Advocating for Israel When Circumstances Change

Sermon delivered May 13, 2005, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Most basic tours of Israel include a visit to Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where the State of Israel was declared in May of 1948. Somehow, though, despite having traveled to Israel on numerous occasions, I had never been to this particular spot, until last October, during the Jewish Federation Mission. What an amazing feeling, to sit in the very room where the pioneers of the Jewish State assembled, to hear David Ben Gurion read the Declaration of Independence, establishing Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel for the first time in almost 1900 years.

How the emotions of that moment were charged. For those who had lived in Palestine for years or decades, the establishment of the State was the fulfillment of their life’s work. Contemplating Jewish history, they were living a dream that had been our people’s prayer for nearly two millennia. At the same time, they were acutely aware of the destruction of European Jewry, the devastation of the Holocaust, and the resulting refugee problem, that played such a central role in giving rise to the Jewish State.

For decades, Jews throughout the world, with some notable exceptions, had worked hard to establish a Jewish State in Palestine. In November of 1947, they gathered around their radios, to hear the live broadcast of the United Nations vote to partition Palestine, to create two states, side by side, one Jewish and one Arab. Now, international Jewry held its breath: Could the infant state survive the attack that was sure to come, without delay, from its hostile neighbors, much stronger in numbers and in arms?

The people of the Jewish State fought with faith and vigor. Jews in America and elsewhere took up the mantle of political and financial support, efforts that intensified in the 1970s, following the Six Day War. For many, recalling the Holocaust and supporting the State of Israel are inseparable conjoined twins. When we say, “Never Again,” many of us mean that the Jewish people must always possess a land of our own, where our people may go if threatened with oppression and persecution. Even in recent years, Israel has continued to fulfill that mission, absorbing over a million Jewish refugees from the republics of the Former Soviet Union.

American Jews tend to agree that our role is to assure American support for the Jewish State. Though Israel is independent, and able to defend itself at arms, Israel benefits greatly from the unwavering support of the United States. Thankfully, American Jews are not alone in advocating for Israel. Our most stalwart partner is Israel itself, for America is also a beneficiary of a strong alliance with this Middle East democracy.

American Jews do not, however, always agree about the best way to advocate for Israel.

Some say that Israel will, in the long run, benefit most from the creation of an independent Palestinian State. Israel, they argue, will only be secure if it is living at peace with its neighbors and Arab citizens. Peace, they insist, will only come with justice for the Palestinian people. While I basically agree with this position, I have been surprised when some have lobbied Congress to make support for Israel contingent on a cessation to settlement activity, for example. I have been shocked when they have been willing to besmirch Israel’s good name by exposing Israel’s warts to a wider community that cannot differentiate between a nation with flaws and an inherently flawed nation.

On the other hand, some Zionists believe that Israel’s security emanates from its own military might. They urge the Jewish State to make no concessions to the Palestinians. They circulate emails and sponsor presentations that treat Palestinian claims and concerns lightly, at best. Together with their allies on the Christian right, they stringently oppose even diplomatic efforts to bring about compromise between Israelis and Palestinians. Indeed, they don’t even recognize the existence of a Palestinian people.

In recent years, this latter group has come to dominate much pro-Israel activity among American Jews. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, for example, an umbrella group that represents all American Jewish groups of any significance whatsoever, has taken a hard line with respect to territorial compromise. Though the Presidents’ Conference and other organizations claim to support the Israeli government, no matter which party leads it and no matter what its specific policies, the Presidents’ Conference and many other groups have yet to announce their support for the current Israeli government plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of our Union for Reform Judaism, has sharply criticized the Presidents’ Conference for failing to support Prime Minister Sharon in his quest for peace with security.

Unfortunately, the Presidents’ Council is far from alone. Though public opinion surveys indicate that a vast majority of Israelis approve of the Gaza withdrawal, polls indicate that American Jews are less enthusiastic. Israelis, though, understand the situation better than most American Jews.

If Israel does not make territorial compromise, Israel will ultimately have to choose between being a democracy and being a Jewish State, because Israel will find itself in a situation of ruling more Palestinians than Jews. Prime Minister Sharon, no wild-eyed liberal, has recognized this reality, leading him to push the Gaza evacuation and to begin negotiations about withdrawal from much of the West Bank.

On a more personal level, the average Israeli citizen has chosen life over land, in keeping with eternal Jewish values. Israelis note the sharp decline in both terrorism and in anti-Israel rhetoric, in just the few short months since the death of Yassir Arafat and the ascendancy of Abu Mazen to the presidency of the Palestinian Authority. So abhorring terrorism that they rightly reject any excuse for it, Israelis nevertheless believe that, if Palestinian life improves, Arab mothers and fathers will not send their sons and daughters out to be suicide bombers. Most importantly, Israeli mothers and fathers do not want to risk the lives of their own children, for the sake of occupied territory.

In many ways, the national leadership of Israel advocacy organizations is therefore now opposing the clearly stated aims of the current Israeli government and the widely demonstrated opinion of the Israeli majority. Perhaps some national Jewish organizations behave so curiously, because they are strongly tied to extremist Christian supporters of Israel, who will never agree that Israel should make territorial concessions. Their pre-millennial theology requires that Jews rule and occupy the entire Holy Land, to bring the rapture they expect. They value Jewish possession of the land over Jewish lives. After all, we do not fare well in the final chapters of their apocalyptic visions.

The time has come for American Jewish support for Israel to join the people and government of the State of Israel in pursuit of a secure, Jewish State at peace with its Arab neighbors, including the national homeland of the Palestinian people.

Yes, times have changed since 1948, and since 1967, and since 1993. And yet, American Jewish advocacy for Israel might always have remained steadfast, on the same path, united with the people of Israel. Let American Jewish support for Israel return to the mainstream.

As David Ben Gurion and the founders of the Jewish State accepted the partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, let us support today’s Israeli government, as it moves in that time-honored direction.

As American Jews urged the American government to support the United Nations partition plan of 1947, let us support U.S. diplomatic efforts to create a Jewish State and a Palestinian State, coexisting side by side, at peace.

As the American Jewish community has steadfastly stood by the State of Israel since 1948, joining with Jewish people in Israel and throughout the world to insist on the continued existence of a secure, Jewish State, so must we continue to focus on the right of Israel to exist, on the justice of Zionism.

This week, we celebrated the 57th anniversary of Israel’s independence. I can think of no better birthday gift to Israel than our recommitment to advocacy on Israel’s behalf. If we will remain steadfast, and never waver or bend in the nature of our commitment over time, then our support for Israel may remain steady, even as circumstances change, for another 57 years and beyond.