Archive for the ‘Gaza’ category

Abraham and Isaac are Us – Moriah is Jerusalem

September 27, 2014

In the past, I have been asked, “Can’t we read some other section from the Torah on Rosh Hashanah? The story of Abraham and his attempted sacrifice of Isaac is so difficult to listen to. Indeed it is frightening.” While I have always appreciated these concerns, I have never acceded to these requests.

Why? Perhaps partly because, having been raised as a Reform Jew, for all of my childhood and much of my life this was the only Torah text to be found in our High Holy Day prayer book for Rosh Hashanah. You must remember that in those days, Reform Jews never considered the possibility of observing a second day of Rosh Hashanah and therefore needing a second Torah portion. In fact, the rabbis who framed the old UNION PRAYER BOOK intentionally chose this text in spite of the fact that in traditional synagogues it is read on the second day and not the first. Why? Because they had ideological problems with the traditional text for the first day. While it does include the birth of Isaac, it also includes Abraham and Sarah driving Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar, and her son, Ishmael, out of their camp to live or die in the wilderness. That, they found that to be morally questionable.

30 years ago, when GATES OF REPENTANCE was published, it did include a second Rosh Hashanah Morning service, for those who choose to observe a second day. However, for that service, they still did not include the other traditional Torah portion but rather they inserted the story of Creation. Still I stuck with Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah, partly because of nostalgia and partly because this is a story about Jews while the Creation story is about a time before there were Jews. Now, in this new prayer book,     MISHKAN HANFESH, they have chosen to include, not only today’s Torah text and the story of Creation, but also the other traditional Torah reading and a fourth reading as well.

But still, I am deeply tied to the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah. That bond exists not just because of nostalgia, nor even just because it is a story of the early days of our people, but also because of the presence in it of Mt. Moriah. For Mt. Moriah would later be called Mt. Zion, and upon that mountain would be built the sacred city of Jerusalem. This story is so compelling because, from the earliest times of our people’s existence – 4,000 year ago – it binds the generations of Jews – Abraham and Isaac and all the generations to follow – to the land of Israel, and particularly to the city of Jerusalem.

Granted, it is not an easy story. It is one fraught with danger and heartache, sacrifice and tears. But that is part of the price that we Jews have had to pay throughout the ages for the privilege of having a land of our own. Jews for 4,000 years have tended to agree that it is a price well worth paying.

Throughout the ages, we have called it the Promised Land, but more accurately we should have called it the Land of the Covenant. For, from the very beginning of the Jewish people – when Abraham and God first struck a deal which would establish forever the unique relationship between our people and God, a central part of that deal, that covenant, that brit, was that there would be this land which God would give us as homeland for all time.

So today we read from the Torah some of our earliest history and what do we see? Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah; standing and praying on the site of the very heart of Jerusalem; the site where both Temples would eventually stand.

As Abraham and Isaac stood on Mt. Moriah, there were others who inhabited that land as well; people such as the Amorites, Hittites, the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadomites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites. But all those people are gone. They have disappeared from the face of history and not a trace of them remains, other than some sporadic archaeological finds. But we Jews, the descendants of Abraham and Isaac, remain. We still exist and throughout the centuries, whether living on that land or in exile, the bonds between us and that land have remained unbroken.

2,700 years ago, when our people were dragged into exile in Babylonia, the Psalmist sang: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember you not; if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy.” For 2,000 years, while in exile after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, in our worship we prayed daily for our return to Israel. 69 years ago, on April 20, 1945, on the first Shabbat after the liberation of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, a British radio reporter shared with the world his recording of the surviving Jews singing “Hatikvah” – “The Hope”; the song that would become the national anthem of the State of Israel. Throughout our history, whether we were living on the land or off of it, we never forgot Jerusalem; the cords that bound us to the land of Israel may have been stretched but never broken. In the words of the medieval Spanish Jewish poet and philosophy, Yehuda HaLevi, “My heart is in the east, and I am in the uttermost west.”

What I speak of is a sort of mystical magnetism, yet I know that there are those among us who do not sense it. When considering vacation destinations, Israel may not even make the list and that is a shame. It is a shame because for most Jews – indeed, for most Christians – but especially for most Jews, once they have spent any time in Israel, they understand from whence I speak. They feel the magnetism. They become connected – in spiritual ways connected – to the land and its people. They come to understand that the Jewish people and the land of Israel are inseparable no matter where we live.

I share all this with you because this past summer has been a very difficult and trying time for Israel and for all of us who love Israel. Indeed, it has been a trying time for all Jews, whether we love Israel or not. While Israelis has suffered under the constant barrage of Hamas missiles, needing to flee with very little advanced notice into their bomb shelters, we all have suffered as we have witnessed, and perhaps experienced, the dramatic rise in the levels of antisemitism throughout the world as a direct result of Israel’s war with Hamas. But even as I say that, we need to ask ourselves, “Is it truly as a result of the war, or is there something else at work here?”

For years there have been those who have claimed that being anti-Israel is equivalent to being antisemitic. Of course, that is, at the least, a horrible overstatement. That someone criticizes Israel in no way automatically means that they hate Jews. We Americans, of all people, should understand that, for we are constantly criticizing our own government but that does not mean that we do so out of hatred. But perhaps what those who equate being anti-Israel with being antisemitic are trying to say, though saying it poorly, is that while there are times when it is perfectly legitimate to criticize Israel, just as there are times when it is perfectly legitimate to criticize any nation, there are still those individuals and groups who use their socially acceptable criticism of Israel in order to mask their socially unacceptable attitudes of antisemitism. The New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, expressed this eloquently when he wrote: “Criticizing Israel is not antisemitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction – – out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East – – is antisemitc, and not saying so is dishonest.”

What we have been witnessing is a dark combination of the Thomas Friedman ‘anti-Israel / antisemitism’ formula side-by-side with a toxic, blatant, endemic antisemitism which has taken advantage of the war to come out of the shadows and reveal itself in the light of day.

When respected bodies like the Presbyterian Church (USA) approved a resolution to divest from Israel, even in a limited fashion, and didn’t even consider framing a resolution in which they would take a stand against Hamas firing thousands of rockets directed at civilian targets in Israel, that is the type of antisemitism of which Thomas Friedman spoke. When the Metropolitan Opera insists upon producing and performing a work which seeks to justify the actions of the Palestinian terrorists who hijacked an Italian cruise ship and murdered a wheel chair bound American Jew who simply was on vacation with his wife, that is the type of antisemitism of which Thomas Friedman spoke. When during the war, the news media gave extensive coverage to the suffering of the citizens of Gaza but gave only meager coverage to the extent of Hamas’ attacks on Israel, or to the multiple efforts made by the Israelis to forewarn Gaza civilians of imminent attacks so that they could get out of harm’s way, or to the various ways in which Hamas used the citizens of Gaza as human shields so as to protect their own fighters while creating a humanitarian crisis which they would then use as propaganda against Israel, that is the type of antisemitism of which Thomas Friedman spoke.

Yet we have witnessed the other type of antisemitism as well, and in frightening ways. When those who claimed to be protesting Israel’s actions in the war besieged a synagogue in Paris, filled with Jews who had gathered for no other reason but to observe Shabbat, that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly. When in Berlin those who claimed to be protesting Israel’s actions in the war started chanting “Jude, Jude, feiges schwein, kom heraus und kampf alein – Jews, Jews, cowardly pigs, come out and fight alone,” that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly. When in New York those who claimed to be protesting Israel’s actions in the war took their demonstration to the streets of the Diamond District, knowing that most of the jewelry exchanges located there are Jewishly owned and operated, that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly. When someone in our own community plastered a gruesome anti-Israel poster on every utility pole surrounding our own synagogue, that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly.

What can we learn from all of this? We learn that there is a certain irony in the fact that while some or many of us may have, for whatever reasons, lost our sense of intimate connection with the land and the State of Israel, it is our enemies who remember and continue to recognize it. Of course, they do not see its positive values but rather see it as fuel for their hatred of us. We, on the other hand need to embrace it and trust it. As throughout our history, our connection to Israel has been an integral component of Jewish identity and of our unique relationship with God, it remains so today. As we believe, and I hope we believe, that our relationship with God has produced for our people an elevated values system; one which lifts up justice and living the ethical life, then we have to trust that it is that very same value system that serves as the foundation of Israeli society – that Israel truly is a Jewish state and not just because it is populated by Jews.

We need to embrace that perspective, for once we do so, we can begin to prepare ourselves for how to respond to Israel’s detractors. We can begin to formulate our answer to the question of whether or not in the recent war, and in recent history, Israel has been placed in the role of the victim or the villain.

In our search for that answer let me leave you with some thought-starting questions:

Which party in the recent conflict has been deeply invested in peace and historically and consistently committed to finding a two-state solution, and which party has consistently and adamantly refused to sit at a negotiating table?

If Israel is not interested in making peace with its neighbors then how do you explain its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, its 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, its 2000 offer to the Palestinians of 97% of the disputed territories, and its 2005 total withdrawal of settlers and troops from Gaza?

Which party in the recent conflict used its rockets to protect its children and which party used its children to protect its rockets?

Which party in the recent conflict invested billions of dollars in constructing bomb shelters to protect its people and which party invested billions of dollars in constructing terror tunnels?

Which party in the recent conflict made extensive efforts to forewarn civilians on the other side of coming attacks?

Which nation in the Middle East does the most to protect religious freedom, the rights of women, the rights of homosexuals, and the rights of all minority groups within its borders?

If you honestly seek the answers to these and similar questions you will have begun the search to determine who indeed is the victim and who the villain. Hopefully, you will come to the conclusion that Israel truly is a Jewish state, in values as well as in name; that it seeks peace, not war, with its neighbors and prays for the day when Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side as friends rather than as enemies.

Advertisements

When Anti Zionism Becomes Antisemitism

July 25, 2014

I am not one of those who labels every criticism of Israel as a manifestation of antisemitism. Indeed, I agreed, and still agree, with Thomas Friedman when he wrote “Criticizing Israel is not antisemitic and saying so is vile; but singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction – out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East – is antisemitic, and not saying so is dishonest.”

That being said, during the course of this current war, it has become increasingly clear to me that the lines between criticizing Israel and antisemitism have become more and more blurred, and in too many cases, completely obliterated.

When anti Israel protesters in Paris decided to besiege and attack a synagogue on Shabbat while Jews were gathered inside, engaged in worship, that was no longer a statement of protest against Israel. That was antisemitism.

When anti Israel protesters in Berlin enthusiastically chanted in German “Jude, Jude, feiges schwein, kom heraus und kampf alein – Jew, Jew, you cowardly pig, come out and fight alone” while the German police stand by and do nothing, even though such hate speech is illegal in Germany, that was no longer a statement of protest against Israel. That was antisemitism.

When Palestinian television broadcasts its version of children’s educational programming and those shows include having children speak of how they need to kill the enemy, and consistently, the term they use for enemy is NOT Yisraeili – Israeli – but rather Yahud – Jew, that is no longer a statement of protest against Israel. That is antisemitism.

Just the other day, on my blog, in response to a posting concerning the war, I received a comment which spoke of the Israelis in these terms, “They are their father’s seed. They are the offspring of Cain”, that is no longer a statement of protest against Israel. That is antisemitism. For those who do not pick up on the reference, it comes out of the rhetoric of one of America’s most virulent hate groups – the Christian Identity group – which perverts the teachings of Christianity and transform them into doctrines of hate. When it comes to the Jews, they claim that all Jews are descended from Cain, and therefore are inherently evil.

War is a very messy business, and out of it there are enough misdeeds to go around on both sides. The causes and issues which have led to the conflict can be argued for quite some time, with each side having at least some truth to their narrative. But these are debates about the right and the wrong of hotly contested political issues. However, when these debates degenerate into diatribes of bigotry and prejudice, we cross a line that once crossed, it is hard to reverse. As for me, I try very hard not to permit my opposition to Hamas to somehow morph into a hatred of the Palestinian people as a whole. Therefore, I will not stand idly by when I witness the opposition of others to the actions of Israel morphing into crass antisemitism. That others accept such a transition, and indeed embrace it, is an abomination.

Rockets, Bombs, & Blood: Reflections on the Gaza Conflict

November 24, 2012

I have done some traveling in my time.  I am by no stretch of the imagination as well-traveled as some, but still I have set my foot on the soil of several foreign lands.  From these journeys, I have not only learned much about those individual nations and their cultures but I have also come to receive some very important insights into people in general and the world in which we live.

The first, and most important, of these insights is that it matters not where you go, whether it be in the land of friends or the land of foes, in general, people are good and decent.  They may speak different languages and dress differently, they may pray in very different ways or not pray at all, but when it comes down to fundamental human character, they are not really any different from us.  Like us, just as we have some very good people and some very bad ones in our society, so do they in theirs.

I first came to this realization during a frigid December while walking the streets of Moscow, when it was the capitol of the U.S.S.R., or as Ronald Reagan liked to call it, “The Evil Empire.”  I learned it while watching these blood enemies of the American way as they stood in long lines waiting for a bus in the freezing cold, yet they automatically welcomed pregnant women and women with small children to the front of the line.  I learned it while watching a Soviet father, in the midst of winter, pushing his child on a swing in a snow covered playground.

I learned it in Israel, particularly in the Old City of Jerusalem, as I sat, drinking Turkish coffee, schmoozing and laughing with Palestinian storekeepers as we cordially bandied over the price of possible purchases.  I learned it there as I watched one Palestinian merchant playfully haggle with 8 year old Helene over the price of a tee shirt, and letting her get the better of him.  I learned it there while on a UJA – now United Jewish Communities – mission with Dick & Harriet Gottlieb and their children.  After hearing stern warnings by our tour guide to protect our wallets and purses from the thieving Palestinians, one Palestinian teenager walked up to Jason Gottlieb and warned him that his backpack was open.

The second of these insights is born of the first.  That insight is that we cannot confuse a people with their government.  We are blessed to live in a true democracy where here, maybe more than in any other country on the planet, our government does accurately reflect the will of our people, for we express that will through the choices we make in the polling booth every election day.  Yet it is easy for us to forget that we are in the minority; that most people on this planet are not so blessed; that the positions and policies of their government may not accurately reflect their own values and desires.  While their governments may be evil, doing evil things, the majority of the people may actually be good at heart.  If the politics did not get in the way, we might find the we could be good friends.

I share this with you because these are important things to remember especially when missiles are being fired and bombs are being dropped, and blood is being spilled on both sides of the recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Good people, on both sides, suffered.

It is easy for us as Jews to demonize the Palestinian people, especially when hundreds of rockets have been intentionally aimed and fired at Israel civilians – our brothers and sisters, from infants to the elderly – by Hamas and related terrorist groups in Gaza.  But to do so would be an injustice, not only to the Palestinian people as a whole, and not even only to the possibility of forging a future peace, but also to our very souls.  For when we demonize a whole people on account of the actions of an evil few who may possess inordinate power, we bring ourselves down to the level of all those who throughout history have mindlessly hated all Jews, for ills, real or imagined, that they felt some Jews may have inflicted upon them.  I don’t know about you, but as a Jew, I do not want to be held accountable for the misdeeds of someone like Bernie Madoff.  So why should we hold all Palestinians responsible for the misdeeds of Hamas?

That being said, the situation facing Israel makes it all but unavoidable that there will continue to be many Palestinian people – Palestinians who are not members of Hamas, nor who wish to be – who will suffer and even die as a result of Israeli military operations against the terrorists.  We cannot forget that the death of the innocent is the greatest tragedy born of war.  This is not something to celebrate, as members of Hamas did upon learning of the Tel Aviv bus bombing, but rather it should be something over which to anguish; something that stabs at our conscience as we lament the fact that when we choose war, we should always be choosing it as the lesser of two or more evils.  For in war, there really is no glory.  Just human suffering which is part of the price we pay when we are convinced that we have been left with no other options but victory.

This is the place in which Israel has found itself; not just in this war but in all its wars, especially in its wars against the Palestinians.  There is no question but that Israel cannot ignore or tolerate malicious attacks upon its citizens.  No other nation would ever be expected to do so, so why are there those who expect it of Israel?  Look at the United States.  We experienced one day of attack – September 11, 2001 – and we wound up going to war in two countries; a war which if it ended tomorrow would have lasted for 11 years.  Israel was left with no choice but to go to war in Gaza.

There are those who claim that there is always an alternative to war but there are times when that is simply not the case, no matter how much we wish it otherwise.  Those folks are so ever ready to condemn Israel for what they call its “aggression.”  But in their condemnations, they are being, to say the least, less than honest.  Less than honest because they choose to ignore a long history of all of Israel’s serious offers to make peace with its enemies; offers that have been turned down flat.  Less than honest because while they are so ready to take up on Hamas’ complaints about the Israeli occupation, they conveniently choose to forget that Israel elected to totally withdraw from Gaza 7 years ago; that Gaza is not occupied – blockaded, yes, but not occupied.  Less than honest because they continually turn a blind eye to the true acts of aggression of Hamas against Israeli civilians and then treat the conflict as if the acts of hostility are one-sided.  Less than honest in that they ignore the fundamental fact that just as it takes two to tango, so does it take two sides to make peace.  When it comes to Israel and Hamas, there is only one side that is interested in talking about peace, and that side is Israel.  At best, Hamas is only willing to talk about a cease fire, and then, only when its military resources are depleted and it needs time to regroup and rearm.

When I originally penned these words, a cease fire agreement had just been announced.  At that time, I had no idea if it would actually take place or survive by the time I shared these words with you.  Now I know that it has taken place.  I still am unsure how long it will survive.  While a cease fire is preferable to active combat, it is definitely not the answer.  The Israelis call such conflicts which end in a cease fire “mowing the lawn.”  No matter how nice a job you do when mowing your lawn, and how good it looks right after you are done, you know that the grass is already starting to grow back and the lawn will soon once again need mowing.  A cease fire is not the answer because it does not put an end to the violence.  It only postpones its continuation.  Indeed, it only assures its continuation for it provides both sides with the breathing room to better prepare for the next confrontation, guaranteeing that the next confrontation will be more brutal and bloody than the last.  No.  Cease fire is not the answer.

So what is Israel to do?  As long as Hamas refuses to consider any long term solution, this cycle of violence will continue.  Not because Israel wants it to, but because Israel has been left with no other choice.

Of course, there is one obvious choice, other than giving Hamas carte blanche to attack Israeli civilians without repercussions.  That choice is an all out war and total victory; going against Hamas with the total might of Israel’s military and not stopping until they are either completely destroyed or unconditionally surrender.  Is that not what the Allies did with Germany and Japan in the Second World War?  That is an option, but it is an option that even Israel, in the heat of its anger, finds too terrible to consider.  And that is to the credit of the Israelis.

Even in the heat of battle, Israel has striven not to forget the price of human suffering that innocent Palestinians pay as a result of the terrorism of Hamas.  It has been out of that consciousness that Israel went out of its way in its efforts to minimize civilian casualties, which was just the opposite of the choices made by Hamas.  Food and medical supplies still flowed from Israel into Gaza.  Neither electricity nor fresh water were cut off.  Injured Palestinians were admitted into Israel and treated in Israeli hospitals.  Palestinian civilians received advance warning to evacuate areas that were targeted by the Israelis.  Israeli surgical strikes were, on occasion, delayed in order to permit civilians to clear the targeted area.

As Jews, we should be very proud of Israel for all its efforts to protect life at a time when it was being forced to take life.  As Jews, we should be Israel’s greatest advocates, spreading the word of all the good Israel attempts to do, even in the darkest of times; sharing with our neighbors that information which, somehow or other, the news media either tends to ignore or deems not to be newsworthy.

Most of all, let us pray for peace  – a true and lasting peace.  Let us pray with all our hearts and souls.  Let us pray that the day will soon arrive when Israeli and Palestinian will cease to view each other as enemy and choose to view each other as friend and neighbor.

Responding to a New York Times Editorial Calling Upon Israel to Show Restraint

March 6, 2012

In today’s New York Times, there is an editorial which calls upon Israel not to “doubt the President’s mettle” when he states that he will not stand by and permit Iran to develop nuclear weapons; that Israel should trust the President and refrain from a unilateral attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities.

In response to that editorial, I feel I must point out philosopher George Santayana’s often quoted statement: “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” It is precisely this principle which Israel’s critics are forgetting or simply ignoring.

So what should have been learned from history?

1. When a national leader threatens to destroy the Jews, and has or is developing the means to carry out that threat, he should be taken at his word. This was Hitler’s stated intention throughout his rise to power yet few took him seriously. Well, we know how that turned out! Now Mahmoud Ahmadinejab is making a similar threat – that he will wipe Israel off the map – and he is moving forward with the development of the nuclear weapons to accomplish that task. So why should anyone, especially Israel, doubt his intention? She must act upon the premise that he means what he says and will do it at the first possible opportunity.

2. Talk is cheap, especially when it comes from a U.S. President who says he has Israel’s back and that Israel should refrain from engaging in self defense. But at the end of the day, how can we be assured that the President will follow talk with action? In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson kept assuring Israel that America would never let her fall. He did so when Egypt insisted that the U.N. remove its peacekeeping forces from the Gaza Strip, and the U.N., without a moment’s hesitation complied; when the Egyptian and the Syrian armies amassed their forces on the Israeli border; when the Egyptians and the Saudis threatened to close the Straits of Tiran, effectively blockading the Israeli port city of Eilat. But when the they announced that the blockade was in effect then Johnson announced that there was nothing that he could do. Israel found herself standing alone. So she conducted a preemptive air strike, destroying the Egyptian air force on the ground. Thus began the 6-Day War; a war which too many were all to ready to label as an Israeli act of aggression rather than self defense. In 1967 Israel thought that America had its back but wound up standing alone. How can she be expected to maintain confidence that this time will be different? How can she be certain that Obama will not bow to the pressure not to engage in another Middle East war?  After all, this is an election year and there will be plenty of Americans who will be more than ready to remind President Obama that one of the pillars of his last election was his promise to withdraw us from the war in Iraq. Perhaps if the President was to deploy the forces to the Middle East which would be necessary for the conduct of a strike against Iran then he would show in some tangible way his resolve to back his words with deeds. Talk is cheap, but not cheap when it very well may cost Israel countless Israeli lives or even its survival. If, at the end of the day, Israel is to be left to face the threat alone, as she was in 1967, then let her face it while she has a chance to counteract it.

Rabbis for Israel: An Oxymoron or a Necessary Statement

September 19, 2010

Continuing my series of High Holy Day sermons, here is the sermon on delivered on Yom Kippur morning.

This morning’s Torah portion opens with the statement: “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem; rasheichem shivteichem, zikneichem v’shotreichem, kol ish Yisraeil. Tapechem, nasheichem, v’gercha asher b’kerev machanecha, mechotev eitsecha ad sho’ev meimecha – You are standing today, all of you, before Adonai your God; the heads of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man in Israel. Your children, your women, amd the stranger who is in the midst of your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water.”

At that one moment in history, all Jews stood together – “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem – You are standing here today all of you” – united as a people, united in common cause. There are those who might claim that this was the only moment in history when all Jews stood together, united in common cause. And they might not be that far from the truth. While this might not have been the only moment in our history when all Jews stood united, it probably was one of the few.

It would seem that we Jews have a special talent for disagreeing with each other. I am sure that you have all heard that old joke about two Jews stranded for a long time on a desert island. When finally rescued, they proudly gave their rescuers a guided tour of all they had accomplished during their stay. They showed them their planted fields and their handmade aqueducts, their long term food storage facilities and their comfortable shelters. In the process, they came across one grass hut and the rescuers asked, “What’s that?” to which one of the men said, “That’s the synagogue I attend.” When they came across yet another grass hut, and the rescuers asked, “What’s that?”, the other man replied, “Well that’s the synagogue I attend.” A little later, further down the trail, they came upon a third grass hut, and once again, the rescuers asked “What’s that?” and the two men replied in unison, “That’s the synagogue neither of us would ever set foot in!” Yes, we have a talent for disagreeing with each other. One might almost say that we have transformed argumentation into a sport.

But in spite of the fact that it sometimes seems that we Jews can disagree about more things than we can agree upon, still there are some topics about which we generally do agree. So, for example, we agree that antisemitism is bad. However, we don’t necessarily agree about how we should respond to it. Should we confront it head on or should we ignore it and hope it will go away? We agree that Jews should observe Shabbat and the holidays. However we don’t necessarily agree about how Shabbat and the holidays should be observed. Should we drive on Shabbat? Can we watch television on Shabbat? Turn on the lights? Tear toilet paper? Do we observe Rosh Hashanah for one day or two? Do we observe Sukkot and Pesach for seven days or eight? Are corn, peas, rice, and other foods that puff up when cooked permissible on Pesach or forbidden? We agree that the Torah is our most sacred possession and that through it God speaks to us. However we don’t necessary agree about how God speaks to us through the Torah. Is the Torah word-for-word the actual spoken words of God or is it a human attempt to put into words that fellow human beings can understand a Divine communication which profoundly transcends the narrow boundaries of spoken language?

There is another thing that all Jews should agree upon, but while all may not, at least most Jews do. That is that the continued existence of the State of Israel is an absolute necessity for the Jewish people. After the Holocaust, during which so many of the 6 million Jewish victims died primarily because there was no safe haven to which they could flee from the Nazis, it is absolutely amazing that any Jew could question whether or not the existence of the State of Israel is justified.

Now I am a product of the first post-Holocaust generation, having been born 4 years after the end of the Holocaust and 1 year after the establishment of the State of Israel. So I did not personally witness the world events which produced the Holocaust need for Israel. Yet in my own lifetime I have witnessed it with other persecuted Jewish populations. I, along with so many others, protested on behalf of Soviet Jewry. I worked to raise funds and awareness when it came to the plight of Ethiopian Jewry. And I visited with both sets of immigrants as they studied Hebrew and culture in Israeli absorption centers in order to facilitate their entry into the Israeli society which offered them a safe haven; the safe haven that was there for them but which was not available to those targeted by the Nazis.

That Jews should support the State of Israel should be a no-brainer. Even American Reform Judaism – which originally was anti-Zionist because they feared that support of Zionism might be interpreted as a questionable dual loyalty by their non-Jewish neighbors – even American Reform Judaism began to change its perspective in the 1930’s and has continually grown in its positive relationship with the State of Israel. Israel is the land of our history. It is where Abraham lived, where Isaac and Jacob lived. It is the soil that was trod by Joshua and the Judges, Kings Saul, David, and Solomon, the Prophets and the ancient rabbis. It is the land of our story. Today it is the home for all Jews who wish to live there. It is the home for all Jews who need to live there, for they can no longer survive living in the lands of their birth.

But sad to say, today there is a growing number of Jews who feel little or no connection to the land or the State of Israel. For them, for whatever reasons, Israel is no different than any other foreign land. It could just as easily be Hungary or Kenya or Samoa. Since they have no personal tie to Israel, they feel little or no responsibility to stand up for Israel when she is in need of friends. Indeed, since they have no personal tie to Israel, and yet Israel is associated by the others with them as Jews, they can find themselves feeling embarrassed or even threatened by Israel and the actions she sometimes takes; especially as those actions are presented to the public at large by an often biased media. They may even feel the need to join their voices to those of Israel’s detractors; as much, if not more because they wish to distance themselves as Jews from Israel.

Well one would expect that if Jews today are finding themselves increasingly divided over whether or not to support Israel, then at least Israel should still be able to number among her friends those Jews who, by virtue of the life they have chosen for themselves, should never forget the vital role Israel continues to play for the Jewish people – the rabbis. One would expect it to be axiomatic; rabbis support Israel. If that were truly the case, one would have to wonder why, in recent months, there has arisen a new organization on the world Jewish scene, the name of which is “Rabbis for Israel”?

Yet such an organization does exist. I know. I was present at its birthing. I was one of its earliest members. It pains me to have to admit that the creation of this organization has filled a very real need. For the time has come when not all rabbis are truly for Israel. And then there are those rabbis who claim that they are for Israel but who always seem to take the other side.

What was it that led rabbis such as myself to feel the need for an organization such as Rabbis for Israel?

For a long time on the American Jewish scene, the primary organization representing the interests of Israel was AIPAC – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Founded in the 1950’s, this organization has grown to become the most powerful pro-Israel organization in America, boasting a membership of over 100,000. There is no question about AIPAC’s intense commitment to the survival of Israel. Indeed, AIPAC tends to be so intense about its commitment that it has a tendency to be blind when it comes to Israel. For, according to AIPAC, Israel can do no wrong. They will vigorously defend Israel no matter what she does and it matters not to them if she sometimes gets way out of line.

Yet while we view Israel as a very special nation, and we expect Israel to conduct herself according to higher standards than the other nations of the world, still Israel is a nation ruled by flesh and blood human beings. Still, Israel is a nation that can make mistakes. Israel is a nation that every once in a while can actually be in the wrong. The problem with AIPAC is that it has a hard time recognizing this. Their failure to do so has the potential of causing Israel more harm than good. For when the supporters of Israel try to justify that which is unjustifiable, it only results in their losing – and in Israel losing – credibility in the eyes of the world.

It was out of this type of frustration with AIPAC that another organization was born – J Street. This organization was founded in 2008, so obviously it is a new comer. Its founders gave it the name J Street for two reasons. Obviously, the letter “J” associates them with “Jews.” But also, and significantly, if one is familiar with the layout of Washington D.C., then one knows that they have streets which are progressively named after the letters of the alphabet – A Street, B Street, and so on. However, in this alphabetical grid, there is one street which – for whatever reasons – is missing. That street is J Street. So the founders named their organization J Street in order to indicate that it was their intention to present an alternative pro-Israel Jewish perspective which, up until then, seemed to have been missing from the conversation.

What is that perspective? J Street identifies itself as an organization which is pro-Israel and pro-peace. Unlike AIPAC, they are willing to recognize that there are times when Israel, by her actions, can harm the cause of peace rather than aid it. So they are fully capable of criticizing Israel as well as supporting her.

J Street endorses the two-state solution and is an avid supporter of the pursuit of diplomatic solutions rather than military ones to the conflicts which divide the Israelis and the Palestinians. Indeed, if someone, especially someone with a liberal perspective, was to go to their website and read through their Statement of Principles, they would most likely find them extremely attractive. I know that I do. In fact, for quite some time I seriously considered joining J Street because, at least in principle, they stand very close to where I stand.

However, as there is a problem with AIPAC, there is a problem with J Street as well. For J Street does not always operate strictly according to its principles. Indeed, some of the positions that it has taken have seemed somewhat contradictory to its principles. The reason for this is that J Street can often get lost in its self proclaimed freedom to criticize Israel. Eager to present itself as a conciliatory Jewish voice to Israel’s detractors, it is all too ready to jump on their band wagon; all too ready to lay fault and blame for conflict solely or primarily at Israel’s feet. Personally, I view this as another manifestation of a phenomenon we witness in our own country, where there are those who are so “liberal” – and I put that word in quotes, and remember, I consider myself a liberal – who are so liberal that whatever America does, they see America as being in the wrong. And just as there are those people who are always criticizing America, the folks at J Street seem to always criticize Israel.

It was that dichotomy between their principles and their actions that caused me to struggle with whether or not I should join. In fact, in my struggle, I sent out an email to a select group of rabbinic colleagues, sharing my indecision and seeking their counsel. Some of them were supporters of J Street, some were supporters of AIPAC, and some were like me; undecided and seeking an ideological home. Well the dialogue was fascinating. And it was out of that dialogue that one of my Israeli colleague, Rabbi Mickey Boyden, decided to organize Rabbis for Israel.

This whole question of “to J Street or not to J Street” came to a head for me, and for many others, with the Gaza Flotilla Crisis of this past summer. No sooner had the incident taken place than the president of J Street, Jeremy Ben Ami, issued a statement in the name of J Street, severely castigating Israel for its attack on the ship Mavi Mamara. It disturbed us greatly that he did not even give Israel the opportunity to state its case; he did not even wait for the facts to come in. He just assumed that Israel was in the wrong. Of course, as the videos became available and the facts became apparent, Israel was not in the wrong. The violence was the product of a planned assault by those on the ship.

So Rabbis for Israel came into being. This organization envisions itself as being centrist. Unlike AIPAC, it refuses to turn a blind eye to Israel’s failings, but also unlike J Street, it refuses to assume that Israel is always in the wrong. It is committed to seeing that in the eyes of the world Israel is given a fair shake. Like J Street, it endorses the two state solution. But unlike J Street, it recognizes that when things go awry between Israel and the Palestinians, more often than not, no one side is to blame but both carry responsibility. Those who try to lay blame exclusively at the feet of one side or the other – at the feet of the Palestinians or at the feet of the Israelis – ultimately do more harm than good to the cause of peace. Scape goating will never bring peace to the Middle East. Only honesty, an ability to accept responsibility for one’s actions, and an openness to compromise and change on the part of all parties, will bring about that peace.

So why the name Rabbis for Israel? Because the members of this organization have been really frustrated with so many of our colleagues. While so many of these other rabbis – rabbis who, believe it or not, openly oppose Israel, or who align themselves with either AIPAC or J Street – may or may not claim that they are for Israel, the stands that they take and the pronouncements that they make do Israel more harm than good. How can you truly be for Israel if you turn a blind eye to her faults, and how can you truly be for Israel if you automatically assume that whatever she does is wrong? To truly be for Israel, you must be willing to support her and to have faith in her. You must be willing to give her the benefit of the doubt yet also be willing to call upon her to do better when she has gone astray. It will only be when we, as rabbis, and we as Jews, are willing to meet those criteria that we will be able to find ourselves in another one of those special moments in Jewish history when, like in our Torah portion, we are standing together, all of us, united as a people, united in our common cause, that cause being our loving support of the State of Israel.

Reconsidering a Three State Solution

June 19, 2010

With so much attention these days being directed toward the struggle between the Israelis and Hamas in Gaza, too little attention has been turned toward what is happening in the West Bank.  And for once, we can say what is happening there is good!

Recently, Tom Friedman wrote quite a revealing column (“The Ballgame and the Sideshow”, New York Times, June 4, 2010).  In it, he contrasts the two different approaches of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, under President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.  While Hamas continues to operate under the ideology of “Judge me on how I resist Israel or America,” Abbas and Fayyad have assumed the approach of “judge me by how I perform – how I generate investment and employment, deliver services and pick up the garbage.”

Friedman goes on to point out how very successful has been the Abbas – Fayyad approach.  Since 2007, he informs us, the Palestinian Authority has partnered with Jordan and the U.S. in the training of  the new Palestinian National Security Force, and that the Israelis have been so impressed with the results that they have turned over to them the task of maintaining law and order in all of the major West Bank towns.  This, in turn, has triggered “an explosion of Palestinian building, investment, and commerce in those areas.”  Most telling of all, Prime Minister Netanayahu has reduced the number of manned check points in the West Bank from 42 to 12!  Why do we never hear about that in the world press?

It has become typical of the world’s perspective on Israel that while they are all to ready to condemn her for the Gaza blockade, no one gives even the slightest notice to all this progress in the West Bank, and particularly to Israel’s response to the Palestinian Authority’s peaceful endeavors by actually turning over law enforcement responsibilities to the Palestinian Security Force and so significantly reducing the number of check points.  There is a pitiful irony as we watch everyone anguish over the suffering of the people of Gaza, yet turn a blind eye to the progress in the West Bank; progress which so obviously stands as a model of all the good that could be brought about should Hamas  ever choose to change its tune;  should Hamas ever decide to place the well being of the people of Gaza above their desire to destroy Israel.

This leaves us with a difficult question.  Is the Two State Solution still a viable option in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?  While the Palestinians of Gaza continue to suffer because of the actions of Hamas, should the Palestinians of the West Bank be forced to continue to suffer for them as well?

The time is fast approaching when we must seriously consider another approach – a Three State Solution, with two potential Palestinian states, one on the West Bank and the other in Gaza.  In the past, this idea has been floated and quickly rejected.  The claim has been that the Palestinians are one people and deserve one united state.  Admittedly, that would be the ideal.  But in this world, sometimes we have to settle for that which is less than the ideal.

Why a Three State Solution at this time?

First and foremost because it appears that the Palestinians on the West Bank are seriously moving in a responsible fashion toward the point where they will be ready to have their own state.  To keep them from that cherished goal because of the intransigence of Hamas seems unfair and unjust.  When the time comes that they have accomplished the task of creating those infrastructures which will have earned them the right to be considered a full partner in the community of nations, and a good neighbor to Israel, then they deserve to be rewarded for their efforts.

It would appear that while Palestinian unity is still a desired goal on the part of the Palestinian people, yet with every passing day, the ideological distance between the West Bank and Gaza grows greater.  Indeed, it would seem that their issues with Israel are but a sideshow compared to the differences between these two Palestinian entities.  As much as one could argue for the necessity of an international peacemaking initiative in order to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, one could equally argue the need for such an initiative to resolve the conflict between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

Therefore it would seem that the best – though not ideal – solution would be to look to the eventual establishment of two Palestinian states along side of Israel; one in the West Bank and the other in Gaza.  If matters keep progressing, it would appear that the West Bank Palestinian state could be established in the not too distant future.  As for the Gaza Palestinian state…

Yet there is always hope.  Perhaps the day will arrive when there will be a change of heart – if not of leadership – in Gaza.  Perhaps the people of Gaza will build and earn their own state, much as the people of the West Bank appear to be doing now.  And who knows?  Perhaps the time will come when the people of Gaza can be reunited with the people of the West Bank, and a three state solution will not be necessary, for a two state solution will become viable.  But until that time arrives, we must do all we can to encourage the people of the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority to continue in their state building efforts, and in their pursuit of a peaceful resolution of their conflict with Israel.

Moving Beyond Helen Thomas

June 10, 2010

It seems that the furor over the virulently anti-Israel statements made by Helen Thomas, the renown White House correspondent, is starting to fade.  And that is as it should be.  The sooner the better!

What she said – that the Jews should leave Israel to the Palestinians and go home, to Poland, to Germany, to America, wherever – was unquestionably outrageous.  It is completely incomprehensible how a person who for so long has carried the responsibility of bringing to the public an accurate reporting of all the news coming out our the White House could be so grossly ignorant of world history; could be so blatantly prejudice; and could be so journalistically naive as to ever make such a comment to a fellow journalist, nevertheless one with a camera and a microphone in his hand, simply boggles the mind!

Be that as it may, the Helen Thomas story is a small story at best.  For at the end of the day, who is she?  Is she responsible for formulating U.S. foreign policy?  No.  Do she possess a significant loyal following who hang on her every word and who transform her utterances into votes in the polling place?  No.  Yes, she is a known personality, but that is about it.  She does not have the power to change the world.  She does not personally pose even a minor threat to the security of Israel or the future of Middle East peace.  Sad to say, today, she has become an opinionated old lady who can no longer maintain the objectivity her job requires.

But in her day, she really was something!  She earned her place in the front row of Presidential press conferences.  She achieved something no other woman before her was able to achieve; she was the first woman to serve as president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.  She challenged and earned the respect of 10 consecutive U.S. Presidents.  She has done so much to advance the cause and status of women in journalism.  Even in the heat generated by this recent diatribe, all the good that she has accomplished should not, and must not, be forgotten.

Helen Thomas made a stupid and bigoted statement.  And she has suffered for it.  So many of those who honored her in the past have denounced her in the present.  From all sorts of places came calls for her to be fired.  Many were truly out for blood.  And to her credit, rather than cause her employers the embarrassment of having to fire her,  she demonstrated the graciousness of resigning.  Indeed, if one were to think of the reactions on a proportional scale, then one would have to wonder why, if Helen Thomas’ 15 second utterance has generated so much anger and vehemence then when one considers all the outrageous statements made by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran over the past several years, why have we not nuked that country back to the stone age?  The point is that even though what she did was indeed offensive, she has paid the price for her indiscretion.  Having forced her to step away from the public life which has been so important to her for all these years, it is pointless to skewer her further.

I especially am concerned about whether or not my fellow Jews and my fellow supporters of Israel will be able to let this matter go.  We have bigger fish to fry.  So let us not get fixated on the utterances of a 89 year old woman, no matter how public a figure she once was.  Let us not permit this episode to distract us from the real challenges which today face Israel; the ongoing challenge of achieving peace WITH security; the ongoing challenge of pursuing justice for Israel in a world which is all to ready to condemn her every action, with, and especially without, justification.  Wish as some may, Helen Thomas simply will not effectively stand in the eyes of the world for all those who openly despise Israel.  Whatever she said, she will not distract the rest of the world from looking to serious address the crisis in Gaza.  So let us not harp on her ridiculous interview, but rather let us focus on how we can address the issue of Gaza in a way which will protect our brothers and sisters in Israel while at the same time be far more effective in advancing the flow of humanitarian aid to the suffering people of Gaza