Our Relationship to Israel

Our Relationship To Israel                                                                                                                                                                    September 30, 2008
Rosh Hashannah Day 1                                                                                                                                                                       Rabbi Marc D Rudolph
What should be the role of Israel in contemporary American life?
This year, 2008, we have been celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the State of Israel. Over the past sixty years, and even beyond, the relationship between the Jews of the United States and Israel has gone through many changes. In this sermon, I want to explore the changes in that relationship over the years. At the conclusion of this talk , we'll look at some contemporary responses to this question — What should the role of Israel be in our lives, at this moment in history.
One American Jewish leader wanted United States Jews to HOST the new State of Israel! In 1825, Mordechai Manual Noah, editor, playwrite, and politician, issued a proclamation inviting Jews from around the world to settle on Grand Island in the Niagra River, near Buffallo, NY. He was no crackpot — Mordechai Manual Noah was probably the most prominent and influential Jew in the United States in his time. He solicited funds for the territory which he called Ararat. Here is part of his proclamation:
In G-d's name do I revive, renew, and re-establish the government of the Jewish nation, under the auspices and protection of the laws and Constitution of the United States of America; confirming and perpetuating all our rights and privileges, our name, our rank , and our power among the nations of the earth, as they existed and were recognized under the government of the Judges……
He also declared in his proclamation that the American Indians, who he identified as descendents of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, would be re-united with their people in this new Israel. If it sounds like he was over-reaching a bit, he of course was. The project never succeeded in establishing a homeland for Jews, but Noah was one of the first to articulate the idea of the United States as a refuge for oppressed Jewry. It also stimulated much discussion in Europe and America over the plight of the Jews. Noah later turned his energies toward establishing a Jewish homeland in what was then Palestine.
In 1915, Louis Brandeis, the first Jew to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court, declared that "loyalty to America demands …. That each American Jew becomes a Zionist." Brandeis considered Zionism to be a remedy for the demoralization of the poor, struggling, immigrant community of Jews in the United States. Zionism, wrote Brandeis, would help build the self-respect of the American Jew and instill in him a sense of noblesse-oblige. For Brandeis, Israel was to be a refuge for Jews in distress, a group that did not need to include American Jews. The role was not aliyah for American Jews, but rather to uphold the state and enable the immigration of other, less fortunate Jews.
After the Holocaust, the Jewish community in the United States responded energetically to the needs in Israel, providing much of the material and money needed for Israel to come into being and survive. During this time, Israel occupied a central role in Jewish American life, serving as a rallying point to come together for a single cause, a cause more compelling that anything else offered in the synagogues of the day. Political pressure from the Jewish community for Harry Truman to recognize the State of Israel was so intense that Truman eventuallually barred all Zionist representatives from the White House. The energy and ingenuity with which the Jewish community of the time marshaled in support the emerging State of Israel is exemplified by this story. Shut out by Truman, American Jewish leaders asked Eddie Jacobson, Harry Truman's good friend from childhood, WW1 buddy and partner in his haberdashery business, to ask Truman for a visit. "Eddie," said the president, "I'm always glad to see old friends, but there's one thing you got to promise me. I don't want you to say a word about what's going on over there in the Middle East. Do you promise?"
Truman wrote in his diary about the meeting:
Great tears were running down his cheeks and I took one look at him and said, "Eddie, you son of a bitch, you promised me you wouldn't say a word about what's going on over there." And he said, "Mr. President, I haven't said a word, but every time I think of the homeless Jews, homeless for thousands of years, and I think about Dr. Weizmann, I start crying. I can't help it. He's an old man and he's spent his whole life working for a homeland for the Jews. Now he's sick and he's in New York and he wants to see you, and every time I think about it, I can't help crying."
I said, "Eddie, you son of a bitch, I ought to have thrown you out of here for breaking your promise; you knew damn good and well I couldn't stand seeing you cry."
And he kind of smiled at me, still crying, though, and he said, "Thank you, Mr. President." And he left.
On March 18, 1948, Chaim Weizmann entered unnoticed through the East Gate of the White House and met for 45 minutes with Eddie Jacobson's good friend. The president assured Weizmann that he continued to support partition of Palestine.
During the 1950s and 1960s, there was little evidence that Israel was a force that drove Jewish life, other than serving as a periodic source of ethnic pride. That changed with the 1967 war. Abraham Foxman, head of the ADL, writes:
For American Jews, 1967 was transformative both for its impact on attitudes toward Israel and for Jewish self-perception. Zionism had been a controversial movement within the American Jewish community from the beginning of the century. American Jews took a long time to feel comfortable with the Zionist movement and after the creation of the state, there still were large numbers of American Jews who remained indifferent to the new state, and even some who made clear that that was not their state.
The Six Day War made us all Zionists, if not literally than psychologically. The American Jewish connection to Israel was sealed.
Of course, the 1967 war made Israel the darling of the world. A small, beleagured country had defeated the much mightier forces of a combined Arab League. David had defeated Goliath once again. But we all know that since that time, the world's perceptions have changed. It has been difficult for some American Jews, particularly those in liberal and intellectual circles, to be unambiguous supporters of Israel. Again, I think a story best captures the problem:
An American, an Englishman and and Israeli are captured by cannibals. They are each permitted one wish before being thrown into a boiling pot.
The American takes off his wedding ring and gives it to the cannibal chief. "Please have this sent back to my wife."
The Englishman asks permission to sing "G-d save the Queen."
The Israeli says to the chief — "I would like you to give me a very hard kick in the rear."
The chief complies, and sends the Israeli sprawling. The Israeli gets up, whips out a gun, shoots the chief dead and sends all the other cannibals fleeing.
The American and Englishman are grateful, but puzzled. "Why did you tell him to kick you in the rear first?" Why didn't you just take out your gun right away?"
"Oh, that I couldn't do," said the Israeli. "I didn't want to be denounced as the aggressor."
I need not say much more. Israel has consistently been portrayed as the aggressor in todays media. Even a physical partition, designed to keep suicide bombers from easily crossing from the territories into Israel proper, has been portrayed in the press as an aggressive action. In Europe, of course, it is worse. Last year the British National Union of Journalists joined an international boycott of Israeli goods over alleged human rights violations. Not a peep from them about the worst human rights violators: Venezuela, Pakistan, China, North Korea, Iran, or Saudi Arabia. Only Israel, has been targeted for sanctions by the British National Union of Journalists. This has little to do with human rights, and a great deal to do with anti-Semitism.
Last year, two prominent Jewish intellectuals, Ruth Wisse and Leon Wieseltier, were invited to a panel discussion in Washington DC on the role that Israel should play in our lives. Ruth Wisse is a Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University. Leon Wieseltier s a columnist, author and literary editor of the New Republic magazine.
Israel, said Wisse, needs to be central in our understanding of who we are as American Jews. We were never a people without a land, she notes, we were a people without sovereignty in the land. The land is second only to G-d in the life of the Jewish people. To reclaim the Land of Israel in the same decade of the Holocaust is one of the great achievements in human history, she said. American Jews need to have the moral confidence in that achievement, and to project that confidence. "History will ask one question of this generation," said Wisse — "Did you secure the future of the State of Israel?" Finally, she said, the enemies of the Jewish people are also the enemies of what we consider the best of civilization — liberal democracy, emancipation of women, tolerance of minorities, human rights, and individual freedom. Israel is on the front line of the democratic world and opportunity. No wonder those who are threatened by liberal democracy are opposed to the presence of a Jewish State in their midst.
For Wieseltier, Israel should be an object of unconditional love and an object of admiration. Israel should be a source of honor, dignity and self-esteem. "I cannot imagine a meaningful self-definition that does not include Israel at its very center," he says. Finally, he sees Israel as a "practical necessity", even for Jews in the United States — "the existence of Israel is an important part of our spine — it puts bounce in our step." We would not be the confident community we are today if it were not for the State of Israel.
I hope this will stimulate all of you to ask –What should be the role of Israel in your lives personally? What role do we want Israel to play in our community? When our children, and our grandchildren ask us — "What did you do to secure the future of the State of Israel?" — will you be able to tell them? Or will you tell them you stood on the sidelines?
One easy way to support Israel is to buy Israeli goods. In our lobby this morning is a booklet published jointly by the Chicago and Israel Chambers of Commerce outlining the hundreds of products produced in Israel and available in American markets. Another way to support Israel is to visit. It is estimated that between sixty and seventy five percent of American Jews have never visited Israel. It is my fervent hope that we will take a congregational trip to Israel in the next two years, and that this will be only the first of many trips that our congregation takes. We need to explore other ways that our congregation can nurture and develop direct ties to Israel.
L'shanah ha-bah bi-rushalayim — Next Year in Jerusalem!