Rabbi Feingold’s Yom Kippur Sermon 2018

The Challenge of Israel as a Jewish Home

Rabbi Dena Feingold

In his novel Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer imagines that the State of Israel and the entire Middle East are hit with a catastrophic earthquake that brings that entire part of the world into conflict and Israel to the brink of destruction. rabbiDF  Although we know that Israel lies on a geological fault and the area has been hit with devastating earthquakes in the past, the story seems a bit preposterous, but not totally….  Perhaps we never thought of it in geological terms, but, sad to say, the concept of Israel on the brink of destruction does not seem so far fetched these days.  The many political, societal, and existential challenges that Israel faces often set me to wondering and worrying about how long this great experiment of the Jewish people will last.   

When I traveled to Israel late last spring, I carried that worry with me.  Israel has long been a home away from home for me.  But in recent years, I have become increasingly challenged by my other home.  I went on this trip with my eyes wide open, vowing to find reasons to be buoyed by Israel’s assets, but, at the same time,  not to avert my gaze from her significant flaws.  In these waning hours of the Ten Days of Repentance, I want to encourage all of us to look both with admiration and with honest concern at the State of Israel.  For if we fail to do so, we will bear a collective sin of not considering the crucial importance of Israel for the future of our people and in the process, possibly even contribute to her demise.

I know that some here this morning are unflinching hovevei Tzion, lovers of Zion.  These folks bristle at any portrayal of Israel as seriously flawed or at any criticism coming from someone who does not live there.  But I suspect that many, if not most of us, here today are in one of two other categories:  We are troubled by Israel and its policies on a number of issues. Or we have little interest in what is going on there, not wishing to expend psychic energy on Israel and its complexities, when we have so much else on our minds.   

My questions today are:  Can we suspend our frustration, our anger, our tuning out and turning away from Israel?  And alternatively, can we modify our automatic, unexamined support for Israel and our aversion to any criticism of the Jewish State?  It is in the spirit of the Jewish value:  “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh,”  “The whole people of Israel are responsible for one another” that I urge us in this direction.

For those who are feeling alienated from Israel, our anger about and averting our gaze toward Israel has to do with Israel embracing a series of policies that many find troubling:  Among these are: The building of more settlements on formerly Arab land; the ceding of power to the Orthodox, at the expense of secular and non-Orthodox Jews in many arenas; and the recent Nation-State law that implicitly demotes Muslim and non-Muslim Arabs within Israel to second class citizens.  For those who are not aware, this law has been condemned even by the Druze, an Arab subgroup in Israel, that have historically been at the forefront of the military defense of Israel.

In the past, pride in the Jewish State came easily to us because Israel aligned with our values.   But in recent years, for many, pride is shifting to embarrassment as Israel seems to slough off many of its democratic and pluralistic principles. This creates intense cognitive dissonance within us.  Given all of this, why should people who value pluralism and true democracy support the Jewish State?

First of all, close to half of the world’s Jewish population lives in Israel, and that, in and of itself, should be reason enough to care what happens in that nation.  Secondly, Israel is one of the most amazing stories of modern history and certainly the most interesting thing we Jews have ever set out to do (Yehudah Kertzer Shalom Hartman webinar, Aug 2018).– to build a modern nation of our own from scratch, based on Jewish values, rooted in Jewish tradition, and using our people’s ancient tongue as the lingua franca.  For these reasons, we must not abandon Israel and our great Jewish experiment or push it to the lowest rung on our list of societal concerns.   Instead, we should support Israel as our Jewish home and hold it to the highest Jewish standards.

Not for all, but for many, the current government of Israel is a stumbling block.  It presents a view and promotes policies that are a 180 degree turn from the views of the founders and leaders of Israel for its first five decades.  And the Israeli government has become more strident and conservative with every passing year.  Some say that people get the government they deserve. After all, the people are the ones that keep the current government in power.  But, keep in mind that in Israel’s multi-party system, it is no majority that put this government in office.  So, it is very important not to make the mistake of judging Israel and all Israelis based on this government’s positions.  

Living in the America that we now inhabit in 2018, perhaps we can better understand today that our fellow Jews in Israel do not all want to be painted with the broad brush of the current government.  Many Israelis don’t want to be associated with the government’s policies any more than many of us want America and we ourselves to be judged by the policies of our current administration.  Perhaps more than ever before, we now understand that one can love one’s country and simultaneously hold anger against its government policies. It is the same for many Israelis.

In June, I spoke at our “twin” congregation in Kiryat Tivon in the north of Israel.   After I was finished, one of the members, unsolicited,  came up to me and asked me to take this message home: “Tell your people that we are not all supporters of the Netanyahu government.  Most of us do not like the policies that are being put in place.”  Indeed, we may not hear about it on the news, but thousands and thousands of Israelis are constantly out there protesting the same policies that many of us abhor. On a regular basis, everyday Israelis fill the public squares, speaking out on many, many issues.  Think about this: When 100,000 Israelis came out to Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to protest the Nation State law in early August, that number is the equivalent percentage of the population to 4,000,000 in the United States.  (Gershon Gorenberg, J Street Webinar, Aug 9, 2018).

Learning about the Israeli resistance to current government actions and knowing the deep involvement in and the leadership that the Reform movement in Israel provides to this resistance was one of the things that buoyed me while I was in Israel in June.  Here are some others: 

*I was reminded of the rich Jewish cultural and religious life that grows within Israel and reaches out from there to every part of the Jewish world:  Israel is a tremendous resource for Jewish academic studies, literature, poetry, art, language, food, and so much more.  As an example, at the biennial convention of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, during Shabbat services and at workshops and concerts, I was swimming in all kinds of new music and worship styles.  And let’s not forget the wonderful music Orit creates and shares with us.  American congregations are being revitalized by this material in our services. 

*I also had the privilege to visit the main courthouse in the north of Israel in the Arab city of Nazareth and to become acquainted with those who work there.  How gratifying it was to see Muslim and Christian Arabs working side by side with Jews:  Judges, lawyers and clerks, all working amicably together toward the goal of justice in their society.  

*I met a refugee from Darfur who spoke through sobs of gratitude about the profound sense of welcome, education and inclusion he experienced in Israeli society.  It is true that there very serious issues today about the challenge of absorbing over 30,000 African refugees who are seeking asylum, and this ongoing tragedy should not be minimized or overlooked.  In fact, later today you will have a chance to delve into that issue at one of our afternoon sessions.  But, not all refugee stories in Israel are nightmares.  Some are beautiful dreams fulfilled.

*I visited a peace center on the West Bank where haredi (ultra Orthodox) settlers and Palestinians come together to bring rapprochement between Arab and Jewish neighbors who live on the same land.  This oasis of peace confounded my stereotype of the West Bank:  Of two peoples living in a state of constant strife and having no meaningful contact or dialogue with one another.

*In the multicultural city of Lod, I learned about how the Israeli government invested in that city as part of a task force to build better relations between Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens.  This came about after Israel saw a painful and precipitous decline in support from Israeli Arabs at the beginning of the new millennium.  Israel can and does learn from its failures and mistakes.

Even while speaking of Israel’s successes and things that can make us proud, you surely noted that I am unable to speak of such things without acknowledging that some things are terribly wrong in Israel as well.  I do so because I care so much about my home away from home.  And I am not the only one. Prominent voices inside and outside of Israel have now become more vocal and insistent that Diaspora Jews ought to make their voices heard.

In fact, many leaders in Israel today want us to engage and bring constructive criticism.  They believe that Israel is for all Jews, so they want to hear from us, and they accept that they have something to learn from us.  The renowned Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and its scholars from all parts of the spectrum in Israeli religious and academic arenas are among the most active proponents of this view.  

Shalom Hartman has created courses for North American Jews, specifically designed to encourage us to engage on a deep level on the question of whether Israel is living up to the Jewish values it claims to represent.  We have offered their courses here.  It was from their leader, Donniel Hartman, that I learned, for example, that calling Israel’s control over the West Bank an “occupation” is a totally legitimate word and not a pejorative term used only by critics.  Modern Orthodox scholar Hartman teaches that “occupation” is an accurate description of the status quo; and, therefore, we need not shy away from using the term nor from asking if it is right for Jews to rule over another people. (Israel’s Milestones and Their Meaning class, 2017)

In addition, the establishment leaders in the top echelon of American Jewry are now speaking out in ways they never have before.  Most notably, in the last few months,  former US Ambassadors Dennis Ross and Stuart Eizenstat, and Ronald Lauder, current president of the World Jewish Congress, have all spoken out very publicly about their concern over Israel losing its Democratic character in order to remain a Jewish State.   Ronald Lauder put it best, in a piece that was surprisingly out of character from what he has written in the past: 

I have always stood by Israel and I always will.  But, now as a loving brother, I ask Israel’s government to listen to the voices of protest and outrage being heard in Israel and throughout the Jewish world…. I call upon Israeli leaders to rethink their destructive actions during this summer of disharmony. (Israel, This is Not Who We Are, NYT, August 14, 2018)

Somehow Diaspora Jews and Israelis have to become comfortable with dialogue.  If everyone comes to the dialogue table with good will, viewing the issues not just in in black and white, but noting the shades of grey, this should be possible.  Even if we come with some discomfort, if we can shed the idea of a mythical Israel from the past and yet promise not to give up on the flawed Israel of the present,  we can together create a different future for Israel. (after Anne Berman Waldorf , CCAR Webinar, “Talking About Israel: Creating Dialogue, “  Aug 8, 2018).

In the Jonathan Safran Foer novel, world Jewry reengages with Israel and comes to her defense because of a catastrophic disaster.  On all types of international airwaves and in cyberspace, the Prime Minister of Israel begs all able-bodied Diaspora Jews from the age of 16- 55 to come to her aid.  He takes up a shofar and blows it the direction of every country in the world, calling the Jews home to fight. The protagonist in the novel, Jacob Bloch, feels the call to help the Jewish State, and makes plans to do so, even knowing that he will miss his son’s Bar Mitzvah.  

Is this what it would take for disillusioned Jews to come back in droves to Israel’s side?  I know you share my sincere hope that it will not take something as dramatic as an earthquake and a multinational war, when it is almost too late, to push Jews in this direction.   Can we find a way to support our fellow Jews in Israel, to appreciate what is inspiring about Israel, even if the country does not totally align with our values?  Can we, alternatively, embrace the difficulty, the challenge and the legitimate questions that Israel’s Jewish critics present?  

Let us remember that at 70 years old, Israel a work in progress. The United States came to the verge of collapse when it was less than 100 years old, and yet it grew and became stronger, but of course, not perfect,  in the aftermath of that great divide.   The country pulled together to embrace a future, but not without great difficulty. 

As a Jewish people, that is our challenge today.  Our tradition teaches “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh,” “The whole people of Israel are responsible for one another.”  Through dialogue and brutal honesty, and with the knowledge that the Jewish State is a core part of who we are, let us go forward with this message as our constant refrain.