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Yom Kippur 5774

Challenging Conversations:  How we talk about Israel

It was shocking news…Egypt and Syria had attacked Israel in the Sinai and the Golan Heights.  For those of us over 45, who can forget the images of the Egyptians crossing the Suez Canal?  On that Yom Kippur day in 1973 when we were the most vulnerable spiritually, emotionally and physically; we suddenly had this awful feeling and wondered whether Israel could be militarily vulnerable?  And then it became clear that this would not be the 1967 war – with a quick resolution – some wondered about the very survival of Israel.  This war would take some time and there would be many deaths and causalities.  As we know, Israel prevailed.

Now, I can already see it in your eyes.  For some of you, this is great, the rabbi is going to discuss Israel this morning; for others, oh no, what he is going to say.  I am even reminded of basic etiquette that one should not discuss religion or politics in polite company.  Regrettably, Israel has become like that in the last decade.  We have become afraid to discuss Israel, we have become afraid that our opinions will be criticized; we have legitimately become afraid of being ostracized or not politically correct.  I am pained by Israel having become a subject that is often avoided in conversation.  I am deeply concerned that we discuss only Israel in political terms and have lost so much for ourselves and our children in terms of Israel and its culture, its soul, its democracy, its contributions to humanity, its Jewish values, and its incredible story of transforming the desert into an oasis.  Israel is often stigmatized in the world and I feel that American Jews have become fearful of conversations and programs in our own community, and thus we too stigmatize the process of learning and nurturing an appreciation of Israel.

On this Yom Kippur morning, when we are reflecting on our own lives, I think of Jacob.

It is Jacob who became Israel, Yisrael, after wrestling with a man, or himself, or an angel or God, or his own conscience as he was about to cross the Jabbok.  He wrestles all night and in the morning he is given the name Israel because: he has wrestled with divine and human beings and has prevailed.

That is who we are, especially on Yom Kippur day, we are collectively and individually wrestlers.  We wrestle with identity, meaning, relationships, community and with what it means to have a Jewish State.  What is needed now is more support for the endeavor of wrestling --that is wrestling with the issues of Israel in an honest and open manner that is inclusive of all those who affirm Israel’s right to exist.

For me, it is most personal.  As I was born the same year as Israel, I often consider the reality of my life: if instead of being born on the shores of the Pacific, I had been born on the shores of the Mediterranean.

My birth came six months after that day in May when Ben Gurion proclaimed the independence of the state. It would have been my father off defending our homeland and his family against the attacking neighboring Arab nations who refused to live with partition. Bullets and tanks would have been the very real toys of my childhood. At ten years old, I would have seen my father go off to the Sinai desert to another battle. At 19, I would have started my military career with the Six Day War, instead of going off to Berkeley to study philosophy and to protest a war in Southeast Asia that was tearing our country apart. In 1973, already a veteran of one war I would have been called out of my synagogue on Yom Kippur day to defend our homeland again; instead of sitting in a synagogue here in the states and deciding to pursue a career in the Rabbinate.

My adolescence, young adulthood and adulthood would have been in a country filled with economic tensions and constant threats of war, and now, my sons would have been veterans of Lebanon, and would be serving their one month a year. I would be seeing the sons and daughters and for some the grandchildren of my generation take their turn and instead of going off to university go off to the army.

Most of us cannot remember a world without her; nor can we imagine it. Many people lived their entire lives when Israel existed only as a dream. David Ben Gurion articulated the history and dreams of the state in the Proclamation of Independence: “The Land of Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and national identity was formed. Here they achieved independence and created a culture of national and universal significance. Here they wrote and gave the Bible to the world.” He went on to say: “We extend our hand in peace and neighborliness to all the neighboring states and their peoples, and invite them to cooperative with the independent Jewish nation for the common good of all.”

Throughout the past 65 years we as American Jews have been taken on a roller coaster ride through our emotions: pride, triumph, ecstasy, fear, guilt, dismay and bewilderment as we watched the birth, childhood and adolescence of this modern miracle.

Indeed it has been an incredible miracle:
•    Survival against all odds
•    The nurturing of a fertile land where only a few decades earlier there was barren desert. 
•    The creation of a homeland for Jews from around the world—Jews from the Arab countries, the Soviet Union, Europe, and the United States
•    A bastion of democracy and civilization amidst a world of chaos.

I think that the polarizing political discussion that has taken place in America over the past decade has done more harm than good.  I think that the vitriolic words that have been spoken by Jews to each other have caused tremendous damage in so many ways.  When I read about or observe these harsh condemnations of each other, I think back to my many trips to Israel and to the two years that I lived there.  I would sit with Israelis who had very different visions of their country.  They would intensely disagree, argue, it would become very emotional.  And then it was over, there was often a hug and they would go back to having a good visit and sharing a friendship.  There was not a harsh condemnation of each other.  I find in Israel, most Israelis to be much more forgiving of each other than we often are here as American Jews in discussing Israel.  I wonder why that it is.  Are they able to argue better because their lives and the lives of their children are on the line every day?

I think that in all too many synagogues Israel has become marginalized as synagogue leaders are afraid to offer programs that might alienate someone.  I think that many American synagogue and Jewish Community Centers have failed to educate their children about Israel and its magnificent story.  How do we reclaim Israel as a central part of the Jewish story, how do we reclaim the history and culture and values; how do we reclaim the ability to have honest and respectful discourse; how do we prepare ourselves for telling the story of Israel to our families, friends, acquaintances and to all those we encounter in life?

In a sailing race, one knows where you want to go, where the finish line is.  However, like life, it is not a direct course, as the wind and current changes, getting to the goal is filled with turns, adjustments, and maneuvers in order to try and get to the goal, which is the finish line.  I share with you this morning some of my dreams for Israel, some of my hopes about our engagement and relationship with Israel and some of the turns and adjustments that I think need to be made in order to get to a dream that so many of us share.

My dream is for an Israel that will be respected like any other sovereign nation, with its neighbors and the world completely affirming it right to exist and to defend itself.  My dream is of an Israel that will be at peace with its neighbors, with secure borders, and living in a Middle East that will be flourishing economically, socially and culturally. My dream is that there will be a vibrant and dynamic relationship between Israelis and American Jews.  My dream is that more and more American Jews will develop a healthy relationship with Israel and there will be many more opportunities to discuss, help and engage with Israel.

Thus, the question is how do we navigate the course and help Israel achieve that goal.

1. Israel has become the “third rail” in American Jewish life.  Honest and open discourse often turns to malevolent and bitter yelling matches in person, in the press or in the blogosphere.  This kind of discourse has been extremely damaging.  How do we reclaim the value of civil and respectful discourse where we disagree but yet we listen to and not demonize other views?  Synagogues are not political clubs but when Israel is threatened our congregants should be exposed to a wide variety of articles and perspectives which include views ranging from those of different political parties in Israel to views of AIPAC and to those of JStreet.  There often seems to me that there are two views:  Israel is always right and can do no wrong and Israel is wrong no matter what it does.  Neither view is realistic. This is way too simplistic.  The subject of Israel is complex, not always easy to understand, nuanced and need conversations that go deep and require real knowledge. What we need is a way of finding a discourse which is balanced, constructive and reflects an understanding that people can have different view and still equally love Israel. Israel is an exceptional country and yet it has flaws and weaknesses like any other country.  Any country, like any person does best when we take stock of who we are and strive to do better.

2. This conversation starts with awareness that Israel is the only real democracy in the Middle-East and with that comes both the rights and privileges of a democracy but also the same messiness that we have here in America in making democracy effective. That is the beauty of democracy.  Israeli leaders are freely elected.  Leaders are often elected with much less of a majority vote than is required here.  The Israel government is a coalition government which in itself reflects compromise.  Israel is a country which has made incredible contributions to the world in science, technology, medicine, literature, agriculture, the arts, humanitarian efforts and yet like any other nation has social, civil, and economic challenges.  The gift of democracy is in the freedom of the press, the voice of dissent, and the ability to work things through in a democratic function.

3. An important part of the conversation is knowing more about the history of Israel – which probably requires reading a good history of Israel.  Israel has offered the hand of peace many times.  It has been rejected over and over.  Yet for Israel to survive and flourish, she needs to find new ways to create peace with its neighbors.  The path to peace will be painful and difficult and involve concessions on both sides.  For the road to peace it is critical that we listen and try to understand the Palestinian narrative.  Our futures are intertwined and filled with a painful past.  We need to support whole heartedly the initiatives that are bold and creative because of our focus on the goal.

4. As American Jews our lives are inextricably linked with our brothers and sisters in Israel.  I often find that there are two conversations taking place – the one in Israel and the one here.  I want us to bring more Israelis here…to hear their voices, to hear their stories…to hear their concerns and their dreams.  I want us to meet Israelis in the army.  I want us to meet Israeli teachers and social workers, Israeli intellectuals and artists.  I want us to meet Israelis from different cultures and different political views.  I want us to do more than hear them speak; I want us to engage in real exchanges and experience.

5. As an American Jew, I have a responsibility to be involved in discussions about Israel, its security, its soul, its future, because, like it or not, the future of the diaspora is intertwined with Israel.  For me, I have always viewed it in the following way.  I give more credence to the voices of the people who live in Israel.  They are the people who have put their lives on the line and live with the threat every day.  They are the people who have gas masks in their homes.  We need to be reading more Israeli literature as well as the Israeli press to learn and to see the views of those who live there.  What we will find are views and thoughts about the nation that are even more diverse than ours.  I think we have lost sight of the conversation when we are not really listening to those who have the most at stake.

6. As American Jews, except in our Jewish day schools, for the most part we have not done a good job in our synagogues of educating our children about the history, education and culture of Israel.  We are sending our young people off to college ill-prepared to interact with other students about Israel. This must change.  The college campus is an extremely difficult place for a young American Jew with often strong anti-Israel sentiment.  Regrettably, we too as adults know little about Israel.  This is our homeland.  We should embark on a journey of learning so that we can be literate about Israel and its history.  

7. We need to encourage our young people and ourselves to go to Israel.  We need funds to send our high school students who wish to go on a trip to Israel.  It is important we let more young people know about the Birthright Trip, open to anyone who is under the age of 26 – a gift made possible by the generosity of a few philanthropists.  As a congregation we should be going every few years or joining other Bay Area trips on their journeys to Israel.

8. We should make a commitment to read an Israel paper in English.  (Some on line examples: Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Times of Israel, Ynetnews).We should try and learn more about Israel through film and literature. I think what is needed is a real commitment to making Israel part of our lives.

9. As Reform and Conservative Jews, we need to help our colleagues in Israel who are struggling for the rights of the non-Orthodox in Israel.  Israel has freedom of religion but not for all Jews.  If I do your conversion – it will not be recognized in Israel.  On a trip to Israel, men and women cannot pray together at the Wall.  Regrettably, I cannot come with you to officiate at your wedding in Israel.  There is ongoing struggle at the Wall and throughout Israel for equal rights for all Jews.  I will be letting you know more about these issues and how you can get involved.

10. As a congregation, we should welcome with open arms programs that deal with Israeli culture, peoplehood and history.  As a community, we need to work diligently to understand how many Jews there are who are just so tired of all the fighting about Israel, who know little about Israel – and yet deep down want to connect.  I want us to both offer a basic course in Israel as well as bring scholars from the Hartman Institute to engage us in serious conversation about Jewish identity and peoplehood.

11. There is a vision of an Israel living in peace with its neighbors. Regrettably, we have not done very well in telling our story here in America.  We need to invest much more money in constructive messaging about Israel.  We need help in preparing messages, story lines, educational materials that our college students can utilize and that will help us in sharing with our neighbors the remarkable story about Israel.  The materials of a decade ago will not work.  This is a time for bold thinking and creativity.

I offer these thoughts with humility and with respect for each of you.  These formulations are a work in progress.  They need you to bring them to life.  Israel is young and trying to figure it out. Think of the great empires in history—think of our own country and how very young we were in 1841—one of the most defining moment for us as a nation, the Civil War, was still 20 years away. Yet even for a country the first 65 years are the formative ones laying a foundation on which to build a great civilization. Yossi Klein Halevi says: “To be an Israeli at the time of the state’s anniversary means to be resigned to living with insoluble emotional and political paradoxes. It means living with a growing fear of mortality, even as we celebrate our ability to outlive every threat. We are almost certainly the only nation that marks its Independence Day with an annual poll that invariably includes the question: ‘Do you believe the country will still exist 50 years from now?’”

Like any nation before it, like any human being growing up, emergence into maturity is a process of casting off some old identities and of taking on new identities of solidifying parts of our identity and of constant reappraisal.  What I am proposing about our conversations and engagement is not easy, I know that.  Yet what I also know is that we cannot continue on the road of harsh and condemning conversations – they have led us nowhere.

Peace means taking a risk; peace means compromise; peace means coming together like the once bitter enemies, Sadat and Begin; peace means finding a real way to talk, to understand; peace means silencing the inhuman voice of the terrorists and the extremist and letting the voices of human beings emerge—all those who want to live normal lives. Peace, our continual dream, is beautifully expressed in the book My Shalom, My Peace, which has in it paintings and poems by Jewish and Arab children and begins with this poem:


        What shall I ask You for, God?
        I have everything.
        There’s nothing I lack.
        I ask only for one thing
        And not for myself alone;
        It’s for many mothers, and children, and fathers—
        Not just in this land, but in many lands hostile to each other
        I’d like to ask for Peace.
        Yes, it’s Peace I want,
        And You, You don’t deny the single wish of a girl.
        You created the Land of Peace,
        Where stands the City of Peace,
        Where stood the Temple of Peace,
        But where still there is no Peace…
        What shall I ask you for, God? I have everything.
        Peace is what I ask for,
        Only Peace.

Rabbi Lee Bycel
Yom Kippur 5774, 2013

Fri, July 12 2024 6 Tammuz 5784