelis who feel that all of the Biblical land of Israel belongs to us as a gift from God – the Gush Emunim/the Block of the Faithful, they are the settlers who want us to keep all the land.  On the other side is Shalom Achshav/Peace Now – the movement that is willing to trade land for peace.  On the Arab side too there is a lack of unity.  The Palestinian Authority works together with Israeli authorities cooperatively in the West Bank; while Hamas is actively engaged in terror attacks on Israel from Gaza where they rule. There are Palestinians who would accept a two state solution and seek to live with Israel; while there are others whose goal remains the destruction of the Jewish State and the end of Israel. 


The Six-Day War bolstered the U.S.-Israel relationship both at the grassroots and governmental levels.   It was a watershed for the American Jewish community; leading to an empowerment not previously seen in this country.  Suddenly, Jews were proud to show their Judaism in public; men began wearing kippot outside of the synagogue or home, people would wear a chai or a Magen David/Star of David. It also led to unprecedented levels of philanthropy; American Jews supported the fledgling state beyond anything seen before. Jews took to the streets to protest in favor of Israel. Jewish pride and power were the order of the day. American Jews felt differently about their Judaism because of their pride in Israel and the miracle of its survival against all odds.


The Six-Day War reunified Jerusalem and opened it to all faiths.  From 1948-1967 the Jewish people had no access to the Kotel or many of our holiest sites.  Immediately after its victory in the Six-Day War, Israel granted Jordanian Islamic religious authorities jurisdiction over the Temple Mount— Judaism’s holiest site—which contains the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque.  Israel insures that Christians, Muslims and Jews all had access to holy sites.  The great irony for us as non-Orthodox American Jews is that we are one of the few religious movements discriminated against in Israel.  When David Ben-Gurion, first Prime Minister of Israel made a deal with the Orthodox to allow them to play a role in government and the judicial system, no one could have anticipated where it would end up decades later.  The Orthodox became the ultra-orthodox and they do not recognize our brand of Judaism to be legitimate.  Due to the coalition structure of the Knesset the ultra-orthodox continue to maintain a stranglehold on each and every Israeli government both on the left and the right. It is important that in addition to other forms of support that we give to Israel, that we make sure we are members of MERCAZ USA it only costs $36 for an individual or $54 for a family to join, the membership forms are in the lobby.  And it is important that we support the Masorti Foundation in their fight for pluralism in Israel, as they are the Israelis who pray like us and whom we support.


This November we will also mark the 40th anniversary of the courageous visit from Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt.  Many thought that it would never happen that an Arab leader would come to Israel, but there he was in the Jerusalem.  This in turn led to the Camp David Accords involving Sadat, Menachem Begin and Jimmy Carter.  This showed us that peace is possible. Israel has remained deeply committed to the pursuit of peace with its neighbors.


And this year marks the 30th anniversary of the First Intifada in Dec. 1987 we saw the first grassroots uprising amongst the Palestinian people.  It was both an uprising and a resistance movement done to protest the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  The response of the IDF brought soldiers into direct contact with civilians and minors leading to injuries and deaths which led to the use of plastic bullets.  The Oslo Accords put an official end to the Intifada, but alas did not bring peace. Rather it has led to a pessimism that things won’t get better, that there won’t be a resolution to the conflict. The First Intifada can also be seen as a turning point for American Jewry’s unconditional support of Israel.  The scenes on our TV screens horrified us and suddenly we were not so sure of our support for Israel.  It has been said of the IDF, “To be 10 percent more moral that other nations would make them a light unto the world; but if they were expected to be 50% more moral, they would be dead." It’s not so easy to find the proper balance between restoring order and what is considered excessive force. Israel lives in a world where Hamas remains dedicated to her destruction; where Hamas terrorists indiscriminately fire missiles at Israeli civilians. Six million Israelis are now within range of an estimated 10,000 Hamas rockets. At the same time Hamas continues to ignore international law and custom by putting Palestinian civilians at risk by firing those rockets at Israel from school, hospitals and mosques. 


While Sunni and Shiite Muslims fight and kill each other throughout the Middle East, their terrorist arms both hate Israel. So while we have Hamas attacking from Gaza, Hezbollah is the imminent threat to the north. Hezbollah possesses an advanced rocket and missile arsenal provided by Iran.   Hezbollah also uses human shields placing Lebanese civilians at risk.  Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy in the region functioning as an arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.  Hezbollah has gained significant battlefield experience fighting for the Assad regime against Syrian rebels and ISIS.  Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism making it a threat not only to Israel and America, but to the world.  


So we should remain acutely aware that Israel lives in a very dangerous neighborhood.  Israel is a wonderful and amazing place.  It is deserving of our love and support.  It is important that we invest in Israel Bonds, that we plant trees with JNF, that we support Mercaz and Masorti. We must send our children or when they are grown like mine, we must be supportive when they decide to go.  We must visit ourselves on missions and on vacations. We need Israel and whether they know it or not Israel needs us. Israel needs peace and Israel needs security.  We need to be Zionists; we need to be advocates for Israel. Today we must take up the mantle of our forbearers. Now it is our turn to keep Israel safe and work toward peace. But the job isn’t easy, we must be up to the task.

Wed, September 22 2021 16 Tishrei 5782