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What on Earth Can American Rabbis Say About Israel This Rosh Hashana?

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A man draped in an Israeli flag walks along King George Street in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, Sept. 23, 2015.
A man draped in an Israeli flag walks along King George Street in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, Sept. 23, 2015.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

With the High Holidays just over a week away, I decided that it was time to draft my sermon on Israel. It might change, of course, but this is what I have so far:

God’s judgment and our repentance and God’s mercy and our self-renewal are the major themes of our High Holy Days. But before the holidays are done, I also want you to hear from me about the State of Israel.

This is important because never in Israel’s history have American Jews been so confused, distressed, and divided about what is happening in Israel.    

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American Jews, like Israeli Jews, are split between doves and hawks. On the one hand, we have those who are focused on Israel’s security in a dangerous neighborhood and an unstable world. On the other hand, we have those who focus mostly on the Jewish values and democratic principles of the Jewish state.

None of his is new. But what is different now is that the two sides are totally unable to bridge the gap between them or recognize any legitimacy in the arguments of the other side.

And what I want to suggest to you today, in this holy season, is that it is our task as Reform Jews and liberal lovers of Israel to represent the sensible center, at a time when that center is collapsing.

What are the arguments of each side? 

The hawks point out that the Middle East is supremely unstable. Syria is wracked by civil war, and Jordan is destabilized by massive numbers of Syrian refugees. Hezbollah threatens Israel from the north, Hamas from the south, and Iranian Revolutionary Guards are 30 miles from the Golan. The Palestinian Authority refuses to hold elections, and if it were to do so, Hamas would probably win.  

In this situation, peace is impossible. Nothing that might happen would make Israel feel secure enough to make territorial concessions. The occupation may be unfortunate, the hawks say, but there is no alternative to the status quo.

The doves see things differently. They point out that the government of Israel has shifted dramatically rightward.  

In an era when ultra-nationalism is sweeping the democratic world, Israel’s government has also moved in a nationalist direction, often with extremist overtones.  

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Israel Museum, May 23, 2017.Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has wavered on maintaining democratic norms at home. He has embraced right-wing governments such as Poland and Hungary, which depend on the support of anti-Semitic and neo-fascist elements. 

And he has been the primary champion of the recently passed Jewish nation-state law, which by failing to mention legal equality for all Israelis has managed to offend every non-Jewish citizen of Israel. 

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The doves, while generally liberal in outlook, do not expect the most right-wing government in Israel’s history to be liberal. But they do expect it to express more emphatically its commitment to a just peace with the Palestinians.  

And they can’t understand why Israel has identified herself exclusively with the Republican Party. By doing so, she has undermined the principle of bi-partisan American support for Israel, which has been the central premise of pro-Israel advocacy in America for 50 years. 

And finally, the doves, mostly non-Orthodox Jews, have been infuriated by the never-ending insults that they have suffered at the hands of Israel’s government. Reform and Conservative Judaism are still denied recognition in Israel, and there is still no place for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.  And government representatives, while professing solidarity with Jews everywhere, quietly acknowledge that Evangelicals matter more to them than liberal American Jews.

Given this grim reality, where do we as Reform Jews come in? The answer is that we must be the voice of the sensible center. 

Temple Israel in Memphis, Tennessee.Credit: Temple Israel (Memphis, Tennessee)

Others, overwhelmed by the events of the moment, are drifting away from their Zionist principles. 

But we are not. As I have said many times, Jewish life cannot be sustained without Israel at its core, and Israel cannot be sustained without the Jewish people at its side. Reform Jews know that we Jews are one people, linked by covenant and history, and that without Israel, Judaism is impossible.

Others, intimidated by conservative voices in their communities, are afraid to criticize the Jewish state.

But we are not. We are serious about defining Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, and therefore we know that every Jew has not only the right but the responsibility to critique Israeli policies. And we do not hesitate to do so.

Others give lip service to issues of religious freedom but see them as a secondary concern - as something that we can get to later.

But not us. We will not be silent when the decadent Chief Rabbinate, backed by the government, rejects the world’s largest Jewish denominations. This is nothing less than a betrayal of Zionism. We insist that Zionism be what its founders intended - a movement of the entire Jewish people.  

Others are a bit too naïve about the world around them.

Hezbollah members parade with a mock missile launcher in the Lebanese city of Nabatiyeh. Credit: Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP

But we are not. We are a proud liberal denomination, but at the same time solidly rooted in political realism. We have no illusions about Israel’s leadership, but we certainly don’t have any illusions about her enemies. We understand the importance of a Jewish army and Jewish power, and we thank God that Israel possesses both. Stateless Jews are defenseless Jews, and Israel means that Jews can use force if they must to remain safe and free.  

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Others forget Israel’s original mission, warning us against a Zionism of fear or Holocaust obsession.  

But we, as a religious movement with a long historical memory, are more sensible and cautious. Zionism was about creating a Jewish government to provide refuge to any Jew needing refuge, at any time, for any reason, no questions asked. And now, there are two million Jews in Europe, and not a single one of those European Jewish communities is truly secure. 

So yes, we agree that Zionism cannot simply be survivalism. But we also know that if, God forbid, Jews face a crisis in France, the UK, Russia, Poland, or Hungary, there must be a Jewish state to take them in.

And finally, others have given up on peace. This is true on the right and on the left.

But we have not. Yes, we are realistic and Israel must be strong. And yes, peace may not come for 5 years, or 10, or 50. Still, contrary to those all around us, we believe it will come, and bringing it about is a sacred task.

We do not hate or oppose the Palestinian people; we continue to respect their aspirations for independence. And we know that without dignity for the Palestinians there can be no true dignity for Israelis. And without peace for the Palestinians, there can be none for Israel.

An Israeli soldier walks past a mural, painted on the separation barrier, of an elderly Palestinian refugee holding the keys to his home.Credit: AFP

Reform Jews know that the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in its ancient homeland is one of the most just and moral causes of our time.  However, we also know that to occupy and control the lives of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, and to negate their right to create their own state, side by side with the State of Israel, is not just, moral, or Jewish.

By the way, I am not suggesting equivalence here. Israelis and Palestinians are not equally responsible for the absence of peace. Our national movement has been far from perfect; theirs has been mostly murderous.  

Nonetheless, no matter what, Reform Jews will always be on the frontlines of the struggle to transform the conflict into a serious search for peace. We continue to be motivated by the hope of building a future together, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, dominated not by fear and hatred but by optimism and commitment to the peace of Jerusalem.

This is not a simple message, but these are not simple times.

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Let us summarize: What does it mean for Reform Jews to be the sensible center?

It means that we oppose the messianic settlers and the occupation-forever Jews. Because we know that Israel cannot forever enslave another people.

It means that we oppose the give-back-the-territories-now-no-matter-what Jews. Because we know that absent an arrangement for real security, ending the occupation immediately could mean chaos and endless terror for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

It means that what we ask of ourselves, and what we offer the State of Israel, is tough-minded realism, honest criticism, and insistence on religious freedom for all. And above all, non-stop striving for peace.  

And it means that while Israel is neither perfect nor innocent, we have not lost our faith in Israel, and never will. And therefore we forever pledge to Israel our unconditional love.  

Not uncritical love, of course, but unconditional love. So help us God. 

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie

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