Renewing Our Love for Israel

Rabbi Jared H. Saks

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779, September 9, 2018 – 1 Tishrei 5779

I’m going to confess something to you this evening. I don’t like the Kotel, the Western Wall. I didn’t always feel this way. On my first trip to Israel, when I began my first year of rabbinical school, I stayed in a hostel in the Old City and meandered my way through the alleyways of the Old City and found my way to the Western Wall just as the sun was setting. I was alone and I was lonely. I walked up to the Kotel, laid my hands on the ancient stones, placed my forehead between my hands, and closed my eyes. I felt the warmth radiating off the stones and felt surrounded by the Jewish communities I’d left behind to begin my studies as a rabbi. It was deeply comforting. But with each return to Israel, I’ve felt less and less connected to that particular place.

My discomfort at the Kotel is both religious and political. I find it challenging to encounter holiness in a place where I must be separated from some members of our community each time Bet Ha’am takes a trip to Israel:  Men on one side of the mechitzah and women on the other side, in a notably smaller section. I struggle to find meaning in Judaism’s so-called holiest site, which in the days of the Temple was a mere retaining wall, when it doesn’t represent the Judaism that I love and wasn’t historically a place of Jewish life. I prefer the southern steps, worn down from centuries of Jewish pilgrims ascending to make their offerings in the Temple, a place that bears evidence of Jewish life. For two thousand years only the Kotel was accessible, the only remnant of the Temple Mount accessible to human traffic, and so it became the holy site. Yet, for me, it doesn’t feel holy.

Now, you might be thinking, how can a rabbi say from the bimah, on this night of all nights, that that site lacks holiness? The reason I am sharing this with you, tonight especially, is that my having a love of Israel doesn’t mean I love everything about Israel. It doesn’t have to mean that for you, either. In our Reform Jewish history, we’ve had a complicated relationship with Eretz Yisrael and with Zionism. Zionism and Reform Judaism took root at the same time, both responses to the reality of Jewish life in Eastern Europe in the later part of the 19th century. Jewish life, as it seemed, was untenable. Pogroms were raging and our people were not seeing the freedom that other populations encountered. The Zionists, led by the vison of Theodor Herzl, believed that the only viable Jewish future was in the Holy Land. Reformers, inspired by the Enlightenment, believed that Jewish life would only survive if we embraced the world around us, rather than shunning it. And so, for nearly 100 years, Reform Judaism rejected Zionism and Zionism rejected Reform Judaism.

Four times in our movement’s history, we’ve issued a platform that sought to present Reform Judaism of its day. Regarding the Land of Israel, in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, our Reform rabbis declared, “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.” By 1937, our Reform rabbis saw virtue in the work of Israel’s pioneers. Yet, they distanced themselves from encouraging Reform Jewish life in the future Jewish state. They wrote, “In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.”

By 1976, our Reform Movement recognized, in the wake of the Six Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, that, “the State of Israel, through its many accomplishments, raised our sense of the Jews as a people to new heights of aspiration and devotion.” They went on to affirm the value of Jewish life in Israel and demanded that Reform Judaism be recognized there, a struggle that endures to this day. “At the same time,” they wrote, “that we consider the State of Israel vital to the welfare of Judaism everywhere, we reaffirm the mandate of our tradition to create strong Jewish communities wherever we live.” It wasn’t until the most recent platform, the 1999 Statement of Principles, that our Movement affirmed the unique qualities of living in the State of Israel and encouraged aliyah, immigration to Israel. Nonetheless, this most recent platform still challenged the current notion of the Jewish State when it declared, “We affirm that Israeli Jews have much to learn from the religious life of Diaspora Jewish communities.”

What it means to be a Reform Jew and a lover of Israel remains a challenge today, especially among our younger generations whose eyes have been opened to the plight of the Palestinian people. For many of us, we find like-minded people on a variety of issues of social justice to be on the other side when it comes to Israel. We often find in our progressive Christian friends unilateral support of the Palestinian cause. And we see that our conservative Christian friends share few of our values on social issues, but are the most ardent supporters of the Jewish State. For many, unfortunately, this means abandoning relationship with Israel because we believe that it conflicts with the other values and principles we hold dear.

I’m here tonight to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way. We can work to support immigrants, protect a woman’s right to choose, eradicate homelessness and hunger, abolish systemic racism, and still love Israel. This begins with educating ourselves about Israel, not the Israel we see on CNN or MSNBC or Fox News, but the real Israel that real Israelis – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Israelis – live every day.

There is much to be heartbroken about in the reality of life in Israel. The non-Orthodox Jewish majority in Israel is seeing its rights denied. Israel turns its attention to Christian Evangelicals while turning a cold shoulder to the concerns of progressive Jews. This year, the US Embassy was moved to Jerusalem and while I am committed to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, I recognize that the move, as was evidenced in the violence that has followed it, compromises Israel’s security and should not have been done outside of the context of the peace process.[1]

But in order for us to engage in meaningful relationship with Israel, we have to be willing to see, as well, that which is good in our estranged siblings. We can’t gloss over our disagreements about Israel. We must really dig into them. “Some here today could barely find a respectful word to utter to a right-wing Israeli settler, while others view young members of left-wing pro-Israel organizations as enemies of the Jewish people.”[2] Too many of us hold a view of Israel framed only by government decisions and actions that conflict with our core values. But Israel has a diverse and remarkable people. It is creative in its scientific, business, and cultural achievements. And we must turn our attention to those jewels in the crown of the Jewish State and cultivate our love for Israel. As the President of our movement, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, said at the URJ Biennial Convention last December, “One can be deeply committed to Israel’s security and well-being and fully supportive of the right of Palestinians to a homeland living side by side with Israel.”

This evening, I want to share one story of optimism that I hope will encourage you to foster your own love of the Jewish State. On our congregational trip to Israel last spring, we had the unique experience of crossing the Green Line and meeting with Palestinians and Jewish Israelis who are working towards peace. They don’t have all the answers and they don’t agree on all the nuances of the situation. Yet, they are committed to living in relationship with their neighbors, a relationship that they hope will one day lead to peace. Our congregation has an ongoing relationship with Kehilat Shir Chadash (formerly Kehilat Tzur Hadassah), a Reform Jewish community founded over 20 years ago in the Judean Hills, 12 miles southwest of Jerusalem. Tzur Hadassah sits along the Green Line, the unofficial geopolitical border that marks the pre-1967 borders of Israel. On the other side of the Green Line is the Palestinian community of Husan.

In Husan, we met with two members of Shir Chadash, Lonny Baskin and Phil Saunders, and Palestinian peace activist from Husan, Ziyad Sabbatean, who together formed an organization over three years ago, Path of Hope and Peace, to bring opposing populations together in an effort to create a lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Ziyad’s life story started with violence. He saw with his own eyes when the Israeli government stole his family’s land to form what is now the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beit Illit, right next to Husan. Ziyad saw Israeli soldiers beat his parents and he was beaten, as well. He was 12 years old. By 1988, during the first Intifida, Ziyad was filled with hate towards his Jewish neighbors. He actively participated in the Intifada and was arrested and taken to prison for 5 years. During his imprisonment, he was humiliated and beaten. To this day, when Palestinians are taken to prison, they have to declare their allegiance to Fatah, Hamas, or Jihad. Ziyad declared his allegiance to Fatah (the PLO) and two years into his imprisonment, the peace process began.

Ziyad took it upon himself to learn about the peace process and what it meant for the Palestinian people. He quickly learned about a group of people on the left in Israel who were in favor of peace and Palestinians’ rights. Ziyad realized that if there are Israelis who are willing to stand up for Palestinians and for peace, he must be willing to work with them. He helped to found a group of former Palestinian prisoners and Israeli soldiers called Combatants for Peace, all of whom were involved in the Intifada, but were now engaged in the peace process. During this time, the head of Combatants for Peace sent him to a demonstration being held by settlers who opposed the construction of a separation wall between Israel and the territories. He was sent to learn why the settlers would be opposed to the wall. While there, he met with an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and was surprised to learn that the rabbi wasn’t only opposed to the wall, but he was also opposed to the occupation. Typically, the Palestinians see the settlers as a force who are bad for the Palestinians, but here was a settler, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, no less, who was opposed to the occupation. This was something he’d never encountered before.

The rabbi was Rabbi Menachem Froman, an Israeli Orthodox rabbi and a peacemaker with close ties to the Palestinian leadership. Rabbi Froman invited Ziyad to his home in the settlement. Ziyad was nervous to go, afraid that he might be killed, but he went anyway. As he described it to us, he met a very special person who respected life and understood the situation. After the meeting, Ziyad reported back to Combatants for Peace that their policy of not working with the settlers was a big mistake. The heart of the problem had to be the heart of the solution. Combatants for Peace refused to change their policy, so Ziyad left and formed an organization with Rabbi Froman, instead. Rabbi Froman was a remarkable man who, regretfully, died almost 6 years ago of cancer. When Jews attacked and destroyed a mosque in Nablus, Rabbi Froman went to Nablus, got out of the taxi shouting, “Allah hu Akbar!” and renounced the attackers. “We are children of God,” he declared, and we, “came to make this right.”

The work of Ziyad Sabbatean and Rabbi Menachem Froman is remarkable, but it is not unique. There are Israelis of every persuasion and Palestinians from every place who desire peace and are willing to sit down with anyone who will work for peace. This kind of story will not appear on CNN or MSNBC or Fox News. If we are to have a meaningful relationship with Israel, which I think as Jews and as Reform Jews in particular we are called to do, then we must educate ourselves about this kind of life happening in the Promised Land. There’s struggle and conflict, sure, but there’s inspiration, hope, and the possibility of peace, as well.

The Psalmist wrote, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand whither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.”[3] This year, may we renew our love of Israel. May we keep Israel at the forefront of our memory. May we strive to find the blessing in all her peoples, in all her stories. And may our love for Israel inspire us to work for a lasting peace within her borders and with her neighbors. Shanah tovah.

[1] Rick Jacobs, D’var Torah to the URJ Biennial 2017, December 9, 2017.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Psalm 137:5

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