Rosh Hashanah Sermon on Israel (Day 1)


 When I became your Rabbi 13 years ago, I was asked by a congregant about my goals.  I answered that one of my goals was to help Congregation Beth Shalom develop a closer relationship with Israel.  As a University Junior I had been a student at the One Year Program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Israel became the centerpiece of my Jewish identity.  I longed to return. It took me 33 years before I was able to take my second trip to Israel when I had the opportunity to study at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar in Jerusalem in 2006. Since becoming your Rabbi I have traveled to Israel fifteen times, including leading several invaluable rich and transformative  congregational trips. Naturally I am aware that many of you must have visited Israel on your own.    Many of our students have visited Israel through organized trips like Taam Yisrael for eighth graders or Birthright for young adults. We have had congregants who have lived in Israel for extended periods of time, and some have made aliyah to Israel. We have studied about Israel through the Hartman program, through the Melton program and in the Thursday morning Study Group. In addition, we have had a series of guest speakers who have further enhanced and contributed to our knowledge of Israel. Also, for the past several years adults have been able to study and learn modern Hebrew through our Adult Education Program.  From where I stand I would say that we as a congregation have become more inquisitive and more knowledgeable, more understanding and more connected as well as more cognizant and closer to Israel 


Yet, American Jewry has been drifting away from Israel, particularly when it comes to our younger generation of Jews. The recent Pew Study of American Jewry found that Twenty-seven percent — about one quarter of those between 18 and 29 say caring about Israel is not important to them, compared with 8% of those over 65 who say the same.  Support for boycotting Israel — at 13% — is nearly double in that age group compared to older generations. 25% of American Jews agree that Israel is an “Apartheid State”. 


This rather  alarming and painful situation has been hard,  both for those of us who love Israel in the United States and for Israelis. Ron Dermer, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, caused a bit of a kerfuffle back in May when he said that Israel would be better off prioritizing building relationships with American evangelicals than with the American Jewish community. He opined that the backbone of Israel’s support in the United States is Evangelical Christians, both because they far outnumber Jews in the United States and because of their — and here I quote — “passionate and unequivocal support for Israel”. American Jews, he added are – quote — “Disproportionately among our critics”. 


 Rabbi Daniel Gordis writes in his 2018 book, Divided We Stand, that American Jewry’’s ambivalence toward Israel is not only about what Israel does, but, more fundamentally, it is related to what Israel is. Based on what Rabbi Gordis postulates  in this book, I want to outline three reasons that can help us understand the ambivalent, sometimes turbulent and often confusing  relationship between American Jews and Israel.


First, we need to recognize that Israel’s purpose and mission is fundamentally different from that of the United States.

Second, we need to understand that Israeli Jews and American Jews have very different ideas about Jewish identity.

Third, we need to acknowledge how our hopes and expectations of Israel to be “a light unto the nations” in the words of the prophet Isaiah, have not been fully realized, and how painful that is for us. 


Point number one: Mission and purpose: 

Israel is a Jewish State created for Jews. And the United States?   


Engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty, the iconic symbol of America, is a poem by the American Jew, Emma Lazuras. In part, it reads

From her beacon-hand/ Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore; Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me; I lift my lamp before the golden door.” 

The United States, according to this poem, has a mission to welcome all the people in the world. We are, as we say in Yiddish, Die Goldene Medina, a beacon of hope, a land where dreams come true. Throughout American history, at times, some have been more welcome than others. But as an ideal, as an aspiration, and at times as a  reality, people from  around the world,  of all religions, of all races, of all ethnicities,  have been  welcome to our shores. 


Israel’s mission is different. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 favors the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people” in British ruled Palestine. The United Nations Partition agreement of 1947 divided the British Mandate into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. Unlike the United States, Israel was conceived as a particular land for a particular people. 

Like the United States, Israel is committed to equal rights for all. Non- Jews may be citizens and have equal rights under the law. However, in order for Israel to remain a Jewish State for the Jewish people, a significant majority of the population must be and remain Jewish. When, as demographers tell us, the United States has a majority minority population by 2046, it will be in keeping with our motto and our mission, E pluribus unum, “Out of many- one”. We are a country of peoples from all over the world, joined together to form one nation, the United States of America.  If, on the other hand, Jews cease to be the majority of the population in Israel by 2046, the Zionist dream — the dream of Jewish self-determination, “to live as a free people in our own land” in the words of HaTikvah — would have failed. This is why there must eventually be a two-state solution, with the Jewish State and a Palestinian state living side by side in peace. In one, binational state, Arabs would outnumber Jews, thus making Jews, once again, a vulnerable minority in a majority, Muslim land. That has proven too risky and dangerous in the past.


Point number 2 — Jewish identity

Israelis Jews and American Jews also view their Jewishness differently. In 1955, American intellectual and political scholar Will Herberg published a book with the title Catholic Protestant Jew. In it he argued that America was “a three-religion country” and that people no longer identified themselves by their ethnicity, but rather by the religious community to which they belonged. In America, Judaism is a religion. In Israel, Judaism is an ethnicity, a nationality. In Israel You are an Israeli Jew or an Israeli Arab. 


This difference in understanding our respective identities plays out in a number of ways.  For instance, the average Israeli has very little understanding of the differences among Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism in the United States. Therefore, when American Jews advocate for equal standing in the public sphere for Conservative and Reform Judaism in Israel, most Israelis have little idea of what we are talking about. When American Jews criticize Israel for its lack of religious pluralism, Israelis counter that their society is an incredibly pluralistic one. There are secular people who eat shrimp on Shabbas, there are Hassidim who follow all the mitzvot, there are communities from North Africa, Yemen, France and South America who have their own synagogues and follow their own particular rituals. How much more pluralistic, how much more tolerant, how much more accepting of differences, does Israel have to be, they ask? Some progressive Israelis may be sympathetic to the Women of the Wall, a group that seeks to achieve the right for women to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem. But Israeli progressives’ energies are primarily directed toward issues of foreign policy and social equality, not toward whether women can bring a Torah to the Western Wall. 

Point 3 — Myth versus reality

A third factor contributing to the American Jewish drift away from Israel is the myth of Israel coming into conflict with the reality of everyday life. Let me explain!  My generation grew up in the aftermath of Israel’s War for Independence in 1948……. As we know in that war   a geographically tiny Israel fought for her life and survived the onslaught of five Arab armies.  It was without question a costly but heroic victory. Israel was poor in those years, but determinedly plucky. My generation experienced the lightning victory of the Six Day War, the remarkable rescue at Entebbe, the harrowing vulnerability of the 1973 War with Egypt. But statecraft is messy business, politics requires compromises, and the reality of surviving in a hostile region forced successive Israeli governments to make difficult decisions that, at times, led to questionable decisions and actions that are difficult to defend.


Some of these decisions and actions, in turn, have led others to question Israel’s very right to exist as a nation. 

Without taking into account the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, campaigns have been launched that equate Israeli treatment of Palestinians with the apartheid policies of South Africa in the mid-20th century. They demand divestment of Israeli companies from university, church, municipal, union and other portfolios. They demand the boycott of Israeli products, professionals, professional associations, academic institutions, and artistic performances. They  demonize Israel and seek to isolate Israel from the rest of the nations of the world. They assign one-sided blame to Israel, and, by association, supporters of Israel, for the conflict. They demand that Israel fix the problem without asking anything in return from Palestinians or other Arab states, who are consistently described as powerless victims of Israel. 


This “anti-zionism” is increasingly difficult to distinguish from anti-semitism, and, in fact there have been significant increases in verbal and physical attacks against Jews in the West. This has led Israeli politician and intellectual Einat Wilff to suspect that “it’s not that attacks on Jews in the West are the unfortunate and unintended consequence of the persistent demonization of Israel, but rather the demonization of the Jewish state is undertaken so as to re-legitimize attacks on Jews in the West.” In other words, Israeli actions are not the cause or precipitant of expressions of anti-semitism in the West; they are an excuse for expressions of anti-semitism in the West.


 Scholar and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, one of the most influential thinkers in contemporary Jewish life, writes, “The Jewish state—no matter how it strives—is incapable of being ethically without blemish. All exercises of power by all human entities are inescapably flawed. Therefore, Israel’s right to exist cannot depend on its meeting the perfection standard of ethics……….. If the Jewish state’s fate is conditioned on its meeting a certain standard of moral excellence—and other nations not so—then this is a double standard that endangers Israel. …..unrealistic expectations and conditioned support for its right to existence are unfair and immoral.” 

My main message for you this morning is, please, don’t give up on Israel. It is not the perfect country that we would wish for — but no country is perfect. Israel does not always make us proud; it sometimes makes us sad and often exasperates us.   We are critical of the lack of separation of church and state resulting in the stranglehold that the Haredi community has over lifecycle affairs in Israel. We are hurt by the dismissive attitude taken by Israeli religious authorities to American expressions of our Jewish faith. We are frustrated by the seemingly endless wars, by the settlements in Judea and Samaria and by the lack of progress on the Palestinian front. Our response, however, should not be to wash our hands of Israel, to turn our backs on the Jewish State. Rather, as partners with God, we American Jews must redouble our efforts to strengthen Israel, even when her actions elicit conflicting feelings in us.  Part of that effort is to encourage Israel to treat all her citizens, Jewish and Arab, and her neighbors, including the Palestinians, with dignity, with decency and with respect. We must convince Israel that there is more than one expression of Judaism, and that Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and other formulations of Judaism need to be recognized, accepted and legitimized. Finally we must  use our influence as American citizens to assure that the United States remains a reliable — and understanding — ally on the world stage. 

Shana Tova

Photo by Taylor Brandon on Unsplash