Land and Life in Israel, 5766

Sermon given on Yom Kippur Day, 5766, October 13, 2005, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

900 years ago, the poet and philosopher, Yehudah Halevi, lived in Spain, but he dreamed of the land of Israel. He wrote:

Libi v’mizrah, v’ani b’sof ma’arav
My heart is in the East, and I am at the edge of the West.

In Halevi’s day, the western hemisphere was unknown. Spain was the western edge of the world. The poet lived in Spain, but his heart was in the Land of Israel.

So it is with many of us. We are Americans, dedicated to our own land. At the same time, our minds are drawn to the welfare of our people in the Jewish State. Those of us who have spent time in Israel frequently construct mental pictures of places that are sacred to us in the Holy Land. Toni and I have family in Israel, just as many of you have friends or relatives there. When we hear of a terrorist attack, we fear for our loved ones. In particular, for the last few years, and for a few years yet to come, we have at least one niece in the Army. All too often, terrorists have targeted soldiers, not only on duty, but also during their commutes between home and base.

Israel’s soldiers are her people. Military service is compulsory, for men and women, upon high school graduation. Our oldest Israeli niece, Ruth, who is here today, recently completed her military service, in Israel’s first co-ed combat unit. Her youngest sister, Hannah, who is also here, plans to enter the armed forces in the next year. Their middle sister Sarah serves even today as an officer in the Israeli intelligence. We take great pride in the girls’ service. They are a credit to our family and to the Jewish people. At the same time, we worry about their safety, as do their parents and grandparents, including Toni’s parents.

In recent months, Sarah’s officer training was interrupted, as she was among those assigned to carry out the disengagement from the Gaza strip and four settlements in the northern West Bank. This particular assignment brought a specific kind of concern. We wondered about the emotional and physical toll to be exacted when Jews must take action against fellow Jews. We heard dire predictions of civil war.

Blessedly, Sarah was hit with nothing worse than eggs and epithets. The Jewish State did not crumble. The grim prognosis from the right, claiming that Gaza would quickly become the source of a terrorist resurgence, has thus far proved overstated. Threats upon the Prime Minister’s life have thankfully stayed far from his person. And, as Sarah and her parents have told us, the training of the soldiers participating in the disengagement was exemplary, yielding a much quicker and less painful process.

We cannot be sanguine about the success of the Gaza disengagement. We would be overly optimistic to view it as a certain harbinger of a peaceful end to violence. And yet, this holy day, a time for examination, at this historic juncture, offers an outstanding opportunity to consider the steps that have been taken and the sacrifices yet to come for our people in the Jewish State.

Our review of the situation does make a difference. In the past, Israeli moves toward peace have been strongly supported by the American Jewish community. This time, our Reform Movement stands steadfastly behind the Gaza disengagement. At the same time, though, several other major American Jewish organizations remained quiet. Still others, in a gross breach of precedent, opposed Israeli government action. Today, on this Yom Kippur, let us come to understand why each and every American Jew ought to speak out, loudly and proudly, in favor of the path to peace, on behalf of a strong future for the Jewish State.

The architect of the Gaza disengagement, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was an unlikely candidate to dismantle Jewish settlements in occupied territories. After all, he was a prime architect of the settlement policy itself, though these settlements have grown since 1967, under governments of both major parties.

The idea of the settlements can be traced to early modern Zionism. Before a Jewish State existed, in the early part of the 20th Century, Zionists built a Jewish future in Israel, simply by purchasing land and settling in the Holy Land. They created what they called “facts on the ground:” Jewish cities, towns and kibbutzim, built to stay. Many of those places became the largest cities and most successful collective farms of modern Israel. Others were reluctantly abandoned, when they fell outside the borders of Israel, fixed by the cease-fire following the War of Independence in 1948.

In 1967, Israel won a stunning victory in a defensive war, not only fending off the enemies that openly sought her destruction, but also occupying land that had previously been in Arab hands. Israel quickly annexed the portions of Jerusalem that had not previously been part of Israel, as well as a defensive ring around the city. Israel also annexed the Golan Heights, because of the critical strategic importance of that land at that time.

Israel never did annex the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, or the West Bank of the Jordan River, which remained “occupied territory,” not only under international law, but even under the laws of the State of Israel. Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel in the years following the Six Day War, would say that she kept waiting for the telephone to ring. She assumed that the Arabs would be eager to make peace, in exchange for the return of that occupied territory.

What came instead, 32 years ago today, was the barbarous and brazen butchery of the Yom Kippur War. Though Israel finally beat back her invaders, every Israeli family knew bereavement. After that War, the bold Egyptian leader, Anwar Sadat, felt sufficiently empowered to pick up the phone. The Camp David Accords were the result. Land was surrendered in exchange for peace.

The Sinai Peninsula, though, is not part of the ancient and historic Land of Israel. Although Gaza is closer, and may be included in some biblical descriptions of ancient Israelite territory, it was generally under Philistine rule. The West Bank of the Jordan River, on the other hand, includes the heartland of ancient Israel. There, in Hebron, are the reputed burial places of the patriarchs and matriarchs, with the sole exception of Rachel, whose sacred sepulcher is near Bethlehem, also in the West Bank. Jericho and Beth-El are just two other cities of Jewish historical importance there. Countless Jewish holy places are in Judea and Samaria, much of which is also occupied territory today.

Jewish settlements have grown in the West Bank, as some Israelis see themselves as following in the footsteps of their Zionist forbears. They are establishing “facts on the ground,” cities and neighborhoods, suburbs and towns, which they hope will be permanent fixtures on holy land.

Can Israel be expected to abandon land that is truly sacred, where hundreds of thousands of Jewish people now have their homes, for the uncertain hope of peace?

In order to examine this question, we must first understand why Prime Minister Sharon and his government ultimately decided to surrender land at all. Sharon understands reality, and especially two great dangers facing Israel today.

If Israel did not disengage from at least some occupied territory, then Jews would face the very real possibility of being a minority in the land ruled by the Jewish State. Then, Israel would be faced with a Sophie’s choice: It would have to choose between abandoning democracy, on the one hand, and ceasing to be a Jewish State, on the other. Neither choice is acceptable. Israel would have to shed land, if it would maintain a Jewish majority. Merely abandoning Gaza offers Israel additional decades before the Arabs population would eclipse Jewish numbers.

The second reality was perhaps more important to the Prime Minister, well known for having been a great General in his younger years. Defending the tiny Jewish minority in Gaza, surrounded by the massive Palestinian majority, had become increasingly costly to Israel. While Gaza remains dangerous, protecting Israelis from Palestinian terrorists there requires far fewer military resources, if no Israelis are living inside Gaza. Closer to home, Sharon began to agree with those Israeli parents who could not accept the deaths of their children for the cause of defending settlers in Gaza.

Perhaps the Prime Minister remembered Abraham, who left the Holy Land in order to survive a famine. Like Abraham before him, Ariel Sharon chose life over land, at least in the case of Gaza and a few settlements in the northern West Bank. Relinquishing territory is part of an overall package that includes the separation barriers, targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders and offering real hope to the Palestinian people. Some aspects of the strategy seem immoral, but even targeted assassinations are defensible as a last resort, when they are the only way to save countless lives.

One factor that unfortunately does not seem to concern Primer Minister Sharon is the human dignity of the Palestinians living in territories ruled by Israel. The Palestinians’ welfare should concern every Jew. Our Torah commands us to seek the welfare of the foreigner who dwells in our midst, as we recall that we were strangers in the Land of Egypt. No, Israel did not cause the occupation. Yes, Palestinian leadership and Arab governments have worsened their suffering. They have used these people as pawns, confining them to squalid refugee camps for almost six decades. Palestinian and other Arab leaders have passed up countless opportunities to end the suffering of their own people. And emphatically no, the occupation is no excuse for terror. Moreover, Palestinian and most surrounding Arab leadership has been consistently corrupt, with leaders lining their own pockets instead of helping their own people. The popularity of terrorist groups like Hamas, in fact, can be traced to those organizations’ willingness to care for their people. However cynical their motivation, Hamas offers the people hope, while the Palestinian Authority leadership has generally offered nothing.

The realities of life for Palestinians are devastating: Israeli soldiers, whom they understandably regard as foreign invaders, patrol their villages. Palestinians do not benefit as they could from the generally strong Israeli economy. Worse, they are most often unable to visit their family and friends in Israel proper, or to receive visits from them. They wait in unbearably long lines, every day resembling the highway evacuation from Hurricane Rita, when they seek to enter Israel for fully legitimate purposes. They occasionally face the destruction of their homes, not only when they have harbored terrorists, but also when a Jewish settlement is slated for the place where their houses sit.

And what happens to the soul of the people, to the ordinary Israeli boys and girls, as they call themselves, young soldiers, ordered to implement these policies?

How long can Israel continue to occupy the land of people who are not her citizens? Unlike Arabs living in Israel proper, those in the occupied territories do not have the right to vote in Israeli national elections. If the occupation becomes increasingly permanent, and full citizenship rights are not granted to the Arabs living under Israeli control, will democracy not have been abandoned?

Is that holy land worth the spilling of blood, to defend the settlers who have made their homes there?

5766 will not be the year for wholesale abandonment of the West Bank, nor should it be. This will be a year for living with what I believe will be the positive results of the Gaza disengagement. This will be the year of Israeli elections, almost certainly to end in the reelection of Prime Minister Sharon, either as leader of his Likud Party, or as the leader of a new centrist coalition, founded for the sole purpose of pursuing the particular road to peace on which the Israeli government has embarked.

May 5766 be the year that produces a Palestinian leadership that ends corruption, sees to the needs of its own people, truly confronts terrorism in its own territory and becomes a reliable partner for negotiations.

May 5766 be the year that produces in the Israeli people an even greater acknowledgement that the occupation must end, if the Jewish State is to survive as a democracy with a clear and lasting Jewish character and majority.

We do sit in the west, but may 5766 be the year when, like the medieval poet, our hearts beat in the east. May we learn ever more about Israel’s past and present. Let us then commit ourselves to becoming outspoken partners for Israel’s glorious future: a democratic Jewish State, living in security, at peace with her neighbors, and with her own Palestinian people.

May 5766 be the year that we, and all Jews everywhere, support Israel, choosing life over land.

Amen.