Just Back from Israel: A Rabbi’s Report

Sermon given October 29, 2004, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

“It’s time to go back to Israel,” I said to myself, and to Toni, way back in the Spring, as I made plans to join the Jewish Federation’s 2004 Mission to Israel this fall. The last time we went to Israel was March 2002. My father was not at all pleased. Those were the days of rampant terror, when suicide bombers were taking the lives of innocent Israeli civilians by the dozens, on what seemed like a daily basis. I participated in a Reform Rabbinical Convention, with some 300 colleagues, demonstrating our solidarity with the Jewish people and the Jewish State during dark days. While we were there, a terrorist murdered some of Israel’s most promising youth, in the notorious suicide bombing of the Moment Café, just blocks from my hotel. My father had a reason to be afraid. For us, though, going to Israel, especially then, was a mitzvah, a critically important obligation for the Jewish people.

Much has changed since the spring of 2002. Israel is increasingly secure from terrorist attacks. The only reason we did not go to Israel as a family this time was because of the unappealing prospect of being cooped up in an airplane for that long with two children, one of them only 22 months old!

The Mission exceeded my fondest expectations. Mark Freedman, our Federation Director, and his colleagues in Israel, are incredibly skilled at offering a complete Israel experience in just eight and a half days. Everywhere we went, our group heard from a different expert, benefiting from a wide range of viewpoints and a broad spectrum of knowledge. I could not have dreamed of the depth with which complex topics were discussed thoughtfully. Tough questions were answered honestly, even when the truth did not paint the rosiest picture of the Jewish State. Mark Freedman and I have already discussed a joint Federation-Temple Beth-El mission in the future.

I would be remiss, too, if I did not mention the tremendously positive impact of traveling with a stellar group of individuals, old friends and people I had never met, members of this congregation and others, Jews and non-Jews, first time visitors to Israel and veterans of many Missions. We formed a cohesive bond, built and strengthened friendships, and explored the Jewish State together, with concern and commitment.

I believe I can speak for our entire group, in delivering a key message to the membership of Temple Beth-El and our entire Jewish community. The message is found in the words I spoke to myself and to Toni when I first planned to take this trip: “It’s time to go back to Israel.”

For years, Israel has faced the monumental challenges of defending itself on three fronts: against terror, against a torrent of negative world opinion, and against a dramatic economic crisis. Israel’s economy, like our own here in San Antonio, is dependent on tourism, as one of the several key pillars of financial strength. Understandably, when terror was at its height, tourism ground nearly to a halt. Apart from solidarity missions, American Jews have not visited the Jewish State at all in recent years. For so many reasons, it’s time to go back to Israel.

Going to Israel is a mitzvah, a religious obligation of Judaism. The people of Israel need to see, and to know, that we are with them. They depend not only on our tourist dollars, but also on the solidarity expressed by our physical presence there. And now, going to Israel is also safe.

Watching the news, as presented here in America, we can easily have the impression that Israel remains a terribly dangerous place. True, we note that the frequency of suicide bombers has diminished. And yet, most of the images we see in the news are of violence, or of a separation barrier that would seem to be reminiscent of the Berlin Wall.

The reality, as seen by this eyewitness, a veteran visitor to Israel, is that Israel has returned to normal, and maybe even to a stronger, more mature version of Israeli normalcy.

Two years ago, Israelis struggled to pursue their daily lives. Yes, they kept going to work and school, but they did so under constant threat of terrorist attack and always worried. Today, terrorism is no longer a daily, weekly or even monthly occurrence. However, as military experts reminded us, there are no guarantees. Terrorism has not stopped for lack of ready and willing terrorists. Having spoken with Israelis from a broad spectrum of the political center, from left to right, I can tell you that all acknowledge three facts: 1) Terrorism will ultimately end only when the Palestinian people are filled with hope that they can expect a brighter future without violence. 2) The current leadership of the Palestinian people has no interest in living side by side with a Jewish State of Israel for the long term. Therefore, together with the extreme right in Israel, the Palestinian leadership denies its people any faith in the future. 3) Terrorism has declined only because of the efforts of the Israel Defense Forces, including the building of the security barrier, with the support of the United States.

One of the reasons it’s so important for us to go back to Israel is to see the security barrier. Some refer to it as “the wall.” Others prefer to call it “the fence.” Neither term accurately describes the barrier in its entirety. For most of its length, it is a complex system of fences, electronic surveillance, and patrol roads. A wall has been erected in Jerusalem, and otherwise only in a tiny number of very dangerous places, comprising a miniscule percentage of the full barrier. For example, a wall separates the Palestinian city of Tulkarem from Israel. A mere seven miles from Netanya, the West Bank city of Tulkarem was the point of entry for the despicable terrorists who killed Jews at their Passover Seder table, at the Park Hotel in Netenya.

Every Israeli who spoke to us about the barrier, including the rather right-wing Army spokesman, acknowledged the hardships Arabs face as a result of the barrier. They are separated from their relatives, their friends, their jobs and their fields on the other side. Indeed, the barrier has not been completed, and in some places it has been re-routed, because of frequent challenges made in the Israeli courts by both Arabs and Jews. That the barrier must be built is no less certain because it is a terrible tragedy. That its route must be carefully considered, with significant weight given to the needs of the Palestinians, is a moral imperative.

Perhaps the greatest sign that Israel has returned to normal is the vociferous political debate that we witnessed, leading up to Tuesday’s historic Knesset vote for Israel to leave the Gaza Strip and dismantle Jewish settlements there in the months ahead. We saw literally thousands of political billboards, with strongly-worded slogans on both sides. The political attacks we see in America, even this week, pale in comparison to the tenor of the Israeli debate.

More difficult decisions will come. Leaving Gaza, which is not part of the biblical Land of Israel, is much less complex than departing from plots of Earth toward which our people has looked for millennia. This week’s decisive Knesset majority, though, demonstrated two facts on which most Israelis agree: 1) Abandoning any Jewish settlement, no matter how ill conceived, will not be easy. Relocating families from their homes of three generations will require physical force by Jews against Jews. 2) If Israel fails to evacuate Jewish settlements in occupied territories and withdraw, then Israel will undoubtedly face a demographic problem. Ultimately, Arabs would constitute the majority in Israeli-held land, forcing Israel to make the unspeakable choice between abandoning democracy or giving up its character as a Jewish State.

Issues such as leaving Gaza are critical decisions to be made by the Israeli people. However, such a historic step in the right direction could not have been taken two years ago, when Israelis could scarcely think beyond one devastating act of terror before the next one came. As we go back to Israel, we are grateful to find that Israel has returned to its contentious self, constantly discussing, and deciding, for the good of the future of the State.

Last week, when our group was in Jerusalem, Jews around the world read Parashat Lech Lecha, the Torah portion in which Abraham and Sarah are first commanded to leave their home to go to God’s Promised Land. The Hebrew words of God’s commandment, lech l’cha, are often interpreted to mean, “Go for your own good.” Those of us who went to Israel last week made the journey for several reasons. The truth, though, is that the Mission was very much for our own good.

We were inspired by the sights of ancient Israel, yes, and led by a terrific guide. Even more, though, we were impressed by the tremendous underground emergency facility at the Western Galilee Hospital, where our community’s own Dr. Michael Ozer participated in disaster readiness program this very week. We were received with generous hospitality on Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk, making new friends in a place where our own San Antonio Jewish Federation has established an ongoing partnership. We were moved by the continuing Zionist commitment of Israeli soldiers, young men and women who reminded me very much of recent high school graduates from our own Temple, as we shared dinner, conversation and singing with a group of regular kids who put their lives on the line for the sake of Israel and the Jewish people every day. We were impressed by the joint efforts of Jewish and Arab leaders, to improve the lives of Bedouins in the Israeli village of D’meida. We were touched by the children growing in a loving and innovative shelter, Beit Elezraki, which our Jewish Federation helps support through the Joint Distribution Committee. I could go on and on, describing countless inspiring encounters, not to mention the food and fellowship, the shopping and the laughter. We went for ourselves, and we encourage you to go for yourselves, as well.

We who have just returned from Israel share in a critical responsibility. Now, we are in a unique position to tell all of San Antonio more of the truth about Israel, so very different from the impressions we often get in the news.

The ability to explain Israel better here is what the Federation hoped in inviting Brett Thacker, Managing Editor of the Express-News, to join in our mission, at the newspaper’s expense. Brett Thacker is a terrific person, whom I feel so privileged to have gotten to know. I am confident that Express-News coverage of Israel will benefit from his experience.

Israel got a special boost here in San Antonio this week, as the Jewish Federation brought KTSA talk show host, Chris Duel, and his show to Jerusalem, broadcasting from the Holy City all week. San Antonio’s finest talk show host and his fellow travelers were so very taken with everything they saw. Chris, Ruben Hernandez and Jim Berg portrayed Israel honestly and accurately and so very positively for thousands of San Antonio residents all week. What a tremendous, and mighty successful endeavor on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people!

In Parashat Lech L’cha, soon after Abraham and Sarah arrive in the Land, a famine forces them to leave. They descend into Egypt for some time, but return to Israel when times are better.

Many American Jews have understandably shied away from visiting Israel in the last four years, not unlike our patriarch and matriarch themselves. And yet, the time has come to return. Let us all pledge to go to Israel, like the eight Beth-El teenagers who participated in NFTY in Israel programs in the last year. Let us all go to Israel, for ourselves, to learn the facts, to be touched by the people. May we go to Israel, and may we return, to spread the truth, good words about the Jewish State. It’s time to go back to Israel.