Yom Kippur Day 5775/2014

Our Promised LandYitzchak Epstein was the first to understand the challenge. Back in 1907, Epstein, a writer, linguist and pioneer in the instruction of Modern Hebrew, published an essay entitled “The Hidden Question.” Epstein was a Zionist. He supported the settlement of Jews in Palestine.  He noticed that one issue had been completely ignored in the quest to reclaim Palestine as a home for the Jewish people. The “hidden question” concerned the relationship of the Jewish settlers to their Arab neighbors in Palestine. He noted that of the 600,000 inhabitants of Palestine in 1907, 80,000 were Jews and over a half a million were Arabs. Arab peasants were living on the land and cultivating it, though not very productively.  Jews were buying this land, often from absentee landlords, and evicting the tenants to make room for new Jewish communities.  Naturally the Arab peasant had a strong attachment to the land, though he had never owned it legally. In being forced off the land, the Arab peasant was leaving behind the graves of his venerated ancestors. Epstein witnessed the day that Arab families left the village of Ja’una, now Rosh Pina, to make way for Jewish agricultural settlers who had purchased the land.  The now uprooted Arab men rode their donkeys and their women and children walked behind them on their way to their new home east of the Jordan River. As they walked the women wept bitterly, the valley filled with their wailing. From time to time, he writes, they stopped to bend down to kiss the stones of the earth.
In the mid 19th century, Christian Zionists wrote about Palestine as a “land without a people and a people without a land.” In 1914, Chaim Weizman, later to be the first President of Israel, wrote that the understanding of the early Zionists went something like this: “there is a country which happens to be called Palestine, a country without a people, and, on the other hand, there exists the Jewish people, and it has no country. What else is necessary, then, than to fit the gem into the ring, to unite this people with this country?”  In his recently published book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel , Israeli journalist Ari Shavit does not shy away from exploring this premise. The book is a searing, introspective, and discomforting book on Israel as seen through Shavit’s eyes.  Shavit begins his book recounting the trip to Palestine that his great grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, made with a group of English Zionists in 1897. Bentwich is an English Jewish aristocrat. He and his party travel to Palestine to see whether it is a suitable place to help settle the masses of oppressed, deprived Jews of Eastern Europe. From a tower overlooking the town of Ramleh, Bentwich sees a quiet, empty land. Shavit writes, “Here is the stage upon which the drama will play out, all that was and all that shall be: the carpets of wildflowers, the groves of ancient olive trees, the light purple silhouette of the Judean hills.”  What Shavit’s great grandfather fails to see, he writes, is the land is already occupied by more than a half a million Arabs, Druze and Bedouin. Shavit lovingly describes the miracle of modern Israel – the industry and inventiveness of the early settlers, the innovation of contemporary Israel, the monumental feat of the ingathering of Jewish refugees from post-war Europe, the Middle East and the Former Soviet Union.  Clearly, there is much to be proud of in the story of Israel. But there is a darker side to that story, and Shavit is unsparing in telling that side as well. That darker side is about Israel’s role in the fate of the Arab population, many of whom were forcibly expelled from their homes to make room for the Jewish state. That darker side includes the policies and procedures employed by Israel to keep a restive Palestinian population from undermining the state.  Shavit’s recounting of his experience in a Gaza prison camp as a soldier was particularly unsettling. Frankly, at times this was so painful and difficult to read that it made me want to close the book and turn away. In mid August I turned to you, my congregation, via our CBS Facebook page for topics our congregants wanted to hear about on the High Holidays. One of our members, Eric Forster, suggested I talk about how it feels to be politically progressive and a supporter of Israel at this time. In fact, Shavit addresses Eric’s question through his book. Shavit is both politically progressive and an ardent Zionist. He too struggles with this dilemma of being both.  Shavit puts it this way: “I see the choice is stark – either reject Zionism because of…[ its darker side] or accept Zionism along with …. [its darker side].  Shavit chooses to accept and love Israel, warts and all. Israel is far from perfect. All things considered, Israel has “performed miracles” and has “done the unimaginable”, he writes. Shavit describes Israel as “a truly free society that is alive and kicking and fascinating.” On these High Holidays rabbis around the world are giving sermons on Israel. Some of my colleagues will suggest that Israel is not being tough enough on her enemies. Some will state that we simply flatten Gaza and teach the Palestinians a lesson about shooting missiles into Israel. Others will opine that if Israel concedes to the humanitarian concerns of Hamas, allows them to build an airport and lifts the blockade that they will govern more responsibly. Some of my rabbinic colleagues will be calling on the Netanyahu government to make the concessions necessary to implement a two state solution.  They will be telling their congregations that Israel ought to dismantle settlements, remove more checkpoints, and empower Abbas by releasing Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Israel, they will preach, needs to put the two state solution on the fast track, so that Israel can remain a Jewish and democratic state.  Others will be preaching the opposite – that the two state solution threatens Israel’s very existence.  Some will preach that American Jews need to support Israel’s policies in the halls of Congress more than ever. Another group of rabbis will preach that more than ever Israel needs outside influence to make concessions for peace, and that it is up to American Jews to advocate that our government apply pressure on Israel to do so. Now, I am no politician. I am no military strategist. I am simply a rabbi. I love Israel. I want Israel to be a Jewish and democratic state.  I want Israel to exemplify the highest values of Judaism and of humanity – which, I believe, are one and the same. I have traveled to Israel many times. I have dear friends and family there. I have read a great deal, I have heard the experts speak, I have studied the issues myself. Yet, I can honestly say, I do not know what is in the best long term interest of Israel. I don’t know what Israel should do. I will tell you one thing, though. I am proud of Israel. I think the existence of Israel as a Jewish state is both moral and necessary. I am proud that a son of Israel, Ari Shavit, could write a book which questions the morality of some of the things Israel has done in the past. I am proud of a Jewish tradition that allows someone to ask thorny questions, that allows someone to face unvarnished facts that are at times unsettling and troubling.  I am proud that Israel is a country that doesn’t censor a book, or prevent its publication, because the book does not present Israel in only a positive light. I am proud of being part of a tradition that can acknowledge the injustices that were perpetrated on the Arabs, and that can allow room for empathy for the suffering of the “other side”.   I don’t think there will be true peace until the Arabs have an Ari Shavit of their own. I don’t think there will be true peace until there is an Arab leader willing to state to his people that Jews have a legitimate right to have a sovereign Jewish State in the Middle East. I don’t think there will be true peace until an Arab leader can acknowledge that it was wrong for the Arab states to invade Israel in 1948 and try to destroy the just declared Jewish State. I don’t think there will be true peace in the Middle East until Arabs can acknowledge the part they have played in the ongoing tragedy of this part of the world. I don’t think there will be true peace until the Palestinians become more invested in building their own society than in destroying Israel’s. This summer was indeed a difficult one for Israel and for Israel’s reputation around the world. Yet two qualities of Israel and of the Jewish community around the world shone brightly through this crisis. These qualities demonstrate the “triumph” of Israel in the title of Ari Shavit’s book. These are the qualities of ACHAVA and ACHDUT.  ACHAVA refers to the warmth and sense of caring that Israelis have for one another. The war brought to the fore the exceptional qualities of personal relationships in Israel. The crisis brought people together like one big family – albeit a strange, loud and very diverse one to be sure. Here is a story that shows that family-like quality you find among Israelis. I don’t think it is like this any other place in the world. Do you know what at “lone soldier” is in Israel? A “lone soldier” is a person, usually a young man or woman, whose family lives outside of Israel and who chooses to come to Israel to serve in the army.  At any given time there are 2,800 lone soldiers serving in the Israeli army. They often choose to serve in combat positions, and therefore are vulnerable in times of war. In this latest war, two lone soldiers from America fell in battle. The first American soldier who fell was Sean Carmeli, a native of Texas. His funeral was held in Haifa. Before the funeral, the army was concerned that there would not be enough people at the funeral to make a minyan. Without a minyan, mourners kaddish could not be recited at the grave.  The call went out via Facebook and other social media to attend the funeral. Do you know how many Israelis showed up for the funeral of this lone soldier? What is your guess? Four hundred? A thousand? Four thousand? Twenty thousand! Twenty thousand Israelis showed up for the funeral of Sean Carmeli. The following day, the second American, Max Steinberg, a lone soldier from Los Angeles, was buried at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem. His family flew in from California to attend the funeral. The call went out via social media. Thirty thousand Israelis came out for the funeral. That is ACHAVA — that is love for ones brother. That sense of caring – ACHAVA – created a sense of ACHDUT – a feeling of unity, among Israelis and between Israeli and Diaspora Jews. When the three teenage boys — Eyal Yifrach, 19, Naftali Frankel, 16, and Gil-ad Shaar, 16, were kidnapped and killed in June, Israelis mourned as if each family had lost their own child. Perhaps that is why eighty six percent of Israelis supported the war in Gaza. Israel is a famously diverse nation – you can’t get 86% of people to agree on what day of the week it is in Israel! Yet, Israelis were united in the need to go to war to defend herself. The war also illustrated the enduring bonds between Israeli and Diaspora Jews. From Chicago alone four solidarity missions went to Israel during the war this summer. Our own Shelly Fagel went on a separate ORT solidarity mission during the war. Israelis, whose tourist industry collapsed during the war, were extremely grateful for the visitors. The mission members clarified for the hotel clerks and restaurant waiters who thanked them for coming to Israel. They said, “We are not tourists — we are here to be with you, in solidarity. We are here to tell you – you are not alone. We represent the millions of Jews who stand with you in your time of trouble.” You know why we do it?  — Because a Jew should never have to feel alone in time of trouble. That feeling of unity – ACHDUT – led Jews around the world to contribute generously to the Israel Emergency Funds set up by Federations across the United States. Of the 154 Jewish Federations in this country, the Jewish United Fund of Chicago was first in contributions! The money that we contributed went toward taking children from the hardest hit areas in Israel for a day of respite – to a water park, to a zoo, to the Safari Park in Ramat Gan. Our monies supplied toys and games for children who had to spend time inside of bomb shelters. We supplied clowns, musicians and entertainers in the shelters to help take their minds off of the danger they were facing. Monies from the Israel Emergency Fund went to supply psychological care for children and adults. Sixty six percent of children suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the thousands of missiles and mortars that rained down on Israel from Gaza. Think about this: Those same feelings of ACHAVA and ACHDUT, love and unity, were the very impulses that brought Herbert Bentwich, Ari Shavit’s great grandfather, from England to Palestine over a century ago. Why should this English gentleman give a care about the huddled Jewish masses of Eastern Europe? He was living the good life in England. He was well educated, comfortable, and free. He escaped the Jewish fate of suffering and oppression. Yet, just like you and me, he felt an obligation to help his fellow Jews who were in need. These were fellow Jews who were strangers to him, who lived half a world away. It did not stop with him. Twenty five years after his visit to Palestine, his children left their comfortable life in England to take up the hard life of the pioneer in the Land of Israel. This is one of the most remarkable and enduring characteristics of our people. In the Talmud it is written, “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh la Zeh” – all Jews are responsible for each other.  That sense of mutual responsibility is certainly a major factor in the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people to our time. I hope you take away from this sermon the sense of strength, resilience, creativity, love, and unity that is part of the miracle that is the State of Israel and the glory of the Jewish people. Nevertheless, let us celebrate the triumph without denying the tragedy.  We should not have to pretend that Israel was built without great cost to both Jews and to Arabs. We don’t have to deny another people’s narrative, or sweep their pain under the rug. We do not have to deny the other, make them invisible to us. We can accept that nation building can at times compromise our values. Unsavory things are done – need to be done. Israel is, after all, a western country in the Middle East, a Jewish state in an Islamic world, a democracy in an area where tyranny reigns. It is not easy to survive in that neighborhood.  Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli writer wrote this week in the Times of Israel sentiments I’m sure we can all relate to. I am grieving for the ongoing tragedy of the Palestinian people. For all my anger against Palestinian leaders for poisoning their people with hatred,… [these holidays] I ask God’s forgiveness for what we have done to contribute our share to maintaining the conflict and the suffering. In public, in a political context, my contrition requires Palestinian reciprocity. In prayer, before God, I am required only to face myself.” Yes, we have transgressed. We pray that we can be honest enough, dear G-d, to recognize our transgressions, big enough to admit them, strong enough to forsake them!  Forsake our transgressions, yes, but let us not forsake ourselves. Shana Tova [ Thank you to Ari Shavit, Daniel Gordis, and Ofer Bavli for inspiration for this sermon]