Two weeks ago, I got a bit of a thrill when two people I know from different places were mentioned in the same story in the New York Times. However, as I read the story a little chill went down my spine. And I imagine that the same chill was felt by many other congregational rabbis who saw the story.
The article described how my colleague Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the senior rabbi of a Reform congregation in New York City, offered a prayer from the bimah this summer that included the names of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian children killed in the Gaza War. According to the Times, that prayer led to the angry resignation from the congregation of a board member who disapproved of the inclusion of the Palestinian children in the prayer. He did not go quietly, either. He posted his resignation letter on Facebook and accused Rabbi Kleinbaum of spreading propaganda for Hamas. A few other members joined him in resigning.
If that is not sobering enough, the Times article went on to describe an opposite situation – the one faced by my friend, Rabbi Ron Aigen, the Reconstructionist rabbi of a congregation in Montreal. He gave a sermon this summer in which he described the high ethical standards used by the Israeli Defense Forces during the Gaza War to protect innocent civilians. As a result of this sermon, a member of Rabbi Aigen’s congregation – one who had not even attended the service at which Rabbi Aigen gave the sermon – resigned her membership and said that the synagogue was no longer a place where criticism of Israel could be voiced.
You can understand why I and other rabbis are a bit nervous talking about Israel to their congregations, let alone on Yom Kippur. I know both of these rabbis. Rabbi Kleinbaum is not naive about Hamas and Rabbi Aigen is no hawk. I might have offered exactly the same prayer as Rabbi Kleinbaum and the same sermon as Rabbi Aigen. I agree with them both. We should remember all of the victims of war, including Palestinian children. We should praise Israel’s efforts to protect lives and to thwart Hamas’ efforts to use civilians as human shields.
But, to talk about Israel at all these days, rabbis risk angering one end or the other of the political spectrum of North American Jews, or both ends at the same time. A rabbi who is just starting with a new congregation – just starting to form relationships with its members – would have to be crazy not to know that you cannot talk about Israel from the pulpit on Yom Kippur.
Well, here goes, anyway.
I cannot not talk about Israel during the High Holy Days this year. Israel is too important to us, the Gaza War this summer was too painful, and the ongoing conflicts that threaten Israel’s future will have a profound effect on our future. We have to try to come to terms with what Israel means to us now.
I know that I am likely to say a few things today about Israel that might rub some of you the wrong way. I don’t see any way around that. Even calling Israel a “Jewish State” has become controversial in some Jewish quarters. All I can ask is that you listen. Agree if you will – disagree if you will – but please give me a chance. We have to be willing to take some risks or we will never have an honest conversation about Israel … and we desperately need to have honest conversations about Israel.
Let me tell you about what I experienced this summer.
The Gaza War was deeply challenging and upsetting for me. The kidnapping of three Israeli boys, Naftali Fraenkel (16 years old), Gilad Shaer (16 years old), and Eyal Yifrah (19 years old) shook me deeply. I imagined the terror faced by their parents and the anguish of an entire nation.
The nearly two weeks of Operation Brothers Keeper that followed the kidnapping also troubled me. The stated purpose of the operation was to search for the boys, but it seemed that the sweep through Palestinian communities, neighborhoods, and homes, was also meant to intimidate the Palestinian population. It also seemed to serve as an excuse for Israel to re-arrest the leaders of Hamas in the West Bank who had been released just a few months earlier as part of the negotiations with the Palestinians. To Palestinians, I thought, the operation would be seen as evidence of Israel’s insincerity and untrustworthiness in any negotiation.
When the announcement was made that the bodies of the three boys had been found, I experienced too many emotions to name – grief for the boys, anger against the murderers, sorrow for the parents, despair that the conflict would never end, resentment against those who cheered the news, fear for Israel’s future, and heartbreak over how often history seems to repeat itself.
Then, just two days later, a new horror. Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy, was kidnapped by three Israelis, taken to a forest, beaten and burned alive. Now, I would have to add shame to the list – shame that a Jew could do such a thing. How could my people lower themselves to such acts of terror?
The events that followed could have been written in a script even before they unfolded. Prime Minister Netanyahu denounced the Israeli murderers as terrorists – but a few far-right-wing Israelis expressed support for the revenge killing. Palestinians rioted. Israel took military action against Hamas, whom it blamed for the original kidnappings. The already intolerable rocket attacks against Israel from Gaza intensified. Israel began an air campaign to take out the rocket launch-sites and the militants who commanded them. But Hamas continued their rockets, fired from neighborhoods where Palestinian civilians would serve as human shields, and aimed at Israeli civilians – a double violation of international law.
There was a frightening and growing death toll of Palestinians, among them a heartbreaking number of Palestinian children. Many thought Israel's military response was excessive and heavy-handed. Meanwhile, the battle in the air and on the ground was paralleled by another battle in the media, in which each side tried to convince the world that it was the true innocent victim.
The only unexpected wrinkle in this latest round of warfare was the discovery of a network of tunnels constructed by Hamas from Gaza into Israeli territory, with the clear intention to be used to attack Israeli towns and to kill and kidnap more Israelis.
The final outcome? The stakes have been raised once again. We can count on more long-range rockets from Gaza in the future that will reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The attack tunnels surely will be rebuilt. The Israeli and Palestinian public are more convinced than ever that the other side does not really want peace and never can be trusted.
Truly, this summer has tested us. The emotions have been intense. No matter what your political views of the Middle East, if you have followed events closely, you have known red-hot anger and bone-chilling fear.
How does Jewish tradition and Jewish values inform the way that we respond to such an emotional roller-coaster? It begins with three simple words: Hope, Compassion and Justice.
Our tradition commands us to hope, even in the midst of a grim and dire reality. This is what Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught when he said, “Never despair! Never! It is forbidden to give up hope!" (Likutei Moharan II:78).
We are obliged to defy darkness. We must rail against the fatalism that says that there is nothing that we can do. We must dedicate ourselves to declaring that the world can be – must be – better.
I know how easy it is to think and to say, “The Arabs will never accept Israel,” and, “There can never be peace in the Middle East,” I recognize the very real history and present reality that makes hoping for a peaceful future seem difficult, even painful. But I also believe that we are not permitted to give up hope. We must still strive for peace, and that means that we must contemplate what we are willing to give up to reach a negotiated settlement. I hope for the day when both Israeli and Palestinian leaders will be willing to do so, too.
Our tradition teaches compassion, both for others and for ourselves. Last night, I talked about fear. We know that if we allow our fears alone to rule us, we will make bad choices. We will have no compassion and we will see only enemies and threats all around us. We will perpetuate our own suffering, even when there are opportunities to get out of the ongoing cycle of attack and counter-attack.
If we truly and compassionately believe that all human beings are created in the image of God, then we will listen for the voices of the Palestinians who are compassionate to our suffering (they do exist), and we will be willing to consider their overtures and opportunities for de-escalating the conflict. If we believe that we are created in God’s image, we will exercise self-compassion and forgive ourselves for the hormone-driven instinct to assume the worst about our enemies.
Our tradition teaches us to work for justice. The Torah commands, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). If that commandment means anything, it must mean justice for everyone – Israel and the Palestinians both.
Justice for Israel means the right to live without the constant fear of rocket fire overhead and terror tunnels below. Justice for Israelis means the right for their nation to exist just like any other nation of the earth. If the French have the right to live in France and the Japanese have the right to live in Japan, the Jews should have the unquestioned right to live in the land that the Romans named “Iudaea.” That’s where our name comes from, and that is where we come from.
And there also must be justice for the Palestinians. They, too, have a long history of living in the land we call Israel. That must be respected, too. Palestinians have a right to freedom of movement and freedom to build their own homes without intimidation. They have a right to live peaceful lives if they are willing to live peacefully with their neighbors.
In the end, I believe that supporting justice for the Palestinians is the best way to secure peace and security for Israel. With a just and mutually agreed upon settlement to the conflict, the Palestinians would become the masters of their own fate and would become responsible for governing themselves peacefully and competently. For Israel, a separate Palestinian state would mean an end to the moral impossibility of occupying and subjecting another people. It would mean clear and established borders. It would mean that Israel could remain a true democracy without giving up its identity as a Jewish state. It cannot happen unless both sides are willing, but pursuing that vision is the pursuit of justice.
Am I being too idealistic in the way I image that the conflict can be resolved? Am I being a hopeless dreamer? Maybe I am. But my idealism and hope are informed by the fact that Israel itself is an improbable dream that came to reality only because of people’s vision and idealism. If there can be such a thing as a return to our homeland after 2,000 years of exile, if the world’s most endangered people can survive and thrive in the world’s most dangerous place, then I think there is still room for another miracle – the miracle of peace.
So often, I hear congregants ask me what they can do to help Israel. They want to know how they can put their Jewish values to work for Israel. They want to know, also, how they can heal the tumult of emotions that pull us in different directions when we think about Israel. I want to suggest three things:
1) Keep engaged with Israel in your life. Be willing to talk with friends and family, Jews and non-Jews, about Israel and how you feel about it. Be willing to learn about the issues and conflicts in Israeli society, and don’t be satisfied with the caricature of Israel you see on the nightly news. If you have kids in our Religious School, know that we have made Israel a major focus of our curriculum this year. Ask your children about what they are learning about Israel. Put a map of Israel up in your home and let your kids show you the location of the cities they are studying. Give Israel a place and a presence in your life.
2) Make a commitment to vote in the World Zionist Congress elections in 2015. The Congress meets every four or five years and is the highest decision-making body of world Jewry. The outcome of the elections will determine how funding and resources from around the world are used to support Israel. Delegates to the Congress will make important decisions regarding gender and religious equality in Israel and the efforts for lasting peace and security in the region. When you came into the Sanctuary today, you received a card to pledge to vote for ARZA, the Zionist organization of Reform Judaism, in the election. Please fill it out and leave it here today so we can mail your card together with everyone else’s.
3) Go to Israel. There is nothing that will feed your Jewish soul, nothing that will teach your children what it means to be a Jew, and nothing that will support Israel more than a trip to Israel. Whether it is your first time or your twentieth, your trip to Israel will deepen your perspective, open your heart, and change your life. There is nothing that would make me happier than to lead a trip of Temple Sinai members to Israel. If you will it, it is no dream.
Am I taking a risk today by talking about Israel and all the controversy that surrounds it? I think so. You can prove me wrong, though, and I would thank you for it. You can prove me wrong by responding with thoughtful dialogue instead of angry accusations. You can prove me wrong by continuing the conversation about Israel in our community and in your family. Please, prove me wrong by remembering Israel as our people’s homeland – even when we are frightened, angered or confused by what goes on there.
There is nothing easy about the world we live in, and there is nothing easy about being a Jew and a lover of Israel. On this Yom Kippur, we try to face the challenge of engaging with Israel and bringing our highest values to our relationship with her.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May you be sealed for a good year.