Kol Nidre, with its focus on the vows that we made which could not be fulfilled, and for which we pray to be released, reminds us that we are human – we err – we make mistakes, sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently. To schlepp these burdens with us, even into a New Year can hobble us, make it impossible to find the way to do right. And so this time comes, and with proper work, with intention, with deliberateness, and with heavy hearts we hope to jettison the wrongs we have done, and look to the future. That is the whole notion of Teshuvah – to turn – to refocus – to aim better, to move away from the past into an uncertain, yet hopeful future.
So, I, along with each of you look over our deeds of the past, and check them against where we are now. And tonight I want to raise this very question on a most important topic – that of Israel.
I recognize that this is a widely diverse community, and it truly is a microcosm of the wider Jewish world – and probably accurately reflects the spectrum of opinions. Let me also say, up front, I am and have always been an oheyv Yisrael, a lover of Israel, and that has never stopped me from being an outspoken critic of some of its policies, its decisions, its treatment of minorities (whether they are Arab, or women, or lesbians and gays, or even Reform and Progressive Jews). Let me also add that there is a joke among my closest friends (and we know that the most wicked joke is the one that is rooted in the truth), that one day, on my matzevah (tombstone) it will clearly state, “He may not have always been right, but he was never in doubt.” But now, I must admit, I am filled with doubt about what I want to share because I know that I have no right to claim superior knowledge or insight – my title gives me none of these. And I have come to know many of you – thoughtful, intelligent, informed, studied, rational and passionate individuals who have your own long held beliefs and opinions. So I come not to preach but to lift up these doubts and search, together with all of you for some answers – for some clarity.
Marianne and I lived in Israel in 1979 and 1980. We didn’t want to leave, but she had law school to finish, and I had the concluding years of rabbinical school, which in those years I could only do in the US. I have been back too many times to count and too many filled passports. Every time Marianne and I go back together, as we did last year, we speak about getting an apartment there in the heart of Emek Refaim, the place we once lived in Jerusalem – then quite bohemian, now quite cool. Israel is a critical part of my identity, and in many ways, a part of me is always there.
And yet, from the very earliest days there I made a vow to myself, I would do anything to keep Israel on track to be the Ohr L’goyim, a light unto the nations of my fantasy world. I wanted my Jewish (and frankly, my liberal) values manifest in the land of our heritage and history. I was one of the founding rabbis of a group called Rabbis for Human Rights, which sought better treatment for Israel’s Arab population. I spent much time in the Palestinian communities, and felt comfortable going to East Jerusalem to visit with Palestinian friends, and knew Ramallah and Nazareth and Hebron almost as well as I knew Jerusalem – In fact during the Second Intifada, Marianne made me take our youngest son Zach with me on a trip to Israel – he was only 7 at the time – to make sure that I would “play it safe” and not visit areas which had turned incendiary (though we did go to East Jerusalem, and I didn’t tell Marianne for a long time). But when Zach and I were there, and visiting my old neighborhood, I wanted to eat at a café that now resided on the corner of our old block – Zach demanded a milkshake – the closet place to get one was back at our hotel – so off we went to the hotel. A block away we heard an explosion – a backpack bomb had gone off in the café at which I had hoped to dine (another story that I kept from Marianne for quite some time).
I know what it is like to have to rush to the miklat – the bomb shelter. So this summer, as reports came in about rockets coming from Gaza, I knew viscerally what people felt in Southern Israel. As the rockets flew farther and farther into Israel – and two young women who were very much a part of our inner circle of friends, children of friends who had grown up with my children, who were now young marrieds in Tel Aviv, one with a child of her own now, reported having to run to their shelter. Tel Aviv! Close friends in Jerusalem reported hearing missiles. And then we heard the news that the brother of those two Tel Aviv women, who was our son Jake’s close friend and had just made Aliyah, and had just entered the army, had then been called to the front line as a machine gunner….
Thank God all are safe now. In the aftermath of the Gaza experience, it became clear that the corrupt Hamas leadership had sold the Palestinians in Gaza a bill of goods – claiming that they could do better than Fatah, and instead used women, and children, the elderly and the infirm as human shields. And tons of concrete that Israel shipped in to Gaza as humanitarian aid ended up as fortification for a series of tunnels built for one purpose – not to shelter Palestinian people and protect them, but to send terrorists into Israel – many dressed in stolen Israeli uniforms – to kill innocent non-combatants – to kill Israelis – to kill Jews.
And so I understand – I fully understand the rationale behind the military action – Operation Protective Edge – in every way, it was a just war by Jewish tradition. I was so proud to be part of a North American community that raised over 18.5 million dollars in a matter of days to provide psychological support to those who suffered the onslaught of Gaza’s missiles. I was so proud of my own Progressive community offering succor not just to the Jews, but to Arabs in Southern Israel who suffered as well. We offered food and shelter to anyone who needed it – even provided food for Muslims as they concluded their celebration of Eid, and offered play groups and walking tours in Jerusalem to families that needed diversion.
And yet, I cannot look away from pictures of the devastation of Gaza – even if one justifies it with a “they brought this upon themselves” attitude. It will cost almost 8 Billion dollars or more to restore what was destroyed – and while I cringe at the question of proportionality, it does gnaw at me.
Yes, I made a vow to myself – to do my best to help to make Israel live up to its ideals. I made a vow to myself to help to make Israel pluralistic. Yes, I made a vow to myself to never remain silent when I thought that the policies or the politics of Israel, its government and it leaders, violated what I considered to be true and right. I made a vow to ever remain a critic of Israel and its leaders – for it is the critics that keep one honest. And I made a vow to stand up for Israel in the face of anti-Zionists, and racists. I made a vow to myself to make sure that Am Yisrael u’Medinat Yisrael Chai – that the People and the State of Israel Live and thrive.
And sometimes one vow trumps all others. The vow to stand up for Israel despite her flaws, weighs more heavily upon me than all the other promises I had made. And I sense that time has come to turn from the past and confront the present and look to the future.
And despite my anger at a recent decision of the government of Israel to expand the settlements in the West Bank – a fool-hardy and provocative gesture that will not provide any security and will be an impediment to peace (sometimes, I can’t help myself) I will not speak out publicly as a critic.
Because as I look at the world around me, I fear for Israel – I fear for the Jewish State. Things that I thought I would never hear about Israel, the Jewish State, have become acceptable.
While in quiet moments with family and friends I can express my hope that Israel rises to the challenge of being the ‘Light Unto the Nations’ for which we all hope, I can no longer be publically critical of Israel while awash in a sea of anti-Israel venom that has continued to spread globally.
The Jewish world was shaken this past Spring by the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s decision to divest from three companies that it claims “further the Israeli occupation of Palestine.” This church has, thereby, placed itself squarely in the camp of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, which seeks to hold Israel solely accountable for the state of the Palestinian people. It did so, furthermore, over the opposition of many of its local pastors and leaders.
Despite protests to the contrary by the leaders of the PCUSA, the church’s action is an affront to the entire mainstream Jewish community. Already dozens of articles have been written that highlight its anti-Semitic tones, which are adumbrated by the continued sale of a congregational study guide “Zionism Unsettled,” which is the most egregiously ahistorical and vehemently biased text against the Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel and Jewish political aspirations to be published by a Mainline Protestant Church.
Even more deeply troubling, however, is the awareness that this church body, which has often been the Jewish community’s partner in critical social justice issues, has been on a ten-year road to this moment. Since its 2004 General Assembly, wherein the PC(USA)’s Committee for Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) called for a “phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel,” Israel has been compared to and identified with the nefarious Apartheid regime of South Africa. Even more distressing is the fact that this ostensibly “political” action was cast in a warped theological framework, denying any historical or religious linkage between the Jewish people and the land of its history and heritage — it delegitimizes any Jewish attachment to the land of Israel. This theological structure represents a wholesale denial of Jewish history, Jewish experience, and Jewish religious strivings to live in covenant with God.
And the Presbyterian Church is hardly the only Protestant denomination that has moved in this direction: in the coming months, concern has been raised about similar actions in the Methodist, and United Church of Christ communions.
We have also been keenly aware of growing anti-Israel sentiments in Western Europe. The rise of Muslim populations in European countries causes problems on two fronts – they are the “new minority” struggling to make their presence felt. And the issues of Israel and Palestine become the rallying cry to cover the tensions in the community. Our concern grew with the murders in Toulouse several months ago, as the attack was perpetrated by a radical Muslim jihadist maniac – and the growing anti-Zionist taunts in the Swedish town of Malmo where Muslims now constitute 15% of the entire city’s population.
For the most part, Western Europe is hearing the sympathetic support for the Palestinians from the Muslim communities that are growing – so the issues are not so much anti-Semitism, as anti-Zionism, or more bluntly anti-Israel bias.
But probably the most worrisome indication of growing anti-Israel sentiment has been lifted up for us a few weeks ago by former Associated Press reporter Matti Friedman – who analyzed the way the press reported the events of this summer’s war. He wrote (Matti Friedman in Tablet Magazine “An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth” 8-26-14), “The lasting importance of this summer’s war, I believe, doesn’t lie in the war itself. It lies instead in the way the war has been described and responded to abroad, and the way this has laid bare the resurgence of an old, twisted pattern of thought and its migration from the margins to the mainstream of Western discourse—namely, a hostile obsession with Jews. The key to understanding this resurgence is not to be found among jihadi webmasters, basement conspiracy theorists, or radical activists. It is instead to be found first among the educated and respectable people who populate the international news industry; decent people, many of them, and some of them my former colleagues….”
Matti’s expose took into account the staffing decisions of the AP, as he notes that the best measure of the importance of a story is to see how many people are covering it. When he was with the AP, there were 40 staffers assigned to Israel and the Palestinian territories. That number is much higher than the total number of news staff that the AP had in China, Russia, or India, or in all the countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined.
He continues, “The volume of press coverage that results, even when little is going on, gives this conflict a prominence compared to which its actual human toll is absurdly small. In all of 2013, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict claimed 42 lives—that is, roughly the monthly homicide rate in the city of Chicago. Jerusalem, internationally renowned as a city of conflict, had slightly fewer violent deaths per capita last year than Portland, Ore., one of America’s safer cities. In contrast, in three years the Syrian conflict has claimed an estimated 190,000 lives, or about 70,000 more than the number of people who have ever died in the Arab-Israeli conflict since it began a century ago….”
Friedman also posits that even the phrase “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” elicits an automatic bias against Israel for it is predicated on the idea that the conflict is about 0.2 percent of the Arab world in which Jews are a majority and Arabs a minority. But isn’t this really an Israel-Arab or Jewish-Arab conflict which is really about the 6 million Jews of Israel trying to live in a sea of 300 million Arabs in the countries surrounding Israel. 300 million goes up to 1 billion Muslims when one adds in non-Arab states (Iran, Turkey…)
Like the way the Presbyterian Church has portrayed the strong Israel versus the weak and helpless Palestinian community, these news reports follow suit. Also like the material found in Zionism Unsettled (the PCUSA “study guide”) AP reporting gives the implicit assumption that if the Palestinian problem is somehow solved, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians will be over, a trope we just heard in the halls of the United Nations General Assembly – though no informed person today believes that solving the Palestinian – Israeli conflict, will bring peace and stability to an unstable region.
Friedman’s final indictments are stunning, “A reporter working in the international press corps here understands quickly that what is important in the Israel-Palestinian story is Israel. If you follow mainstream coverage, you will find nearly no real analysis of Palestinian society or ideologies, profiles of armed Palestinian groups, or investigation of Palestinian government. Palestinians are not taken seriously as agents of their own fate…. The West has decided that Palestinians…exist as passive victims of the party that matters…..”
And on college campuses across our country, young supporters of Israel are being drowned out and vilified by Pro-Palestinian groups – often organized by outside groups, or even by sympathetic college faculty and staff. Last month Rev. Bruce Shipman, the Episcopal chaplain at Yale, resigned because of controversy over a New York Times letter he wrote in which he suggested Jews were collectively culpable for Israel’s actions and for subsequent rise in global anti-Semitism.
And yet, I believe that in the days to come, someone will accuse the Jews of causing Rev. Bruce Shipman’s downfall – and the cycle will continue.
Hillel’s famous dictum, “Eem ayn ani li, mi li? Uk’she’ani l’atzmi, ma ani? V’eem lo achshav, aymatai? If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” pricks my conscience. I know that people on both sides of the Israel and Palestinian conflict are suffering. I also know that most of my personal and professional life has been dedicated to the service of others – including the people of Ramallah, and Nazareth, and East Jerusalem and even Gaza, so I am able to content myself that I have put Hillel’s second clause into action in my life -Uk’she’ani l’atzmi ma ani – if I am only for myself what am I? – I have tried not to be only for myself. But the time may be NOW that I ask, if we, as a united Jewish community, don’t unite in support of Israel, who else will?
And given the realities of the Israel as it is, rather than the one we would want it to be, I cannot suggest that it easy to support Israel. My friend Rabbi Eric Yoffie proposes that on this Yom Kippur, both Jews on the Right and Jews on the Left have things for which they must atone. For Jews on the Right, he suggests that they contemplate: For the sin we committed by ignoring the occupation, accepting the status quo, and failing to take the initiative to propose a plan to move Israel toward peace. He asks those on the Right to consider: We pretend not to see the terrible burdens and cruelties of occupation and the suffering of the occupied, and we care more about the Land of Israel than the State of Israel. We are silent as Israel builds settlements that drain her resources, undermine her security, and turn the world against us. And we assume, without reason or rationale, that we can sustain ourselves indefinitely without a border…. We are also silent when Jewish hoodlums attack Arab civilians, destroy Arab property, and build illegal outposts in the territories.
For the Jews on the Left: For the sin we committed by minimizing the dangers faced by Israel, making excuses for the actions of Israel’s enemies, and asserting grand ideals while dismissing troubling realities. He reminds us that Jews on the Left: …” often patronize the Palestinians and fail to remind them that their suffering, no matter how real, does not exempt them from the moral principles that obligate all humankind.” They “speak out against the forces of religious extremism that polarize our people but not against the forces of assimilation that decimate our ability to survive as Jews. We sometimes forget that Jews who wear kippot or black hats are Jews too.” (from Eric Yoffie, Published in Haaretz “God of the left and of the right, forgive us on Yom Kippur” Oct 01, 2014)
Yes, these are the things we can and should contemplate over the next twenty-four hours. These are the things that we should quietly discuss among our family, community and close friends. But out in the world, by the water-cooler in the office, on the golf course, at the company Holiday party, at diverse social settings – ours are the only voices that could rise in support of that nation state that is also the place of our history and heritage. Our voices must rise over the din of condemnation and ridicule, often bandied about in polite conversation. Ours are the only voices that can counter the vile and baseless anti-semitism, and offer knowledge – the only antidote to prejudice and ignorance.
Let us use this time to reflect on the kind of Israel we want that State to be, and promise to work quietly towards that goal, but at the same time, do everything we can, with our utmost strength and resolve to proudly proclaim that Israel is there, warts and all, like every struggling democracy – even our own United States – and it deserves – no – it demands – our support. If Israel exists and thrives, we can continue the work of making it into the Ohr L’Goyim – the light unto the Nations. Without our vociferous support, the alternative is too grim to contemplate.
The words of Kol Nidrei allow me to be relieved of vows that I could not keep – and I pray to release myself now from the vow of being the public critic – the one who calls out loudly about all of the imperfections that still exist.
And I remember and reassert my vow to stand up for the State and the People of Israel and I humbly ask, “Will you join me?