I was not born into a Zionist home. When Israel became a country in 1948 my grandparents in Cleveland left the Synagogue where Zionist Abba Hillel Silver was the rabbi and went to a new synagogue because they worried that if the Jews had a home, America would expel them much like the Germans. When it came time for me to start my bar mitzvah training in third grade, we rejoined what is commonly known as “Silver’s temple.” In religious school and camp I learned about Israel as a small and mighty nation, where people lived in harmony on kibbutzim and sang pioneer songs around campfires every night. I learned that Israel was always under threat from her Arab neighbors and was a great place to plant a tree. When I came home from camp as a 16-year-old, I told my parents that I wanted to go to Israel the next summer with my friends, which I would pay for with my bar mitzvah money. My parents made me sit down at the dining room table and make a presentation about why I should go to this country that was so far away. When I arrived for that first trip, I got off the boat, and like so many of my friends, kissed the ground. I was home!
I remember putting my hand on the Western Wall, hiking through the Jordan river, floating in the dead sea, and eating carrots and cucumbers that tasted like honey. I even declared that if Israel was under attack I would make Aliyah, immigrate to Israel, and fight in the IDF. I had become, and still am today, a Zionist.
As a Zionist I strongly defended Israel to her critics and told people how important Israel is to the Jewish community. That is, until the floor fell out from under my firmly planted feet. I felt like I was in free-fall as I started to learn that Israel was not perfect, that there were millions of people living under Israeli control but who didn’t quite have the same rights as the Jews. I learned that most Israelis and certainly the government do not respect my practice of Judaism and that there were Jews who would spit on women if they walked around with their shoulders exposed. I learned that Jews were not the only victims of terrorism in Israel. I became angry, resentful, and I became determined.
I was, and still am, determined to fight for an Israel that I am proud to call my home. I found rabbis and friends who helped me navigate the deep, complex fog of Israeli politics and history. They helped me to understand that even though Israel is not perfect, we Jews have an existential connection to our eternal homeland. Rather than separate ourselves from her, we should instead engage with her as much as possible to help Israel become a true light to the nations. When people ask me about my relationship to Israel, I describe Israel as though she is my sister. I love her, it’s a familial love that is unbreakable, and yet she isn’t perfect. My love for her means that I will work as hard as I can to help her succeed and be the best that she can possibly be.
In religious school and camp, I was taught that we need Israel because of the Holocaust. If Israel had existed when the Nazis rose to power, 6 million Jews would have found safe refuge. My love for Israel was based largely on fear, but for me it was a palpable fear because my grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. This past March, Jenny and I took Maggie to visit my Grandma Margo who turns 95 this month. Margo was born in Berlin in the 20’s and as a young girl her parents sent her France and eventually New York City to save her from the hand of the Nazis. Many of her family members were later killed in the concentration camps. Before dementia stole her away, my Grandma Margo wrote a letter to her children and grandchildren. After telling the story of her life in Germany and France, she ends with the words, “When you tell your children about their heritage, tell them about the evil that can happen, so that people cannot say that this never really happened and so that there is some kind of remembrance for the family that suffered so much.” I will never forget.
I cannot say the same for my daughter. Maggie joins an entire generation of Jews who will never remember meeting or listening to a Holocaust survivor speak in the first person. Future generations will experience the inescapable horror only through stories, books, movies, and museums. Many of us in this room mourn the loss of a family member, a close friend, or a teacher who was a Holocaust survivor. This will profoundly change the way in which future generations relate to Judaism, the Jewish people, and the State of Israel. Therefore, we must evaluate how we instill positive Jewish identities and values in our worship, in our classrooms, and in our lives. This includes the way we plant within them a love of the State of Israel.
The Modern State of Israel guarantees that the Jewish people will never again be powerless. If countries should persecute or evict Jews, we will have a safe place to go. Nonetheless, Israel was not created solely as a response to the Holocaust. Returning to Israel with Jerusalem as her capital is a two-thousand-year-old dream and the building blocks of Zionism had been slowly put into place for over 50 to 100 years prior. The global sympathy from the systematic execution of the Jewish people afforded a milieu in which creating a Jewish state was possible. The State of Israel emerged as the ultimate way of preventing a future genocide as noted in her Declaration of Independence, “The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people – the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe – was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Yisrael the Jewish State.”
Sixty-five years later, one third of Israeli students visit Auschwitz to witness the unfathomable concept of the gas chambers up close. While standing outside of Hitler’s ovens they drape themselves in the blue and white flag. They symbolize that never again will Jews suffer because the power of the Israeli army and the State of Israel stands firm to protect us from ever becoming helpless victims again.
This is a powerful narrative to be sure, and given the current state of hatred and violence in the world, most Diaspora Jews, such as myself, feel safer because Israel will always accept us should we need to flee. Yet a growing number of younger Jews do not buy into this narrative. They claim that they feel safe and secure in the United States and they do not see Israel as the answer to all of the Jews problems. Instead, sadly and misguided, they see Israel as the source of our problems, a cause for antisemitism, because of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories. They believe that the right-wing government headed by Netanyahu and the religious corruption of the Rabbanute are causing more harm to our world than good. This is manifested by growing number of Jews in their teens and twenties withdrawing support for the Jewish State and even actively opposing its existence as a Jewish State.
Several far-left groups have formed recently which actively oppose the current status quo of conflict in Israel and advocate for a single, democratic state. In a perfect world without hate this might be a solution to the conflict, but we know that if everyone in Israel, including Gaza and the West Bank were given an equal vote AND anyone was allowed the right to immigrate that soon after Israel would no longer be a Jewish state. Non-Jews would flood the country and would vote in their own interests, possibly resulting in the expulsion of the Jews once again or worse. For these young Jews, the fear of another Holocaust does not translate directly into support for Israel.
On the far right, groups exist who feel that Jews have a claim to the entirety of the land, including the West Bank and Gaza, and they want to maintain the status quo. They reject the terms occupation, settlement, and even the word ‘Palestinian.’ Maintaining the status quo might also spell Israel’s demise, for the same reason that the hope for a one state solution by the far-left is problematic. Demographic studies have shown that the Arab population in Israel is reproducing faster than the Jewish population. If these studies are accurate, staying the course means that Israel will no longer be able to be both democratic and Jewish. I cannot imagine many westerners or American Jews supporting a future theocracy where the majority of the inhabitants do not have the same rights as the minority. One state, fully democratic or not, will mean that Israel’s days are numbered. Israel must continue to exist.
In order to secure Israel’s future, I believe that we must fight for a two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. This is why I advocate for Israel’s peaceful future with JStreet. JStreet was formed in 2007 as a pro-Israel, pro-peace organization that fights for Israel’s future as a Jewish country alongside an Arab country. I joined while I was living in Israel in 2008 because no other American advocacy organization allowed for me to both express my love for Israel and my concern for the lasting effects of the occupation in the West Bank and in the Hamas-controlled Gaza.
I know that Hamas is bent on destroying the Israel and that the leadership of both Hamas and the PLO are unwilling to compromise for peace. Often when I speak to people about two states, they retort that Israel doesn’t have any partners in the pursuit of peace. I agree that the leadership, Hamas and the PLO are not our partners and do not really want peace with Israel – they want to see Israel disappear. I am not so naive as to think that Israel can simply flip a switch and attain peace with those organizations. However, we do have partners for peace in the Palestinians who suffer under the rule of Hamas and the PLO. We met our partners this summer when 40 Jewish and Arab teens came to New Haven from Gaza and the West Bank, from the Galilee and Jerusalem, to engage in dialogue and to build relationships.
In early July these teens came to visit our synagogue. I brought them into our sanctuary, I told them the story of our Czech Torah scroll and a brief history of Mishkan Israel. I answered a few basic questions about Judaism, especially the idea of welcoming the stranger. A few days later they gathered on the New Haven Green to paint a giant billboard declaring our love for refugees in our community. They were joined by other community members including some from CMI. During a welcome ceremony, the teens talked about how they were raised to hate the other side, but that spending just two weeks engaged in dialogue changed their perspectives. A Jewish teen took the mic and after a wonderful speech about peace, he looked at his Palestinian roommate from Gaza and said, “we are now brothers.” “Yes we are!,” his roommate yelled back.
While these stories provide us hope, the political machine currently in power in Israel has emboldened those who believe Israel to be racist and biased. The so called “Nation State Bill,” passed this summer does nothing other than further denigrate the millions of non-Jews living in Israel. It doesn’t actually offer anything new or that we don’t already teach our children about Israel. Nothing in Israel has or will change because of this law. Its passage only fuels the fire of hatred against Israel by her enemies by making those living under Israeli control feel more isolated and unwanted. Fortunately for us, some members of Knesset were unable to amend the law to answer the perennial question “who is a Jew.”
I say “fortunately for us,” because in order to maintain a coalition government, the majority coalition usually include two far right religious parties. In exchange for their votes on other secular issues, these groups stipulate that the government maintain the Rabbinute, an ultra-orthodox body that controls Jewish life within Israel. Israel does not have a separation of synagogue and state. The public transportation system shuts down on Shabbat, synagogues are publically funded, one can receive public assistance to study all day instead of work, and many laws are based upon fundamental Jewish values.
On one hand, the inseparable connection to Judaism is what makes Israel special, unique, and familiar to us when we visit. Yet the Rabbinute also has the authority to make decisions about which synagogues to fund, who can receive government assistance, what conversions are acceptable, and even who can officiate at Jewish weddings.
Under Prime Minister Netanyahu they have tightened their grip. The Rabbinute continues to call Reform Jews heretics, refuses to provide state funding to non-orthodox congregations, maintains gender segregation at the Western Wall, and does not accept the Jewish status of my conversion students. This summer a prominent Conservative rabbi was arrested and held in jail by Israeli police for the sin of officiating at a non-sanctioned Jewish wedding. That could have been me – the last time I was in Israel I officiated at a friend’s non-sanctioned wedding. These actions push away many Jews from loving and supporting Israel.
Jews have an existential connection to both the land and the State of Israel – it’s in our DNA. We need Israel because of the fear of the Holocaust and because of the incredible gifts that Israel can offer to the world. I’m not talking about cell phones or drip irrigation. While those are wonderful, world-changing accomplishments, they will not atone for mistreatment of other people. Rather Israel has the potential to demonstrate to the world the highest of Jewish values: loving both our neighbor and the stranger, and encouraging others to do so. Israel could represent the words of Hillel who said that “what is hateful to you, do not do to others, the rest is commentary.”
When we look past the headlines and the political fighting, we can actually see examples of these values and coexistence between Jews, Muslims and Christians. We hear the siren welcoming Shabbat puncture the Muazen chanting the Muslim call to prayer. We see people living side-by-side in an apartment building in Yaffo. We see people sharing the land.
During one summer of rabbinical school I had the opportunity to volunteer on an organic goat farm in Northern Israel. I spent my days with an American, a Serbian, a Catholic priest student and several Israelis moving rocks, building fences, milking goats, and yes, making cheese. The owner of the farm spoke Hebrew, French, English and Arabic. In order to secure food, he bartered with the Arab villagers nearby and had a close relationship with the Catholic monastery. It was a magical experience watching everyone’s lives intertwine. On that mountain top I came to believe that peace is possible. I felt hopeful.
While the Holocaust may have been a catalyst for the formation of the State, Israel is based upon hope, a hope that lingered in the hearts of Jews for two-thousand years in exile. Hatikvah, our National Anthem means “The Hope.” The Israeli Declaration of Independence outlines a vision for the Jewish State. “It will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; [and] it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.” This ideal version of Israel was the dream of our ancestors and is still our dream today.
As we peel away the news of Israeli politics and ugliness of conflict, we see that many parts of Israel have already achieved this dream. My favorite thing to do when I visit Israel is to venture through the old city. Within the 16th century walls I walk through the Arab market, on ancient cobblestone streets, until I find myself standing inside of a hummus restaurant a stone’s throw from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. As I eat my pita, I watch the Christian pilgrims enter one of their holiest spaces. Having filled myself on the best falafel in the old city, I venture down small alleys until I emerge in front of the Western Wall. There I pause to think about the many generations, for over two thousand years, have prayed at that wall, and I join them in prayer. Not one to skip dessert, I head back to the Muslim quarter and venture off deep into small alleyways until I find my favorite café that has the best kanafe I have ever had – a sweet cheese dish topped with wiry strands of sugary crust. As I leave, I say to the owner, Salaam Aleicum, peace be on you, and he responds in kind. Where else in the world can someone walk near the holiest sites of three major religions while dining on traditional foods and all while experiencing kindness? That is the Israel of hope and I pray that eventually we only see hope and peace in the land.
I am proud to be a Zionist and grateful that the Jews have a homeland. Our commitment to am yisrael, the people of Israel, binds us together with the shared fate and destiny of medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel.
We come together on this Yom Kippur hoping to find the best in ourselves and the best in our community and we hope for the same for Israel. In the words of the psalmist:
“Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem; ‘May those who love you be at peace. May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels.’ For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your well-being; for the sake of the house of God, I seek your good.”
G’mar Chatima Tova, may we all be written for blessing in the book of life.
Reposted from brianimmerman.com with the permission of Brian Immerman.