Sunday, September 28, 2014

Rosh Hashanah Sermon: Current Thoughts on Israel

Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon
RH 5775
Kehilat Shalom
Rabbi Charles L. Arian

This morning we read in the Torah of God’s fulfillment of His promise to Abraham and Sarah through the birth of Isaac. Abraham of course already has a son through Hagar, Ishmael, but Sarah demands that Abraham banish him. Abraham doesn’t want to do this, as he loves both his sons, but God tells him to accede to Sarah’s wish and promises that Ishmael, too, will enjoy God’s protection and become a great nation.

3500 years later it remains to be seen whether Isaac and Ishmael can live together in peace. This summer’s war between Israel and Hamas was the latest but almost certainly not the last installment of a conflict that, at least mythically, traces back to biblical times.

And yet in some ways this summer’s war was unique. In 1982, when the First Lebanon War started, I was in Israel on a kibbutz in the northern part of the country. Many Israelis felt that the Lebanon War was Israel’s first “milchemet breira,” war of choice, violating the unwritten consensus that Israel goes to war only when there are no other alternatives. Shortly after the war broke out, a rally of over 100,000 people against the war took place in Tel Aviv. Such a protest, while the troops were still fighting, was unprecedented. But ever since 1982, whenever there has been a war or major military operation, a significant proportion of the Israeli Jewish public has opposed it.

Until this summer. Polls indicate that 95% of the Israeli Jewish public supported this summer’s war against Hamas.

As you know, I spent several days in Israel this summer as part of a Solidarity Mission of Conservative rabbis and lay leaders. When we arrived in Israel, a cease fire had been in effect for several days. Our first visit was to an Iron Dome battery near Ashdod and our second visit was to a Conservative synagogue in Ashkelon. Ashkelon is quite near Gaza and the people with whom we met told us what life had been like during the active fighting. Always having to be within 15 seconds of a bomb shelter and planning out your route to work or the grocery store accordingly. How all summer camps and any gatherings of over 50 people had to be cancelled; how the city had taken over a reinforced parking garage to use as a playground so kids could still ride bicycles or kick a soccer ball around. But at the same time, they were describing all of this in the past tense and looking forward to life getting back to normal.

But as our group was in Beersheva three Hamas rockets from Gaza landed harmlessly in a field outside the city.  We did not hear the rockets but a few minutes later we heard and saw as Israeli jets streaked overhead towards Gaza. The fighting was back on, worse than ever, and I was awakened that night in our Jerusalem hotel by an alarm and an announcement to get to the bomb shelter.

Fortunately I was never really in any danger. The Hamas rocket fired towards Jerusalem was taken out by the Iron Dome missile and though a bit of rocket debris did fall in Jerusalem, it wasn’t in the neighborhood where we were staying. But having experienced a rocket alarm firsthand helped me to understand a little more what life was like this summer for residents of southern Israel. When the alarm went off, I was in bed and had 90 seconds to get to the shelter -- whereas in Ashkelon or Sderot, it was 15 seconds. Should I get dressed or head to the shelter in my underwear, since I hadn’t packed a bathrobe?  Should I stop to take my cell phone, or would that delay me unreasonably? What if, fearing insomnia due to the change in time zones, I had taken a sleeping pill?

Although relatively few civilians were killed or injured, it was this kind of disruption of daily life that led to such broad support for the war effort. Anyone in southern Israel with young children, anyone elderly or disabled, had to either leave the area or live in a shelter. I thought of my own family -- with Keleigh disabled and using a walker, there is no way we would have been able to guarantee that she could get to the shelter in time, and we, too, would have had to leave our home.

While it was the rockets that led to the war, it was the tunnels which solidified the Israeli public’s support. Some Palestinians and their supporters have explained the tunnels as a necessary response to the closure of Gaza’s borders by both Israel and Egypt; and indeed there were many tunnels from Gaza into the Egyptian Sinai which were used to smuggle everyday goods. But the tunnels into Israel were not intended for consumer goods. They were meant to enable terrorists to enter kibbutzim and towns and murder or kidnap their inhabitants, possibly in a coordinated attack. I’ve seen reports that Israeli intelligence discovered that the attack was planned for this very day, Rosh Hashanah.

If this summer’s war served to unify the Jewish citizens of Israel, to some extent it had the opposite effect in the Diaspora.  Jonathan Chait, a New York Magazine columnist, former editor of The New Republic and generally a reliably pro-Israel voice, penned a column with the headline “Israel Is Making It Hard to be Pro-Israel.”  A media analyst  wrote “if Israel is beginning to lose people like Jonathan Chait, then it’s support in the U.S. is showing real signs of eroding.”

Antony Lerman, a British and Israeli citizen and former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, went further, publishing an Op-Ed in the New York Times proclaiming that it was no longer possible to be a liberal Zionist. Lerman wrote that anti-democratic forces are setting the agenda in Israel, that the two-state solution was dead, and that liberal Zionists were merely providing cover for the “supremacist Zionism dominant in Israel today,” that they are “an obstacle to the emergence of a Diaspora Jewish movement that could actually be an agent of change.”

Lerman says that those who claim to be liberal Zionists ought to recognize that, in point of fact, one can be a liberal or a Zionist, but not both. He calls on liberal Zionists to “acknowledge the demise of their brand” and become part of the movement for a unitary democratic state, neither Jewish nor Arab, in what is now Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.

Rabbi David Hartman used to tell a story about a group of Jewish intellectuals in Czarist Russia who would sit around and discuss moving to the Land of Israel, but the  leader of the group would always tell them that it’s not time yet. One day as they were in a tavern, they were approached by a non-Jewish intellectual, a friend of theirs, who had had a few drinks. He said to them: “you know what we Gentiles dislike about you Jews? You think you’re more moral than we are, and we don’t like that.”

The group leader said to him: “but we are more moral than you are. We don’t hunt.” The Russian responded: “of course you don’t hunt. We don’t allow you to own guns.”

The leader turned to his fellows: “Now. Now is the time for us to move to the Land of Israel.” “Why now?” “We will prove that it is possible to own guns and yet not to hunt.”

I suspect that in point of fact very few Israelis hunt, because Israel is pretty densely-populated, much of the land where it would be safe to discharge weapons is already in use by the Army for training, and animals killed by a gunshot aren’t kosher.
But as with most stories Rabbi Hartman used to tell, there is a larger point. It is relatively easy to live by Jewish values, to be morally pure and unsullied, when you don’t have responsibility for the wellbeing of an entire society -- when the Gentiles don’t let you own guns. Is it possible to create a society that lives by Jewish values when you actually have power, when the problems of everyday life are not just talked about in the taverns and coffeehouses but in the Knesset and the Defense Ministry?

ITheodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, or A.D. Gordon and the founders of the kibbutz movement, had no interest in bringing the pathologies and injustices of Europe to the Middle East. They hoped to create an exemplary state, one based on utopian ideals of justice, equality and peace.

On the other hand,  the poet  Chaim Nachman Bialik wrote that the Zionist dream will be realized when a Jewish policeman arrests a Jewish prostitute who will be sent to jail by a Jewish judge.

There has been a lot of criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war this past summer. It is incontrovertible that many civilians, including hundreds of children, were killed by Israeli air strikes and artillery. When we were in Israel our group did not shy away from these issues. We discussed how the Air Force chooses targets with a reserve general who was one of the pilots who destroyed the Iraqi reactor in 1981, and artillery targeting with the commander of an artillery battalion in the field just outside of Gaza. The commander is probably the only colonel in the IDF whose mother is a Conservative rabbi. He told us that he personally approves every target and has eliminated potential targets when the risk of killing innocent civilians was too great.

We also met with Prof. Asa Kasher, a philosopher specializing in ethics and the author of the IDF code of ethics. One of the points he addressed was that of “proportionality”; given that Palestinian deaths exceeded Israeli ones by a ratio of at least 50 to 1, there has been a lot of criticism of Israel’s allegedly disproportionate response.

Prof. Kasher explained that proportionality is not a matter of the ratio of deaths on both sides; rather, the harm caused to civilians must be proportionate to the military value of the target. When you have an enemy who chooses to base itself among a civilian population, that uses schools and mosques and hospitals to store weapons and launch rockets, that uses ambulances to transport weapons, the duty to avoid harm to civilians runs up against the duty a government has to protect its own citizens.If I know that the head of Hamas is going to be attending a wedding, can I drop bombs on the catering hall where the wedding is being held?  Is it ethical to kill 100 civilians in order to eliminate the head of Hamas? What about 5 citizens? It isn’t an easy calculation to make. Israel doesn’t always get it right, but the IDF recently launched criminal investigations into a number of incidents from this summer, including the shelling of a UN school and the deaths of four Palestinian boys playing on a beach near the Gaza port. If soldiers or their commanders acted improperly or negligently, they will pay the price.

Zionism and the State of Israel were meant, of course, to solve the Jewish problem, but what problem exactly is that? For some, it was the problem of the Jews -- to create a place of refuge, where Jews would be safe from persecution. For some, it was the problem of Judaism -- a place where the language of daily life would be Hebrew, where Jewish religious and cultural creativity would flourish, where Jews could figure out how to create not only a communal but a national life using the Bible and the Talmud for guidance while also being a part of the larger region and world.

Israel is now 66  years old and the dilemmas are very much with us. Our group last month also met with Dr. Thabet Abu Ras, an Israeli  Arab who is a professor of geography and demography at Sapir Academic College, a mostly-Jewish institution in Sederot, right on the Gaza border. Dr. Abu Ras discussed the dilemmas of Israeli Arabs, Arabs who live in Israel proper, not the West Bank or Gaza, hold Israeli citizenship, vote in Israeli elections, and for the most part speak fluent Hebrew. Yet, because Israel is understood as a Jewish state; because the symbols of Israel are the menorah and the Star of David; because the Israeli national anthem speaks of the "Jewish soul's yearning"; and because most Israeli Arabs have relatives on the other side of the Green Line --Dr. Abu Ras has family in Gaza -- they are not fully part of Israel. And yet, they identify as Israelis and have made quite clear their desire to remain Israeli citizens with their villages as part of Israel, even if a Palestinian state is eventually created on adjacent Palestinian land.

Shouldn't Israel be a state with whose symbols all its citizens can identify? Shouldn't it serve the needs of all its citizens? But wasn't Israel established precisely so that it could be a Jewish state? Shouldn't it promote the well-being of Jews and develop housing and infrastructure for Jews from throughout the world who come to live in Israel -- even if this might mean that economic development in the Arab sector gets the short end of the stick?

Israel’s internal policies and its conduct of military operations raise many dilemmas. It is tempting, as many younger Jews who are troubled by these dilemmas, and some who are not so young, to simply walk away from involvement with Israel altogether. Or conversely, as many Jews who are leaders of Jewish organizations, or those who look back on the 1940s and 1950s with a certain nostalgia do, to deny that these dilemmas exist, to ignore them, to attack those who raise questions, and to retreat to the image of Israel as a biblical theme park.

But I prefer to think of Israel as the place where an important conversation is going on about what it means to live as a Jew today. Both American Jewry and Israel are important conversions, but Israel is a conversation with an army and an air force and so the stakes are a little bit higher. As Rabbi David Hartman taught, for two thousand years we did not have to deal with questions of the moral use of power. Now we do. What is the proper way a Jew, a Jewish nation, uses a gun or a tank or an airplane?  How can Israel be simultaneously a Jewish state and a democratic state for all its citizens. This is perhaps the central Jewish conversation of our time.

But Israel is more than a state or a conversation, it is also a family. And so I want to leave you with another vignette, a story that happened to me in February 2001. I was traveling in Israel with about 20 other Conservative rabbis. Our trip was what is known in tourism industry jargon as a “Familiarization Trip,” organized by a travel agency which was trying to convince us to use their services for congregational trips to Israel, and so the hotels and everything else were really top notch. We were spending the night at a hotel by the Dead Sea when we saw posters announcing that Motorola was putting on a concert for its employees that night, and some of us wanted to go.

We asked our guide to make arrangements, and he tried, but it was impossible. The event was strictly for Motorola employees, admission was by invitation only and no tickets were being sold under any circumstances. We were disappointed, but our guide said that he wanted to see the concert too and that the best bet was for us to simply show up and see if we could talk our way in. So five of us plus our guide headed off to the massive tent where the concert was held, and went to the back entrance to see if we could talk our way in.

When we got there, the guard asked to see our invitations, which of course we did not have. But somehow, one of our party, Rabbi Neil Brief from Chicago, the only one in the group who was in his 60s -- the rest of us were in our late 30s or early 40s -- had been given an invitation by one of the Motorola employees who didn't plan to attend. So Rabbi Brief showed the guard his invitation and we started to walk in.

But the guard stopped us and said "zeh bishvilcha -- mah eetam?" This is for you -- what about them? And Rabbi Brief pointed to the invitation and said "katuv po, l'chol ha-mishpacha" -- it says here, this invitation is for you and your  whole family. The guard laughed, said "beseder, beseder" -- OK, OK, and waved us all in. And we enjoyed a wonderful concert, a buffet and an open bar, courtesy of Motorola Israel and the friendly guard.

All Jews are, indeed, family, and Israel is an important part of our family. Israel is not perfect, indeed, it is far from perfect. But our family members do not have to be perfect in order to receive our love and our support.  We must never stop working for the day when Isaac and Ishmael dwell together again as brothers. We must never stop doing what we can to help Israel become the “light unto the nations” and the “first flowering of redemption” that it was meant to  be. But it’s imperfections should never cause us to walk away from her. We do not abandon our family that easily.