Friday, September 26, 2014

Israel and the Jews : Jewish Identity at Times of Conflict. A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775-2014

This summer, my daughter Hanna and I had the opportunity to go on the Jewish Federation’s Mission to Israel. We visited the major Jewish tourist sites, of course. We ate schnitzel and falafel like it was going out of style and wandered through many a shop selling tourist oriented chatchkies. We rode “Tornado Boats” over the waves in the Mediterranean off the coast of Caesarea (a lot of fun, but feeling has only recently returned to our backsides). We walked in, floated on, and occasionally dragged rafts down the Jordan River as Druse adults and children held Saturday afternoon Bar-B-Qs all along its shore. We enjoyed hearing Hebrew spoken as a living breathing language in a living breathing modern and amazing Jewish state.

On our first Friday night in Israel, July 13, most of our group attended services in Nahariya at Emet v’Shalom congregation with which Temple B’nai Jeshurun has had a relationship for over a decade. We were welcomed by our friend Dr. Norman Loberant, who specifically thanked the Temple for our financial support over the years. Some time ago, nearly a decade now, I believe, we helped Emet v’Shalom purchase a computer and other office supplies. Generosity is always remembered.

Partnership Together arranged for us all to have dinner in the homes of people involved with the partnership after Shabbat services. Though news had trickled to some of us later in the day, many of our group found out during conversations at those dinners that three Israeli yeshiva students had been kidnapped.

Jews as a people are worriers. We know that the sun is supposed to disappear at night and reappear in the morning, but our inherent anxiety makes us feel better reassuring ourselves with prayers and offerings of thanksgiving during services just in case.

In a now by-gone day, the Jewish joke about this worrying was:

What’s the definition of a Jewish telegram [aka the original form of text messaging]?
‘Start worrying… [stop]
Details to follow.’

And so at those Shabbat dinners, there was anxiety about “our boys,” which only increased over the next couple of weeks, along with whispering about what might be yet to come. Unfortunately, fears that the boys had been captured by terrorists were true and the boys lost their lives. Only a few days after our group left Israel, the latest installment of a very old conflict grew into a war.

Tonight, I would like to talk about the impact of events in the Middle East this summer on Jewish attitudes toward Israel, the rise in both anti-Israel sentiments and hatred of Jews and Judaism, and a bit about what the future holds for Israel in a realigned Middle East. While this all appears to be distressing, there really is some good news out there as we celebrate this New Year, in spite of the ongoing violence in the region.

Jewish Attitudes Toward Israel

The statement is “Two Jews, Three Opinions.” When it comes to Israel, those two Jews are much more likely to express many more than three opinions. I don’t want to discuss the history of debate concerning Israeli policies nor do I remotely have the time. I’d end up closing this sermon by welcoming you to Rosh Hashanah morning services, if I tried to do justice to the topic. Instead, let me simply say that debate among Israelis concerning how Israel should act in regard to Palestinians is extensive, emotional, often heated, intensely personal and full of discussions of Jewish values, morals, ethics and obligations both to Israelis and to Palestinians. Not that different from debate in the US.

In most past conflicts, there has been a relatively easily recognizable divide between the Israeli left and right concerning how the government should respond. Yet, during the conflict this summer, the opposition leader from the Labor Party, Boogie Hertzog, sometimes sounded like he was more assured that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was making the right decisions concerning Gaza than Netanyahu himself was.

At one point toward the end of July, polling showed over 90% of Jewish Israelis supported Netanyahu’s actions in regard to the conflict with most of the remaining 10% advocating for stronger Israeli military action against Hamas.

Where did this sudden change toward “Two Jews, more-or-less One Opinion” among Israelis come from? I think that Rabbi Arthur Green’s letter that he sent to students and friends offers the answer. Just so you have some perspective, to say that Rabbi Arthur Green, a leader of the spirituality movement on the progressive left, leans left is like saying that Rush Limbaugh leans right.

After explaining that he is by no means a fan of Prime Minister Netanyahu and discussing his criticisms of Israeli policies regarding the peace process in the past, Green stated in regard to the recent conflict:

Then we saw the tunnels.  That changed a great deal for me.  Those tunnels were there for the clear purpose of attacking, killing, and kidnapping Israelis (witness the handcuffs and tranquilizers found in them), surely including civilians living in the nearby kibbutzim and towns.  Those are Israelis who are not settlers in post-1967 territories, but within what all of us (except Hamas, of course) recognize as part of Israel.  Those tunnels had to be destroyed, and I give TsaHaL and Netanyahu lots of slack for accomplishing that vital task.  That’s “vital” in the literal sense of “life and death.”

This said, Israelis also could not help but shift their gaze from the south of Israel a bit to Israel’s east and north and see the horrifying things that the army of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) was doing to its opposition there, especially to Yazidis and Christians. The rise of the Islamic State, for Israelis, even for very, very far left—leaning Israelis, has had an impact on their thought process in regard to the battles against Islamist fighters in which Israel has been and continues to be engaged. Thus, Rabbi Arthur Green came to argue something you might hear from someone on the right that:

I have little doubt, my friends, that many within the ranks of Hamas would do the same to us – yes, all of us: “Jews,” not just Israelis – if they could.  True, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood that spawned it are of different and more moderate origins than ISIS.  But that, I’m afraid, is no longer relevant, a distinction without a difference.  The hatred of Jews spewed forth from the Hamas and Hezbollah propaganda machines, including blood libels, literal demonizing of Jewish souls, etc., make it quite clear to me that we, in their fantasy world, would not be protected “dimmis” (subjugated minorities, thank you), but candidates for slaughter. 

The broader view of Israel’s neighborhood also gives a new light on why there is a need for a homeland for the Jewish people to live in peace and security. Green summed up Israeli fears quite accurately when he stated that, he “shuddered” to think of surviving bands of Jews fleeing from these fighters in the way that the Yazidis were doing at the time, literally huddled on a mountaintop with nowhere to go to evade “convert or die” demands and quite possibly with no help forthcoming. He concluded by noting the impact of these conflicts on his own mindset regarding the peace process:

So do I still believe in what I would have said a month ago, that we need to “take risks for peace?”  Yes, I still say it, but you’ll hear it coming out with a lot less confidence, and hopefully no self-righteousness.

The response to that statement from Arthur Green is “Wow!” It’s a change in attitude almost along the lines of Senator Ted Cruz saying that he now thinks the Affordable Care Act might not be such a bad idea. This summer changed many perspectives.


The events this summer have also created opportunities for those harboring anti-Jewish views to share them openly. Deborah Lipstadt, expert on Antisemitism and the Holocaust, has noted with alarm the recent rise of blatant Jew-hatred in Europe.

[In July and August], pro-Gaza protesters on KurfĂĽrstendamm, the legendary avenue in Berlin, chanted, “Jews, Jews, cowardly swine.” Demonstrators in Dortmund and Frankfurt chanted, “Hamas, Hamas; Jews to the gas!”
On the eve of Bastille Day, a group of Parisian Jews were trapped in a synagogue by pro-Palestinian rioters and had to be rescued by the police. A [couple of months ago] signs were posted in Rome urging a boycott of 50 Jewish-owned businesses. In central London.., anti-Israel protesters targeted a Sainsbury’s grocery, and the manager reflexively pulled kosher products off the shelves. (The supermarket chain later apologized.)…
Seventy years after the Holocaust, many Jews in Europe no longer feel safe.
It is in this context of threats against Israel and a spike in Antisemitism, that Yair Lapid, Israel’s Minister of Finance and the leader of the Centrist Yesh Atid Party, spoke in August at Platform 17, a Holocaust memorial site in Berlin. He asked a question that no few others have asked over the years:

Why didn’t they fight? That is the question that haunts me. That is the question that the Jewish people have struggled with since the last train left for Auschwitz. And the answer – the only answer – is that they didn’t believe in the totality of evil. They knew, of course, that there were bad people in the world, but they didn’t believe in total evil, organized evil, without mercy or hesitation, cold evil that looked at them but didn’t see them, not even for a moment, as human.
As Lapid suggests, for the most part, we tend to think that people around the world and in every circumstance act as we would if we were in that circumstance. We have empathy. We put ourselves in their shoes. Too easily we forget that when we place ourselves in the position of others, we are replacing their understanding with ours, often including hindsight; their faith with ours; their emotions, their experiences, their attitudes with ours.
Yair Lapid argued from Platform 17 in Berlin that empathy makes it difficult for us to understand that real evil can happen. Knowing ourselves, we, in Lapid’s words “cannot believe that human beings — human beings who look like [us] and sound like [us] — are capable of behaving that way. Because good people always refuse to recognize the totality of evil until it’s too late.”
Acting as if we can put ourselves in the place of Hamas fighters does a tremendous disservice to Israel, because Israel isn’t fighting people in Gaza who think or act like us. As a good example, here is a statement by Muhammad Deif, leader of Hamas military operations in Gaza during the recent conflict: 

Today you [Israelis] are fighting divine soldiers, who love death for Allah like you love life, and who compete among themselves for Martyrdom like you flee from death.

We do not think as they do. Meanwhile, Yair Lapid concluded his statement on that Platform in Berlin with words that sum up both Israel’s dilemma and ours as supporters of Israel as it considers how to respond to Hamas’ attacks:

The Holocaust placed before Israel a dual challenge:
On the one hand it taught us that we must survive at any price, and be able to defend ourselves at any price. Trainloads of Jews will never again depart from a platform anywhere in the world.

On the other hand, the Holocaust taught us that no matter the circumstances we must always remain moral people. Human morality is not judged when everything is ok, it is judged by our ability to see the suffering of the other, even when we have every reason to see only our own.
The need to survive teaches us to strike hard to defend ourselves. The need to remain moral, even when circumstances are immoral, teaches us to minimize human suffering as much as possible…
This is all the more true for those who wish to create a two-state solution that will both create a Palestinian state and preserve the Jewish state in the process. Israeli author, Yossi Klein Halevi’s now famous statement meshes well with Lapid’s sentiments. Halevi said, “I have two nightmares about a Palestinian state: That there won’t be one and that there will be one.”

We know that so long as there is no peace agreement that creates at least a two-state solution, if not a three state solution with a separate Gaza, that we’ll be worried that someday, there may no longer be a Jewish state of Israel. An Israel that would include the West Bank and Gaza may not maintain a Jewish majority for long, even without bringing Palestinian refugees into the land.

We know as well that if Hamas rearms in Gaza, it is almost certain that we will see another conflict in the not too distant future. And we can imagine that if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, the possibility increases of Hamas or some other group taking over in the West Bank and turning it into another Gaza, especially if the Jordanian border were to be controlled by them, where rockets will fly by the thousands into every corner of Israel.

But that is also the central fear connected to Halevi’s “That there will be one.” Can it be assured that a fully independent Palestinian state will not pose an even bigger threat to Israel’s existence than the absence of one poses? That it won’t be taken over by Hamas or even worse militants? Especially, looking across the region today, at the rapid rise of ISIS? The problem at the moment is that the answer to that question is clearly, “No, at the moment it can’t.”

Yet, as messy as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s solutions are, the situation today is not as bad as it sounds. The Palestinian economy in the West Bank is one of the fastest growing in the world. There is a great deal of economic cooperation across the border and there are many Palestinians who’ve struck it rich in the tech industry alongside the Israelis. The two sides are peacefully coexisting, cooperating more and more, and doing so peacefully, even though there are issues that divide them and for which negotiations remain essential.
And there is more good news. First, not only do we as a people survive, but the Jewish state continues to thrive. Israel has the ability to wrestle with choices of how to respond to threats. There is little doubt that it can defend itself against most of them and respond substantially to all of them. 66 years ago, when Israel was founded, and during the wars of 1967 and 1973, there were concerns that the Jewish nation would not long survive. The question now is not if it will survive, but how. Today we can ask, “What will Israel be like a decade from now? How about when it celebrates its centennial?”

And while there have been fears of isolation over the years, Israel is far from isolated today. Sure, votes almost always go against it in international fora, especially in the UN, where it confronts both Jew-hatred and anti-Western voting blocks. However, Israel now has many strategic partners and friends including India and China which have significantly increased their economic and academic ties with Israel in recent months. Israel’s economy is booming, especially the technology sector, where Israeli tech companies impact virtually every corner of the computer and biotech markets. Israel faces a growing problem of wealth disparity. The challenge is to spread the success around a bit more.

Most importantly in the category of good news is the strategic cooperation between Israel and Egypt in the ongoing conflict in Gaza. Never has Israel had an Arab partner whose strategic goals aligned with Israel’s to the extent that it now has in Egypt. It is not as if Egypt and Israel are suddenly best friends, but they do see eye to eye, especially in regard to Hamas. Along with Egypt, Israel maintains excellent relations with the Kingdom of Jordan, which is not only a strategic ally, but a partner in many endeavors. Israel just signed a $15 billion dollar agreement in which Israel will become the primary supplier of natural gas to Jordan. Israel and Jordan already have had strong security cooperation with Israel helping Jordan to defend its Syrian and Iraqi borders. And while relations with Saudi Arabia are not as good, they are far better than they ever have been. The same, by the way, is true of Israeli relations with the Palestinian Authority which is part of an informal alliance of pro-Western anti-Islamist regimes in the region, of which is Israel is now seen as a primary cog, cooperating behind the scenes.

So while we’re still looking at a situation in which Iran moves ever closer to obtaining the capability to quickly produce a nuclear weapon and we’re witnessing ongoing violence and chaos in Syria and Iraq, Israel is not doing as badly as you might otherwise think. Not that badly at all.

I think that Yossi Klein Halevi summed it up well in a recent article for the LA Times when he said, "Here we are, in a traffic jam—in Jerusalem. But sometimes I think about how the most ordinary details of my daily life were the greatest dream of my ancestors." We are Jews living in an age when we can make the age old messianic dream, “Next year in Jerusalem,” be a reality simply by getting on a plane.

While all of us may not agree on just how to accomplish the task, may the coming year be one that sees peace increase in our world, especially in the Middle East, and particularly among Israelis and Palestinians. May it be a year of health and happiness of joy and sweetness for ourselves and for our families and friends.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah tikateivu, May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet New Year.

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