Standing in-between with Israel

I have a confession to make.
Though I’ve been here about 3 months
and have come to terms with water that tastes a little funny,
unusual flavors of bagels and a summer that never seems to end,
Larry and I have not been able to give up the New York Times. 
Admittedly this reflects a bit of snobbishness on our part,
but when you have grown up with a paper,
You know whose Op-Ed column you want to read because you’ll agree,
and you also know what column you should read,
because its important to know what ‘the other side’ is saying.
It’s also just plain easier to gage world events from a perspective
you have spent a life time learning to understand….
even if you don’t always appreciate the tone of the coverage.

Take this summer….
The New York Times, liberal leaning as it is known to be,
is not particularly pro-Israel and on most days
when the fighting between Israel and Hamas was particularly bad
I pretty much took for granted
that I would be looking at a front page
that presented me with a heartbreaking picture
of destruction and despair…
brought to us courtesy of the Israel Defense Force….
It’s just what one comes to expect….

It’s been just over a month since the cease fire ‘stuck’ on August 27
and while the world community continues to turn
‘an Israeli war of self-defense into a war crime’  (Yossi Klein Ha-Levi 9/22)
with UN human rights investigations in motion,
I noticed the other day that pictures of Gaza
had been replaced with the international crisis de-jour.

Once again Israel has disappeared
from the front page consciousness of the United States.

One could almost pretend that 50 days of missile strikes
and retaliatory bombing and shelling didn’t happen.
That innocent people on both sides weren’t injured or killed,
that the hopes for peace and a two state solution didn’t seem
as distant of a hope as they have ever been. Almost…but not quite.

This is a challenging time for Israel as much on the home front
as it is in the diaspora community.
 “Anti-Israelism is on the rise and has taken on a distinct anti-Semitic tone
particularly in Europe (J-Post, 9/4/14).”

And Israelis, while unusually united in support of the war,
“are suffering …the psychological consequences of the repeated if temporary uprooting
of large segments of the Israeli population.
As journalist Yosi Klein Halevi lamented, “It is likely that the implications
for Israel’s long term viability are profound.”

I haven’t felt such a confluence
of conflicting emotions about Israel in a long time.
Fear for the future and a stable/normal life for those who live there,
anger at Hamas for wanting my people dead and my homeland destroyed
Frustration at political machinations by the Israeli government
that seem to push any sliver of a chance for world sympathy and conciliatory negotiations further away…..
and a deep, deep sadness for the families
who lost loved ones in the conflict…Israeli and Palestinian alike.

Growing up in a staunchly liberal household
that was also incredibly pro-Israel
I have spent a lifetime balancing these two sometimes conflicting ideals,
and I know I am not alone.

Some of you may unabashedly support Israel no matter what.
Knowing that this is the only true safe haven for Jews in the world,
survival and security trump just about everything
in the quest to maintain the reality of the Jewish state.
Others of you may be sharply critical, even brought to the brink of despair
with the incredibly conservative collation that currently leads the Knesset.
You may think the current government lacks sincerity in its pursuit of peace
and the constant warnings from human rights watch groups
both in Israel and abroad leave you feeling alienated.

And then there are those who are more classical
“American Liberal Zionists”
as Peter Beinart so aptly described them in his now seminal article,
“Failure of the American Jewish establishment,” written back in 2011.
“We vote democratic, we are unmoved by biblical claims to the West Bank;
we see average Palestinians as decent people betrayed by bad leaders;
and many are secular.
They don’t love when Jewish organizations criticize Israel from the left,
but neither do they want them to be agents of the Israeli right.”
(Beinart, 2011)

These days I find it harder and harder
to find that comfortable place in the middle.
For when the overrated influence of such groups as Jewish Voice for Peace
support the BDS movement
(that’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel)
as a viable bargaining tool to achieve a 2 state solution.
And we find that some of our ‘so called’ friends on Facebook
Have taken to sharing anti-Israel (or anti-Semetic) posts

It’s enough to make even the most main stream liberal
suddenly experience a seismic shift to the right.

Nevertheless, the American Jewish community as a whole
is increasingly distressed by the way Israeli politics are going.
According to a Pew Center Survey,
only 37% of American Jews believe that the Israeli government
is sincerely pursuing peace and 44% believe
that the construction of new settlements damages Israel’s security.

Admittedly, I find this sentiment much less evident
in a place like San Antonio then I did back in New York.
We don’t have quite the same luxury of numbers
to argue amongst ourselves….at least not about this.  
There is plenty of work to be done to strengthen the bonds
of the San Antonio Jewish community
but it seems to me that a commitment and connection to Israel
and a strong desire to keep the dream of Zionism alive
is something that uniquely unites us all.

And I find this inspiring…
but it also makes me feel somewhat ill at ease.
Unable to commit whole-heartedly to the left or the right.
I am more comfortable in the ‘in between.’

When this summer’s Presbyterian Biennial General Assembly
Narrowly passed a resolution to divest
from three multinational corporations that supply Israel with products
they say specifically promote violence in occupied Palestinian territories.
I was filled with deep disappointment and anxiety.

And yet that frustration does not mean that I personally approve
of every military decision the Israeli Government and IDF make.

I consider myself a passionate Zionist
filled with deep loyalty to the State of Israel,
But I also have high expectations and standards
for our promised land turned modern state.

I try to be a YES….AND…kind of person. (As opposed to a NO…BUT)
So YES….I love Israel….AND…I also see that she has
much room for improvement
in many areas both domestic and international.

This is no longer a politically correct thing to say.
So often when anyone criticizes Israel either from the left or the right
they are immediately accused of being disloyal or worse an Israel hater. 
And admittedly, I really struggled with this sermon-
not quite sure about how I would talk to you about Israel today,
since I am new and we don’t quite know each other so well yet,
yet believing in my heart
that it was this very issue we most need to discuss.

Apparently I am not the only rabbi struggling.
As Rabbi Eric Yoffie reported in this Fall’s Reform Judaism Magazine,
“Reform Rabbis feel Muzzled, when it comes to talking about Israel.”
According to a 2013 Jewish Council for Public Affairs study
of 552 mostly non-Orthodox Rabbis,
one third said they repressed their true views about Israel
for fear of clashing with leaders of their congregations.
About 18% said they were closet “Doves”
while a little over 12% said that they were closet ‘hawks’.
The Dovish Rabbis expressed higher levels of concern,
43% admitting to being “very fearful” of congregants reactions
as compared to 25% of their hawkish colleagues.
(RJ, Fall 2014, R’Eric Yoffie).

This is not my kind of rabbinate nor my brand of Zionism.
To me it is crucial that we maintain the ability to engage
in the sometimes fierce but hopefully respectful debate
about matters of internal and external policy alike
that will keep Israel and its people striving
towards the more equitable,
just and peaceful state it is always working to become.

The first time I went to Israel I was 21 years old.
I had just finished college
and had decided I had waited long enough.
So with a rucksack crammed with ‘essentials’
and a duffle bag that weighed more than me
I got on a plane, flew through the night
and began to live and learn in the Promised Land. 

I learned and experienced a lot that year,
studying Hebrew and Jewish studies in the small city of Arad…
somewhere between Beersheva and the Dead Sea,
but what I remember most vividly was a trip to Jerusalem being canceled due to
road closures when Baruch Goldstein
murdered 29 Palestinians and wounded 125 others
at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron….

A year and a half later when I returned,
this time to Jerusalem for my first year of Rabbinical School
I lived through a year of suicide bombings and bus explosions.
There were soldiers stationed at every bus stop
in every city across the country.
With Cel phones not yet really in existence…
and text messaging a future innovation
My classmates and I would regularly line up at the payphones
During our afternoon break…

Time differences being what they were
We didn’t want to waken our parents too early,
but we also wanted to reach them before they heard the morning news
telling of yet another bus bombing in Jerusalem.
That same year, Yigal Amir assassinated Yizchak Rabin
at a peace rally in Tel Aviv.

It’s safe to say I have lived through some pretty stressful times in Israel,
And you might assume this would naturally make me a Hawk….
and sometimes I am….and sometimes I am not.
I would really prefer not to pick sides.
Not so much because I am scared to do so,
but because I believe we are better off
responding thoughtfully to each situation as it arises,
rather than instinctively veering to the left or right.
To struggle with our own perspective
while recognizing and even appreciating the internal struggles of Israelis,
even weighing in with critique, opinions and advice,
does not mean we lack loyalty or passion for the Zionist dream.
Quite the contrary. It means we care…and we are in it….deeply….

For me….supporting Israel means traveling to Israel
as often as I possibly can….
So that I can appreciate the beautiful and varied landscape
eat their food and drink their wine…
buy their ceramics and jewelry and tapestries and support their economy.
For me, supporting Israel means taking the time to read about and listen….
to the stories of the Jews for whom Israel is home….
The stories of those who are reaping the benefits
of technological innovation and a cultural renaissance…
But also the stories of those who are struggling
to find a place in an economic system that sets up stumbling blocks
for many with dark skin or thick Russian accents.
Or who aren’t Jews at all.

For me, supporting Israel means talking about the efforts
of those who are working to balance those scales of justice
People like Anat Hoffman and her staff at the Israel religious Action Center
Committed to pluralism in Israel for all…
People like Yael Kohn-Sharon, CEO of Kav Mashveh
a non-profit organization that has the goal
of promoting employment and equal opportunities
for Arab university graduates
in the private and public Israeli business sectors.
People like the lecturers and directors of academic institutions
Such as the Arava Institute that bring together Arab and Jewish students
using environmental studies as a shared goal and an opportunity
to  build trust across the boarders among young people
when there was none before.

For me…supporting Israel means demanding
a stake in the future of the country
And standing up for what we love and what we want to change as well.

We can protest against the government and the Orthodox Rabbinate
for not giving women the right to pray freely at the Western Wall
And we can celebrate the growing pool of Reform Israeli rabbis
being ordained from Hebrew Union College’s Jerusalem campus.

We can speak out about the sometimes questionable
and even objectionable decisions of the Israeli military
as 43 Veterans of the Clandestine Intelligence Unit 8200 did 2 weeks ago
when they signed a letter declaring they will no longer
take part in the State’s actions against Palestinians….
And we can honor those young men and women
who risk their lives to protect Israel’s borders and people every day
while our kids head off to college
hopefully getting a taste of Israel through a Birthright Trip along the way.

We can feel a sense of pride in how our donations
to Jewish Federation and other organizations supported our Israeli brothers and
sisters during this summer’s conflict,
and we can make sure to vote in the World Zionist Elections next October.
To assure that Progressive Judaism
and a Reform presence maintains funding
and a significant voice on the religious
and political landscape on the ground.

And to me supporting Israel means committing myself
to making sure that Israel…the idea…the state…the hope…
will remain a reality forever!
It was Theodor Hertzel who said, Im Tirtzu, Ain Zo Agadah…
if we will it, then it will not merely be a dream.

The early Zionists who dedicated their lives to make Israel a reality
believed passionately in this dream…
but they also saw the way to its fulfillment in wildly different ways.
Poets like Bialik, ALterman, and Rachel the poetess,
scholars like Yosef Brenner and AD Gordon
and political figures such as Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky….
religious figures like Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook
all competed in the public square
with radically different conceptions of Zionism.

They were all Zionists and they all sought a society
with a profoundly Jewish kernel.
What they disagreed about was how to create this. (Daniel Gordis)
If that sort of public discourse, was encouraged and accepted
in pre state Zionist society, shouldn’t we be emulating
that very process and perspective ourselves?

Just the other day, another article, this time of all places, in the NYT
Reported on this so called fear that many rabbis have
about speaking from the heart about their feelings about Israel,
especially at High Holiday time.

I don’t think I am particularly brave,
I just refuse to not feel comfortable in the middle.

Having been raised to love Israel with all my heart,
long before I ever explored her ancient streets
I never thought to question my own commitment to Israel,
nor that of anyone else.

And because I believe, as Israeli Journalist,
Yossi Klein HaLevi wrote just this week,
That most Jews instinctively know that to be a Jew means to balance paradoxes -
security and morality, realism and vision, particularism and universalism, self-defense
and self-critique. (Times of Israel)

To me, this is the best support we could ever give our homeland.
A chance to figure out what it means to dwell in the in-between.

And so, with hopes for continued peaceful and productive dialogue
among us here at Temple Beth-EL
and of course peace and prosperity for Eretz Yisrael….

I hope you will join me and saying…AMEN.