Rosh Hashanah 5767
Saturday, September 23, 2006

Several weeks ago, I was talking to a rabbi friend and of course we were talking about Israel. Like me, she prefers to dwell in the eternities than in the newspapers, and dreads speaking publicly about what has been called the situation, conflict, crisis, or war. She sighed and said, “But this year we have no choice.” I doubt that there is a High Holiday congregation anywhere in the world that is not talking about Israel.
It’s not just about Israel, however, it’s about being a Jew. Like a long marriage with its challenges, for decades I’ve had moments when I just want to excise this relationship from my heart. Yet I know this: if I’m a Jew, Israel is part of my life.
All Jews have fractional ownership in Israel: we each get a little piece of it as our collective inheritance. It is ours for free, and the only hitch is that we can’t walk away from it. To be a Jew is to support Israel’s unconditional right to exist. The only Jews who do not take this position are the Ultra-Orthodox Jews such as the Satmar, who believe the Talmud’s teaching that we must not make aliyah until God sends us. It also teaches that we must not rebel against our oppressors. Thank God there are other points of view, or we wouldn’t have a Jewish homeland today.
I receive passionate e-mails from Jewish friends who say that they either see Israel as the villain who owes apology to the Palestinians and Lebanese, or they just don’t know what to think. They are ashamed and want no relationship to a country they see as imperialistic and violent. I have other friends who believe that if you belong to peace groups such as Peace Now or Brit Tzedek, you’re supporting Israel’s enemies.
Although I understand with horror the strategy of human shields, I shudder at all civilian deaths. Although I understand the futility, and perhaps ultimate suicide of six million Jews battling against 100 million Hezbollah, I too easily give in to rage at the seemingly relentless objection to the presence of Jews in the world. Constant threat of genocide clouds rational judgment.
I think of myself as personal, not political, yet they cannot be separated. How we do business is politics, and it also reveals who we are. The first century rabbi, Hillel, said it most eloquently: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I?”
Indeed, who outside the Jewish community will be for Israel? It’s a lonely time if you’re not living in New York or Israel. Of course we have the Christian right who proclaim themselves as our friends. It is no secret that their game plan is to bring on Judgment day with a universal battle between good and evil, i.e. Jesus believers and heretics. They need us in the Holy Land for Armageddon. I don’t know why Jews think this is a good idea.
I spoke about anti-Semitism last night, because it reveals how the current crisis brings up the often unspoken yet profound fear of extermination among Jews in its fight against Hamas and Hezbollah. We’ve heard words of hate before, and they were followed by action. Why so many support strong military response comes from long memory of near fatal vulnerability.
Yet everything has its price. Upon arriving in Jaffa, the early pioneers saw people, and they were shocked. They were dreaming of the mythic land of milk and honey just waiting for Jewish return. When Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew arrived in Jaffa from Russia in 1882, he was shocked to see that people lived in Palestine. Camel drivers, peddlers, and farmers who spoke Arabic crowded the docks. They had been living on this land side by side with a few Jews for centuries.
Later he wrote that the moment left him feeling “like a stranger, the son of a foreign country and a foreign people. I have no political and civil rights here. I suddenly broke. Something like remorse rose in the depths of my soul…My feet stood on the holy ground, the land of my forefathers, and in my heart there was no joy…I did not embrace the rocks..I stood shocked. Dread! Dread!”
While some settlers understood that the Arab citizens of Palestine presented a political question that needed resolution, little was done about it. Still, Jews and Arabs lived side by side mostly peacefully during this period of settlement.
The Holocaust changed the meaning of Israel for all Jews. Jews concluded that if they wanted to survive, then they had to attain political and military power. Until this point in history, many Jews, especially in classic Reform communities in the South, were absolutely opposed to a Jewish state. They were Americans and if there were such a place, their hard-won trust as loyal citizens would be in jeopardy. But in the end, the Holocaust persuaded most Jews that in an imperfect world Israel was necessary.
The U.N. voted in 1947 to divide the British territory of Palestine into two states, TransJordan for the Palestinian Arabs and Israel for the Palestinian Jews. Most of the Jewish land, by the way, had been bought from Arabs. The Arab world rejected the two state plan and went to war against the Jews in 1948. When Israel won, thousands of Palestinians who had fled at the advice of their leaders found themselves driven off the land of their ancestors. It is also true, to our shame, that there were Palestinian Arabs who were driven from their homes. Two peoples wanted the same piece of land.
The noble and glorious fantasy we held of a nation, pure and free, born out of the ashes of Holocaust, was just that: a story that helped us to survive in the shadow of near annihilation a few years before.
We didn’t look at the price paid for statehood. For the first time in two thousand years, we had power and were players in a very imperfect world. We shed our innocence and recognized that that guilt would be part of our lives. We would commit violent and sometimes wrong acts. Morality would be conditional and compromised, but its measure would be its ability to limit oppression and to bring justice.
Now we fear not only for our honor but for our survival. My friend Alice Shalvi, Orthodox feminist, scholar, and peace activist, wrote me recently from Israel, “We are currently shattered not only by the war and the terrible loss of lives on both sides, but—perhaps even more—by the steadily emerging evidence of incompetence and lack of preparedness on the part of both the military and the political echelons. The only bright light was the remarkable way in which NGOs, charities and even wealthy individuals pitched in to fill the sorry gap left by those authorities which were truly responsible. Pray for dialogue, mutual understanding and at least the beginning of a move towards an end to the conflict.
As we struggle with our feelings and relationship to Israel, we must ask why Israel matters to us who sit comfortably in Santa Fe thousands of miles away from the violence and death. One inescapable reason is that while we pray to live in God’s house, we need a safe place on earth.
Since 1999, the start of the intifada, we have gone from a bad situation to a war, and the war isn’t confined to the Middle East. There are 12 to 13 million Jews in the world, six million in Israel. There are one billion Muslims in the world, 300 million of whom are ethnic Arabs who have been fed anti-Semitic propaganda. We are fighting for the right for Jews to exist. Israel has made it possible for Jews to flourish in America. Israel makes what happened to Jews in the past, most recently in the Holocaust, never to happen again.
Israel is more than a Jewish refuge, however. Despite its many flaws, it is a democracy with a free press, an independent judiciary, and a separation of military and civilian authority. Its scientific contributions benefit the world, and all its citizens, go to Hadassah Hospital, where Jewish, Muslim, and Christian physicians work side by side.
This is the time that calls for all of us to say that we stand with Israel. When we talk about standing for Israel, where exactly are we standing? Of late it has come to feel like a landmine of polemic that that is creating bitter divisions between Jews.
Standing one’s ground is sometimes the most difficult thing to do; the temptation to walk away is always strong, especially when we lack faith in humanity’s potential for doing the right thing. The dark night will end, as it has so many times in our history. Hold in your heart all the peace agreements that have been successful, most notably with Egypt and Jordan. Let’s stand in a place of prayer, compassion, and righteous action. Here are some ways to do this.
Polls and peace rallies are nice, but it’s time for serious tzedakeh. Israeli Jews are suffering and in danger and we have obligation to them. It is essential that we send money to Israel through Jewish Federations, where 100% of the contributions earmarked for Crisis in Israel go to helping displaced families or hungry people. We have tzedakeh envelopes in which you may mail your contributions, and I beg every one of you to make some donation so that Israelis may know that we care and want to help.
Even if it ruins your breakfast, keep informed and have humility about how much you know. The Jerusalem Report and Ha-Aretz online give us a picture of where Israelis are emotionally as well as politically. Their view reveals a nuanced perspective that doesn’t make Israel blameless nor demonic.
Take a trip to Israel. Our presence tells Israelis that we are unafraid and that we claim them as family. There is sadly much difference between Israel when I walked throughout Jerusalem without fear in the 80’s and now. Still, it’s a beautiful country and seeing daily evidence that life goes on will do you good.
Until you can go, you can support the economy by buying Israeli goods. Our HaMakom web site lists ways to buy Israeli on the Internet. It not only will bring money into Israel but it helps keep small people, like the guys who make yarmulkes, in business.
Finally, pray daily for the peace of Jerusalem. Oseh shalom bimromav… May the One who makes peace in heaven make peace in Israel and all the world. And speedily in our days.