Diversity or Disunity: When Jews Disagree about Israel

Sermon given on Yom Kippur Eve, 5764, October 5, 2003, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Perhaps the defining moment of the 1988 Presidential campaign occurred during a nationally-televised debate. Bernard Shaw, of CNN, asked a rather pointed question of Governor Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee, who was known to oppose capital punishment. Shaw asked whether the Governor would favor the death penalty if his wife, Kitty Dukakis, were the victim, if she were raped and murdered.

Dukakis offered a rational explanation of his opposition to capital punishment, whomever the victim might be. While his reasoning might have been sound, Dukakis’ answer was a disaster, sounding the death-knell of his campaign. Dukakis failed to respond with the horror and revulsion that should have marked the reaction of a man forced to contemplate his own wife’s rape and murder. He should have been indignant, in his retort to such a repugnant interrogation.

Each time we in the Jewish community are asked about the situation in Israel, we would do well to remember Michael Dukakis. Some of us believe firmly that the Israeli government should make territorial concessions; we fear that Israel’s actions have not always been just, and we support the establishment of a Palestinian State. Others think that every Israeli military action is fully justified, and oppose any negotiation with the Palestinians. Whatever our divergent opinions, though, we must first respond as sisters and brothers, who have been asked about our own loved ones, victimized by a daily dose of terror.

First, we must mourn the deaths of the men and the women, the boys and girls, and even the babies, who have been murdered for no crime other than being Jewish in the Jewish State.

First, we must express our revulsion at the very notion that one can equate heinous terrorism, directed at civilians, with the acts of a nation trying to protect its people from terror.

First, we must forcefully remind the world that the people who teach hatred of our people in Israel are spreading anti-Semitism. They are attacking each and every one of us personally.

On this night of confession, we acknowledge that many of us have been guilty of indifference to our people in the State of Israel. Too often, we have been quick to harsh judgment of Israeli actions. Too often, we have changed the channel, or turned the page of the newspaper, because we can absorb violence no more. We are numb to the suffering. We don’t appreciate our unique connection to our fellow Jews, wherever they may live. And too few of us have visited Israel during these troubled times, fearful of sharing in the common fate of our Jewish people.

These sins may be summed up in the famous question of Hillel: Im ayn ani li mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I do not stand with Israel, who will? If I do not feel the pain of my people, what kind of a human being am I?

I think of Toni’s and my niece, Ruth Dollinger, now serving in the first co-ed combat unit in the history of the Israeli military. Her unit ordinarily guards Israel’s peaceful borders with Egypt and Jordan. Not long ago, though, she was sent with her comrades to guard settlers in the Occupied Territories. The mothers and fathers of these young Israeli soldiers, kids really, are proud that their children are serving the Jewish State. On the other hand, many of them feel little kinship with West Bank settlers. The irony is sometimes more than one can bear. Young people are offered a choice: They may break the laws of the land they love and violate their military code, disloyal to their Zionist dreams, or they may risk their lives to defend the very people whom they see standing as stumbling blocks on the road to a peace for which they and their parents yearn. If I do not stand up for the peace process, am I standing for my own people? Im ayn ani li mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

Not infrequently, I am urged to press the American government not to ask Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. The next moment, I receive an email from Israel, from a colleague in our Reform Movement there, begging me to support American efforts to influence the Israeli government to stop the settlements and to restrain military action. Both sides tell me that I am abandoning my people if I don’t take the requested action. Im ayn ani li mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

And let us consider the demographics of Israel and the Occupied Territories. There is little dispute that the Arabs will, within a couple of decades hold a majority of the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Time is running short. If Israel continues to control all of the land it currently occupies, Jews will soon be a minority in the Jewish state. Four alternative permanent solutions could theoretically be proposed. Israel can offer territorial compromise, which means the creation of a Palestinian State on nearly all of the land that was not part of Israel before 1967. There can be what some call “population transfer” and others call “ethnic cleansing,” the expulsion of Arabs from the Greater Land of Israel. A Jewish minority could, by force, rule a Palestinian majority through a process that can only be called apartheid. A fourth possibility would be a single democratic state, which would eventually lose its unique Jewish character with an Arab majority. To be sure, a Palestinian State would bring its problems. We can never support a nation ruled by terrorists, such as Yassir Arafat and much of the current Palestinian leadership. Israel needs a legitimate partner to bring that peace to fruition. But would expelling Palestinians be good for the Jewish soul? Would apartheid permit a Jewish State to continue for any length of time? Would a single nation with a Jewish minority serve the needs of the Jewish people and the goals of Zionism? What is best for Israel? What is good for the Jewish people? Im ayn ani li mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

Closer to home, I am regularly asked my thoughts about the Zionist activism of fundamentalist Christians. I am called to participate in their events. Some dear friends deeply lament my indifference, and even my opposition, to these activities. The members of our Temple who support these Christian Zionist efforts are among the most ardent supporters of Israel in this community. Their concern for Israel is sincere. Their loyalty to Judaism is unimpeachable. They point to the untold dollars raised to help refugees make aliyah. They argue, correctly, that tens of millions of fundamentalist Christians have more influence on American policy, and particularly on the current Administration, than a few million American Jews. For them, Jewish involvement in the Zionist activities of the Christian right is critically important.

For many of us, though, these fundamentalist Christians’ support for Israel can not be disconnected from an unjustified, negative blanket assessment of Islam. Their desire to bring more Jews to Israel is not separate from a theology in which we do not ultimately fare well. Can we join in common cause with folks who stand against us, with every fibre of their being, on domestic matters of the greatest importance to Jewish Americans? Reproductive freedom and gay rights aside, these are the people who oppose our vision of the separation of Church and State, so vital to Jewish life in America. They organize the religious activities that alienate our own children in their public schools every day. I am often privileged to work with pro-Israel Christians, albeit less vocal ones, who are sympathetic with our situation as a religious minority in America. My Christian friends regularly question the very integrity of the most vocal fundamentalist Zionists. Jewish support of these right-wing efforts mystifies mainstream Christians, and makes them wonder whether they should support Israel themselves. If I stand with the best-known Christian Zionists, am I truly standing for my people? Im ayn ani li mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

The truth, I know, is that we all have different answers to these questions. Our own niece, Shari Dollinger Magnus, until recently worked for the Israeli Embassy, connecting with Christian Zionists, many of whom are her devoted friends. She continues to do this work, now in the private non-profit sector. I count among the dearest members of this congregation countless individuals who disagree with me strongly on this subject. While all three Rabbis of Temple Beth-El are in agreement, we know that cherished rabbinic colleagues in this community feel differently. When other Jews join forces with fundamentalist Christians in support of their vision of Israel, I know that you do so with the best interests of Judaism and the Jewish State in mind. When your Rabbis decline to join in these efforts, I pray that everyone in our Jewish community knows that we, too, are acting out of ahavat Yisrael, our love for the people of Israel.

When Hillel asked, Im ayn ani li mi li?, he did not stop there. He went on to ask, uchesh’ani l’atzmi mah ani? If I am only for myself, what am I? On this Yom Kippur, we must acknowledge that some among us have been so consumed with the welfare of our own people that we have been indifferent to the suffering of Palestinians. Yes, some of them are terrorists. Yes, many of them seek the destruction of the State of Israel. And yet, there are others, many others, who seek a lasting peace, in their own State, living beside a secure and peaceful and Jewish State of Israel. Even if Israeli actions are justified, and most are, we have a Jewish religious obligation to mourn the deaths of Palestinian civilians, men and women, boys and girls, and even babies, who have suffered the misfortune of being near arguably legitimate targets of Israeli military attacks. Even if those innocents have been manipulated by terrorists, used as human shields in the most vile and inhumane strategy imaginable, we are obligated to weep for their deaths. Uchesh’ani l’atzmi mah ani? If I am only for myself, what am I?

Hillel’s second question might be applied within our own Jewish community, as well. Here in San Antonio, we rightly celebrate a unity of Jews of every stream – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Chabad – unheard of in most other cities. Some have expressed the fear that our disagreements about Middle East policy are leading to a rupture in the harmony that has long sustained us.

For decades, Rabbi Stahl was largely responsible for our community’s unity, together with Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg, of Congregation Rodfei Sholom. Understandably, some folks were concerned that Rabbi Stahl’s retirement might lead to a break-down in our San Antonio Jewish harmony, particularly with all our disagreements about what is best for Israel. I am admittedly more apt than Rabbi Stahl to speak, when the interests of local peace might be better served by silence.

I have been privileged to discuss the matter in some depth with Rabbi Scheinberg in recent months. We have, on numerous occasions, agreed to disagree. Our lines of communication are open. In fact, Rabbi Scheinberg and my wife, in that order, were the only two people who saw this sermon before tonight. Most importantly, Rabbi Scheinberg and I have reached the mutual conclusion that our divergent opinions, not just between Rabbis, but throughout our community, need not detract from our unity. Some Jews support Israel and the best interests of the Jewish people by ardently refuting any proposal of territorial compromise with the Palestinians and by embracing Christian Zionism. Other Jews love Israel and the Jewish community by urging Israel to make concessions for peace and by refusing to participate in the pro-Israel activities of fundamentalist Christians. Whether we be in one camp or the other, or somewhere in between, we are called upon to respect and to embrace our fellow Jews, who love Israel differently. None of these views should be taboo for presentation through our Jewish communal organizations and none of the Jews who hold these positions should be accused of disunifying our community. Uchesh’ani l’atzmi mah ani? If I am only for myself, and not for other Jews who believe differently from me, then what am I?

Our ancient Rabbis taught that the Second Temple was destroyed because of groundless hatred between different groups of Jews in ancient Israel. Pharisees and Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots, let their disagreements lead them into disunity and disarray, making them easy prey for the Roman conquerors. May our varied opinions strengthen our Jewish people, here in San Antonio, in Israel, and throughout the world. And let us remember Hillel’s last question: V’im lo achshav, eimatai? And if not now, when? Now is the time for each of us to speak up, stating our own deeply held convictions, out of love for the Jewish people. Now is the time for even a diverse people to unite.

Amen.