Sermon Delivered Yom Kippur Morning 5780
October 9, 2019
A classmate of mine from rabbinical school once said to me that to avoid angering congregants on the High Holidays, a rabbi should avoid talking about three subjects: 1.) politics; 2.) religion; and 3.) anything else.
For a long time Israel was the exception in the American Jewish community to my friend’s cynical advice. American Jews might be divided about lots of things but we were all united in support of Israel. I remember going to my mostly working-class-Catholic public high school every day wearing a button that said “We Are One” for months after the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. A couple of years later I wore a button that said “We Are All Zionists” after the United Nations General Assembly passed its infamous -- now repealed -- resolution asserting that Zionism was a form of racism. These buttons represented shared sentiments among Jews then.
But those days of commonplace support for Israel are long gone. While we often hear that like much of American society, American Jews are polarized about Israel, that isn’t even the right word. Polarization properly understood implies that we are split into two warring camps, but it’s much more complicated than that. We are splintered into groups which don’t understand each other, don’t talk with each other, and at times even demonize each other.
“We Are One” was never quite true but in today’s Jewish community we are many. There are those who are enthusiastic supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu, approve of his actions and his policies, and will be disappointed if, as appears likely, he does not continue to serve as Israel’s Prime Minister. There are those who might have had some doubts about Netanyahu but felt that it was our duty as American Jews to support the elected government of Israel, period. There are those who consider themselves to be pro-Israel but do not support Netanyahu, are concerned that some of his polices were actually harming Israel, and are hopeful that there will be a new prime minister soon. Then there are those who no longer know what to think and just throw up their hands in frustration. And finally, there are those, mostly young, who are quite vocal about not supporting Israel because they feel that support of Israel conflicts with the progressive and humanistic values they were taught as Jews.
These young progressives might be surprised to learn that there was a time when supporting Israel was considered a progressive cause. For example, in 1950 the folk quartet “The Weavers” , which included Pete Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert, recorded the Israeli folk song “Tzena, Tzena.'' This song was also recorded by Mitch Miller, Chet Atkins, and the Smothers Brothers. Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba together recorded the Israeli folk song “Erev Shel Shoshanim” while Belafonte alone also recorded “Hava Nagila” and “Hinei Mah Tov u’Mah Naim.” Now it is seen by many as an oxymoron if you state that you are liberal and pro-Israel.
Israel was a progressive cause for many reasons. Progressives tend to support the underdog and in the struggle to establish a Jewish state, Israel was seen as an underdog. Zionism fought against both the British empire and the Arab nations, all of which were theocratic monarchies. Most of Israel’s founding fathers and mothers -- David Ben Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Sharett, Yigal Allon -- were socialists and many of them had spent time living on kibbutzim, the purest form of socialism ever put into practice. The Histradrut labor union advocated democratic socialism, and it was one of the most important institutions in the country along with the Labor Party, which governed Israel uninterruptedly from 1948 until 1977.
Israel is in many ways still an extremely progressive country. Israel has developed a healthcare system that simultaneously guarantees health insurance to everyone and preserves choice and competition, as Israelis can choose between four nationwide HMOs. Men and women are guaranteed equal pay and equal employment access. Transgender soldiers serve in the Israeli military; Palestinian gays and lesbians seek refuge in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem from the homophobic attitudes of Palestinian society.
How then did Israel lose the support of so many progressives? We all know the history; the 1967 Six Day War left Israel in control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem which it conquered from Jordan, the Golan Heights which it conquered from Syria, and the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip which it conquered from Egypt. East Jerusalem and the Golan have since been formally annexed to Israel and their residents have the option to seek Israeli citizenship. Sinai was returned to Egypt under the terms of a peace treaty and Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005, but fifty two years after the Six Day war the status of the West Bank is still unresolved. This is an extraordinarily complicated issue and I could speak for several hours and still not cover it adequately. Israel’s public relations has suffered hugely with the unresolved status of the territories. Trite slogans that do not recognize the complexities are helpful to no one.
The issue of the West Bank has divided Jews’ opinions on Israel. There is a growing group of young American Jews known as “If Not Now” that essentially has a one-plank platform: “end the American Jewish community’s support for the Occupation.” They are officially neutral on support for a two-state solution or a one-state solution and whether Israel should exist at all.
On the other hand one hears from some American Jews that these disputed territories are the heartland of Biblical Israel -- which is true; that Israel won them in a war that the Arabs started -- which is also true -- and that no country has ever withdrawn from territories conquered that way -- which is not true.
The complexities about the occupation continue. The Oslo Process under Yitzhak Rabin was an attempt to “end the Occupation.” Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were supposed to lead to the creation of a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza, with appropriate security guarantees that it would indeed be a Palestinian state next to the State of Israel and not instead of the State of Israel. Even after Rabin was murdered negotiations continued under his successors. In January 2001 the two sides met in Taba, Egypt, for a last-ditch effort. Israel offered to return 97 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians. There were still significant gaps between the two parties but they were closer to an agreement than they had ever been. But the then-president of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, didn’t propose continuing the negotiations and building on the progress which had been made. Instead, with the international community widely holding the Palestinians responsible for the failure of the talks, he gave the green light for a massive campaign of suicide bombings and terror attacks, hoping that the Israeli response would once again allow him to portray the Palestinians as victims. This was, to all intents and purposes, the end of serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The continued ambiguous status of the West Bank territories complicates any sort of peace in the region as well as complicating American Jews’ ideas about Israel. For the last 52 years the West Bank has been in a sort of limbo where it is under Israeli control but not considered, even by Israel, as part of the State of Israel. It is a disputed territory about which there have been off and on negotiations. A few days before the recent elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that if he won the elections he would formally annex much of Area C, which makes up around 60 percent of the land area of the West Bank, although a much smaller percentage of its Arab population. This would have meant the end of any possibility of an eventual peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians.
Why would this be a problem? Because Israel was founded to be and continues to define itself as a Jewish and democratic state.. Annexation of the West Bank effectively means that Israel can be either a Jewish state or a democratic one but not both. If Israel were to annex the West Bank it would add 2.8 million Palestinians who would now officially be residents of the State of Israel. If Israel extends citizenship to them it will be a state with a bare majority of Jews over Arabs, and given the Arab birth rate Israel will have an Arab majority in a couple of decades. If Israel does not extend citizenship to them, it will have given up all claim to be a democratic state.
The September 17 election results have taken the question of annexation off the table for now. The majority of Israeli voters are open to the idea of two states for two peoples. But this is something that Israel cannot accomplish on its own, unilaterally. Israel can refrain from taking steps which make a two-state solution impossible, and it can implement small steps to make day-to-day Palestinian life easier and build trust. But until there is a Palestinian partner across the table that is willing to acknowledge that Israel is here to stay and gives up on the illusory goal of millions of Palestinians returning to the very same houses they left in 1948, there will be no agreement, no Palestinian state and no end to the Occupation.
A peaceful resolution is possible if the moderate majorities in both Israel and the Palestinian territories give up their maximalist dreams, rein in their extremists, and recognize that their choices come down to either permanent warfare or a treaty where everyone gets some of what they want and no one gets all of what they want. The specific outlines will have to be worked out between the parties, but it is something that is in everyone’s best interest.
So why is Israel so important? Why is a home for Jews so important? The great American poet Robert Frost wrote that ‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.’ Every person and every nation wants and deserves a home.
Between 1939 and 1945, six million Jews died precisely because the Jewish people had no home. In May 1939 a ship named the St. Louis left Hamburg, Germany, with about 900 German Jews bound for Cuba. The voyage of the St. Louis was in part a propaganda effort by the Nazis. They were saying to the West, you criticize our treatment of the Jews but you are hypocrites because you don’t want them either.
The Jews on the St. Louis had visas for Cuba but the Cuban government cancelled them before the ship even arrived. The St. Louis headed to the United States but our country, too, turned them away and the ship returned to Europe. About 300 of the Jews were taken in by Great Britain and the others by the Netherlands, Belgium and France. For many of them their new countries proved only a temporary refuge and many of the St. Louis passengers ultimately died in the Holocaust.
They were turned away by Cuba and they were turned away by the United States. If the State of Israel had existed in 1939 the German Jews could have gone there and thus been saved. But in 1939 what was then Mandatory Palestine was controlled by the British who, bowing to Arab pressure, issued a White Paper shortly before the St. Louis sailed which limited Jewish immigration to 75,000 total over five years, with subsequent immigration to be subject to an Arab veto.
The increase in antisemitism throughout the world reminds us that the need for one piece of land under Jewish control, where Jews don’t need someone else’s permission to relocate, continues today. It is legitimate and even healthy for us to disagree with each other about Israeli policies, but there should be no disagreement about Israel’s importance to all of us. Keep yourself informed about Israeli news, visit Israel if you can, purchase Israeli products, watch Israeli films and movies -- there are so many to choose from on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO, and most importantly, support organizations in Israel working to make Israel the type of society you would like it to be.
Rabbi Daniel Gordis is one of the most popular authors and speakers about Israel. Danny grew up in Baltimore, and we worked together and shared an office suite at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. During the 1998 - 99 academic year he took a sabbatical in Jerusalem. It was meant to be for one year but he and his family decided to stay permanently.
As you probably know, there is a custom that during the Yizkor memorial service on Yom Kippur, those who have not lost a parent, child, spouse or sibling -- someone for whom one is obligated to say the Mourner’s Kaddish -- go out of the synagogue. Danny's grandfather Rabbi Robert Gordis, a prominent Conservative rabbi, considered this a superstitious custom and used to denounce it from the pulpit. In deference to his father, Danny's father would stay in the synagogue during Yizkor and raised Danny the same way; but when Danny moved to Israel, he decided to revert to the older "superstitious" custom.
Some years ago Danny was "confronted" by one of the founding members of his Jerusalem synagogue about his going out for Yizkor. Danny thought to himself, "Oh no, another lecture about following a superstition." But quite the opposite happened. The older man said to him: "When we founded this synagogue, we were all Holocaust survivors and there was not a single person who could go out for Yizkor. Then there were all the wars, and again, there was no one who could go out for Yizkor. But now, look. Most of the congregation goes out for Yizkor. [Now in a synagogue in Jerusalem, none of these people have lost a parent, child, spouse or sibling.] Ha-medina ha-zot nes. This State is a miracle."
May the people of Israel and their leaders be blessed with the courage and wisdom to preserve this miracle.