Israel and American Jews in Difficult Times

Sermon given February 16, 2001, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Some twenty years ago, Israeli armed forces invaded southern Lebanon. Military action was absolutely necessary. Lebanon was in the midst of a civil war, its government unable to control the nation. Into the vacuum came the Palestine Liberation Organization, led by Yasser Arafat. The P.L.O. used southern Lebanon as a staging ground, from which terrorist attacks were launched into Israel. Even worse, Chairman Arafat’s forces stationed rockets and heavy artillery along Israel’s north border. Families in northern Israel were forced to sleep in bomb shelters, as P.L.O. shells fell on their communities every single night.

Israel was not without allies inside Lebanon. Christian Phalangists, one of the parties to the Lebanese civil war, supported the Israeli invasion, and Israeli forces helped the Phalangists in their struggles against the P.L.O. and other hostile forces in Lebanon. Then, a tragedy occurred. Phalangist military forces massacred a Palestinian settlement at Sabra and Shatilla. The target was not a P.L.O. terrorist cell, but a refugee enclave of women, children, and the elderly. A large number of people were murdered. Israeli officials denied responsibility initially. However, an Israeli commission of inquiry later determined that Israel was responsible for the massacre. Specifically, the panel blamed the Defense Minster, Ariel Sharon, and he was forced to resign his post. Though Sharon did not order murders, he knew the intentions of the Phalangists, when that Christian militia entered the refugee camp, in territory controlled by Israel.

Today, Yasser Arafat is not only Chairman of the P.L.O., he is also heads the Palestinian Authority that governs land which Israel has given to Palestinian control. He is the leader of the Palestinian side in peace negotiations with Israel.

Today, Ariel Sharon is Prime Minister-elect of Israel. He will lead the Israeli side in any future peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Many Israelis, Jews throughout the world, and Israeli supporters of every race and nation will argue that Israel can not make peace with Yasser Arafat. Ariel Sharon has made this claim in the past. He points to Arafat’s history of terrorism. Yasser Arafat has the blood of countless Israelis on his hands. This man has ordered attacks on Israeli children.

Many Palestinians, and their supporters throughout the world, will argue that Palestinians can not make peace with Ariel Sharon. Yasser Arafat has made this claim in the past. He points to Sharon’s history of militarism, and to his decades of bellicose political pronouncements. Sharon has the blood of countless Palestinians on his hands. This man stood by, while his allies murdered Palestinian children.

The situation would seem to be hopeless, just when peace seemed to be around the corner. We all remember the historic moment, in 1993, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, of blessed memory, stood on the White House lawn with Arafat, President Bill Clinton, and former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. They shook hands and promised to make peace. Sadly, the assassin’s bullet prevented Rabin from making good on his pledge, and Peres was thwarted, first by Palestinian terrorists and then by Israeli voters.

Last summer, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made a bold and unprecedented offer to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian people. He even agreed to share Jerusalem with the Palestinians, something that only months earlier had been unthinkable. And yet, Arafat said no.

Weeks later, asserting Israeli rights throughout Jerusalem, Sharon went for a walk on the Temple Mount. This site is holy to Jews, as the ancient Temples stood there. Today, though, mosques are there, as they have been for centuries. The area is under the control of Moslem religious authorities. Jews are permitted to go there, so Sharon’s visit was perfectly legal. And yet, his intention was not merely to take a walk, but to make a statement. Palestinians were provoked, and violence erupted. Palestinian violence begat a violent response from Israel. Hundreds on both sides have died in the months that have followed.

Many among us ask how this man, Ariel Sharon, could possibly have been elected Prime Minister of Israel. While the question seems to be rhetorical, it actually has an answer. The Israeli people, by and large, did not go to the polls out of enthusiasm for Sharon. Instead, they went to vote against Ehud Barak. Only a short time ago, Israelis were buoyed with hope that Barak would lead them to peace, so they gave him a victory over the former Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. In their minds, Barak pulled out all the stops, offering the sun, the moon and the stars to the Palestinians. And yet, in the end, there was no peace treaty. Instead, there was violence. Even if one agreed with Barak’s attempts at peace, nobody may claim that he was successful. Though most Israelis blame Arafat for the violence, they blame Barak for the failure of peace.

Also, Arab citizens of Israel make up a substantial minority of the population, and usually vote for the candidate who is more inclined toward the peace process. This time, though, Israel’s Arabs stayed home and did not vote. They, too, blamed Barak for the failure of peace, but they also accused him of causing the violence. Sadly, Israeli Arabs can no longer see any difference between Israeli politicians who have supported the peace process and those who have not.

Yes, the situation seems hopeless. And yet, we Jews have been taught to maintain our faith, even in times of terrible degradation. Optimism is a particular feature of the United States. Therefore, as American Jews, we inherit a heritage of hope, forcing us to consider the possibility of peace, even through the violence.

But we have a problem. American Jews are divided. Some bemoan Sharon’s election, as an indication that the Israeli people have turned away from the promise of peace. Others cheer the selection of the Israeli people. They claim that the peace process was never a real formula for peace, and that Israel can only find peace and security by remaining firm in its dealings with Arab neighbors.

Shall American Jews publicly hail the election of Sharon, affirming the strength of the Israeli people in the fact of adversity? President Clinton worked hard to facilitate peace talks. Shall we ask our new President to abandon the course of his predecessor? Shall we demand that President Bush leave the Israelis alone? Shall we announce to the world that we consider the problems in Israel to be the result of Palestinian aggression, and the weakness of Israeli leaders who foolishly imagined that concessions would bring peace?

Or shall we publicly bemoan the election of Sharon, declaring him to be a killer, unfit to serve as a leader of Israel? Shall we invite President Bush to pressure Sharon to make new concessions, to renew the peace talks? Shall we announce to the world that we do not support the Israeli military, when it uses significant force to subdue violent Palestinian protests? Shall we make clear that Israeli obstinacy is primarily to blame for the ongoing conflict?

Certainly, the views of American Jews span this spectrum. Not surprisingly, the views of Israelis are just as widely divergent. The wisest course of our Jewish community would be not to attempt to silence any voice. Let us sound our support for Israel, each in his or her own way. May each of us cry out for peace, even if we propose different paths to get there.

My own conscience leads me to support the efforts of Prime Minister Barak, and of Prime Ministers Rabin and Peres before him. Certainly, I am aware of Chairman Arafat’s history of terrorism. And the facts of history are on the side of Israel. Yet peace will not come without compromise. If Arafat said “no” last summer, then Israelis must ask again, and again, and again, never giving up the willingness to sacrifice for peace.

Although I have never supported Ariel Sharon in the past, and I do not agree with the platform on which he was elected, I would encourage American Jews to congratulate him on his victory, and to wish him well. The Prime Minister-elect has said that he will pursue peace, and we should take him at his word. We can be encouraged, for Sharon has announced that Ehud Barak will serve as his Defense Minister, and rumors have circulated that Shimon Peres may be the Foreign Minister. Peres is Israel’s most eloquent and devoted voice for peace, and a man trusted by Arab leaders and Arab citizens of Israel. If Barak and Peres can work with Sharon, then certainly American Jews who support the peace process can give the new Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt. I know that I will. If Yasser Arafat deserves a place at the peace table, and he does, then so does Ariel Sharon. Both men are tainted by their past. Both men are in a position to build a better future for Jews and for Palestinians, in and around Israel.

Most of all, American Jews must continue to voice our support for Israel. Even when we disagree about specific Israeli policies, we are united in declaring that Israel is and must remain the eternal homeland of the Jewish people.

Yes, Israel contains Moslem and Christian holy sites, as well as Jewish ones. But ours is the only religion that views Israel as homeland.

Yes, other peoples do and should have a right to live in Israel. But Israel’s character as a Jewish state is absolutely necessary to the well-being of the Jewish people.

Within the last century, one-third of world Jewry was wiped out by the Nazis and their collaborators throughout Europe. Anti-Semitism is not an ancient phenomenon, but quite modern. The existence of Judaism and our people requires a strong and secure Israel.

Love for the land and people of Israel is not a point on which American Jews disagree.

Love for the land and people of Israel is non-negotiable, no matter who the Prime Minister may be.

When we criticize, let our words be as the loving chastisements of one family member for another. Let our tongues not be like swords in the hands of an enemy.

Let this be our prayer:

May God bless the State of Israel, and its new Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon.May God bless Israel with continuing strength and security.

May God grant peace to the land and people of Israel, together with their Arab fellow citizens and neighbors, and all the world.