There is Nothing Wrong About Israel That Can’t Be Fixed By What is Right About Israel
Yom Kippur Day Sermon 5779 (2018)
Rabbi Evan Moffic
The early pioneers in Israel wrote this popular song. “Anu banu artza livnot u’lihibanot ba. We have to come the land to build and to be rebuilt by it.” These immigrants were an idealistic group. They were doing more than building a country. They were transforming themselves as they were developing the land. They were reclaiming an ancient birthright. They were renewing a Judaism, a people, they saw as stale and old-fashioned.
The Zionist movement largely succeeded in this task. Israel not only saved Jewish lives. It gave confidence, meaning, and a sense of destiny to all of us. Jews around the world straightened their spines and lived with deeper pride in being Jewish. There was a reason Solel did teen trips to Israel in the 1960s, a practice soon followed by thousands of other congregations. Israel deepened our sense of Judaism and human responsibility. It made us proud.
Is Israel still doing that today? Are we still proud of Israel? Does our sense of connection ennoble us and bring light to the world? I think so.
But I am worried. I am worried about the religious extremism that grows more powerful every year. I am worried about the inability to make progress on peace. I am worried about international condemnation and isolation.
I am also worried that too many people have given up. They just don’t care. Israel doesn’t affect our day to day lives, so why we should we worry about what’s happening there? Well, because Judaism is not only a religion. We are a people. And everyone here—whether we grew up Jewish, converted to Judaism, married somebody Jewish or just feel a connection to Judaism—we are part of that people. And what does it mean to be part of a people? It means we see ourselves as a family. Families fight. Families disagree. But families care for one another. And families grow together.
Our extended family lives in Israel. Their story is part of our story. The language spoken there is the language we speak in this sanctuary. We would not be the same people today without Israel. It sprang to life after 2000 years of dreaming, in the ashes of the Holocaust.
But after 70 years of statehood, where do we go from here? How do we stay proud of Israel? How do we keep our extended quarrelsome family strong, today and 100 years from now?
Well, first we need to express our pride and pat ourselves a. little on the back. Israel is more than a place of war and religious tension seen in the media. It is a place of extraordinary innovation and humanity. Newspapers and television thrive on conflict. And there is plenty of that. But there is also deep moral conviction and commitment. Earlier this year, when the Israeli government adopted a policy of deporting thousands of African migrants to Sudan and Eritrea, dozens of Israeli pilots refused to fly planes carrying migrants. Doctors began volunteering to provide free medical care. Hundreds of Holocaust survivors living in Israel spoke out. The policy was soon reversed.
Israelis recognized that a policy of deporting migrants seeking freedom is not Jewish. It did not fit our family values. One president said about the United States that there is nothing wrong about America that can’t be fixed by what is right about America. The same is true in Israel. Nothing is wrong about Israel that can’t be fixed by what’s right about Israel.
But to remain that kind of society—one that is self-correcting—Israel needs democracy. Democracy is dynamism. Israel was born as a Jewish democratic state. That’s a bit of a paradox. In its classical form, Judaism is theocratic not democratic. But like Reform Judaism, modern Israel is an experiment—a way of bringing together the old and the new, Judaism with Democracy. It’s not easy. It’s a liberal political value grafted onto an ancient religious nationalism.
And also, as Americans, we need to remember, Israeli democracy does not need to look like American democracy. Israel is a Jewish state. The laws privilege Judaism. The Law of Return does not apply universally. Now some younger American Jews think this approach is wrong. Some have even described the law of return as racist. I disagree, because Israel emerged out of the historical experience of the Jewish people, and every people has a right to self-determination. We need a homeland so Jews can survive and Judaism can thrive.
But that homeland must also reflect the values we hold dear. Democracy and liberalism were always part of the Zionist vision. As Israel’s declaration of independence put it, the Jewish state “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” But looking back over this year, we see two events that challenged this vision.
The first happened at the Western Wall. A coalition of liberal Jews—led by women who sought to pray with full equality at the Western Wall, along with the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel—reached an agreement with the government. An area at the Wall would be dedicated to egalitarian worship. But then a few months later, the ultra-orthodox rabbi who oversees the Wall told Prime Minister Netanyahu he opposes the deal. So the Prime Minister reneged. As of today, that area will not be built out.
This may not seem like a big deal. Most Israelis rarely visit the Western Wall. But it is a symbol of the Jewish people. It’s the family seal, so to speak. And the seal cannot ignore 80 percent of the family. To define proper worship at our tradition’s most sacred place as Orthodox, excludes the 80 percent of Jews around the world who are not Orthodox. It suggests Judaism is a religion of patriarchy and exclusion. Symbols matter. A Jewish state should reflect the Jewish people as we are. All we can do now is push with our dollars and voices to ensure the Wall becomes a place we are proud of.
Perhaps even more damaging than the conflict at the wall is the recent passage of the Nation State bill. The Knesset—Israel’s parliament— passed what is called a basic law—similar to a constitutional amendment, even though Israel has no constitution—reaffirming Israel’s Jewish character. In principle, there is nothing wrong with it. And if you read the bill, most of it seems innocuous. But it says nothing about Israel as a democracy. And it subtly denigrates Arab-Israelis by downgrading the official status of the Arabic language and describing further settlement of the land as a “national interest.” Professor Naomi Chazan, one of Israels’ most celebrated public intellectuals, described the nation-state bill as,
“ a narrow, introspective, exclusionary depiction of Israel at odds with the open vision of the country and its aspirations articulated by its architects 70 years ago.”
Now you know me. I’m an optimistic generally happy guy. And I am immensely proud of Israel. In many ways, it has far exceeded the dreams of its founders. It is home to the largest Jewish population in the world. It has sustained a democracy in a part of the world not known for its success in doing so. Its technological innovation matches and may even exceed Silicon Valley. If you go to the Tel Aviv bus station, you see Jews of every color and religious outlook living together. Israel is even, according to new research, the eleventh happiest country in the world. But every nation faces critical turning points, moments of decision. After World War II, America could have turned back inward. We could have returned to the isolationism of the 20s and 30s. But we turned outward, and passed the Marshall plan, created NATO, and rebuilt Germany and Japan.
Today Israel is at a fork in the road. Like the US after the Second World War, it is powerful, and economically strong. Will it become more sectarian? Will its most creative and progressive leaders leave in despair? Will it lose the support and affection of American Jews? Will our family break apart? The possibility is real. So what can we do?
Well, on Yom Kippur we are meant to look inward. We need to ask ourselves what Israel means to us. We need to probe. What, in our heart of hearts, do we believe the Jewish homeland should be? To start to answer this question, let’s admit to ourselves that Israel is complex. We need to avoid the two most conventional approaches. The first is the one my grandparents took. They visited Israel in the early 1960s. To them—I think to many in this sanctuary—Israel could do virtually no wrong. The pioneers drained the swamps. They settled millions of immigrants. They brought life to the Jewish people after the Holocaust.
That vision is powerful and romantic. It was true in its time. But Israel today is a different country. It is a real place with corrupt politicians, poverty, discrimination. It is naive to think Israel is perfect and not worthy of criticism. By the way, in saying that, I need to acknowledge—as we all do—that we do not live and vote there. Our children, by and large, do not serve in the military…. But our voices still matter. As American Jews, we have a stake in Israel’s future.
But the other approach worries me as well. This is the one taken by many younger Jews today, many of my friends. It says Israel can virtually do no right. That is one where Israel is portrayed like the Pharaoh and the Palestinians are like the ancient Israelites. This is the one where Israel deserves boycott and sanctions because they built a fence to protect themselves. Some of these groups do not believe a Jewish state should even exist because a state that privileges one religious group over another is inherently racist. It is, in the words of one protestor, a “chauvinist relic.”
This approach not only undermines a dream of 2000 years. It is also profoundly dangerous. Israel does live in a rough neighborhood. It is under threat every day. Just last week an American immigrant to Israel and father of four young children was stabbed to death in his neighborhood. The luxury of living in America should not blind us to the real dangers Israel faces every day.
Now there is even a third alternative. It is becoming more pronounced every day. It is an indifference to Israel. It is a sense of I’m American. I don’t need all this worry about what happening there. Sure, it’s the land of the Torah. But it doesn’t affect my daily life. Why should I care?
The answer is this. We are a people. And what happens in Israel does not stay in Israel. To give up on Israel is to give up on Judaism, to give up on who we are. We are heirs of the psalmist who said, “If I forget thee, o Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its strength.” Indifference, ignorance is not an option. So if one approach is too hot and one is too cold and one is indifferent, is there anyone perfect answer? No. But let’s ask a different question. How do we keep our family together as we go through difficult times?
Well, let’s turn to one of the most seminal moments of the Torah. It’s in the book of Genesis. The patriarch Jacob spends an entire evening wrestling with an angel. Their struggle ends in a virtual draw. Day is now breaking. And Jacob says, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” The angel replies, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” His name is now Israel because he struggled. He struggled. And he did not let go.
We will not let go. We will struggle to see Israel live up to its dreams and possibilities. In that struggle, we will have our faith challenged and our hearts broken. But we will not let go.
We will visit Israel, we will give to good causes, we will remind our fellow Jews of the Zionist dream—a Jewish state, safe and secure, brimming with Jewish and Democratic values. We will not give up. Not only because it is our responsibility as members of this people, but because, like Jacob and the angel, out of that struggle will come a blessing. A blessing not just for us, but for the entire world. To paraphrase a famous prayer, “May the Source of Strength who blessed the ones before us, help us find the courage to make Israel, our spiritual homeland, a place of blessing, now and forever, and let us all say Amen.”