Reflections After Israel’s Elections

Sermon given June 14, 1996, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Each year, Rabbi and Lynn Stahl, Toni and I attend a convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, our international organization of Reform rabbis, as have Rabbi and Helen Jacobson before us. Lynn and Toni attend many of the sessions with Rabbi Stahl and me, but for part of the time they attend special programs designed for rabbis’ spouses. During these meetings, I imagine, the rabbis’ spouses talk about their most important duty: reminding the rabbis to whom they are married that they are merely rabbis, not gods.

Actually, I think, most rabbis do not imagine that we are God, but rather that we are Moses, the first rabbi and the model for us all. I am forced to admit this to you tonight because I plan to open my sermon with an analogy in which I play the role of Moses.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses and the Children of Israel are nearing the Land of Israel. God tells Moses to send spies to scout out the Land and bring back a report. Earlier this week, I put Toni on a plane to Israel. My own personal spy isn’t coming home until next Wednesday, and yet here I am giving the report tonight. Moses at least had the decency to await his scouts’ return. I guess I’m no Moses, after all.

Moses’ spies reported that the Land was flowing with milk and honey, just as God had promised. They also saw giants called Anakites living in Israel. The spies claimed that the Israelites could never conquer these monsters.

The first reports that we received after Israel’s elections two weeks ago were similar to those of Moses’ spies. Our Internet news services and television networks informed us that the Israelis had rejected the peace process pursued by Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Many among us feared that the newly-elected Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, would steer Israel away from peace, and toward greater confrontation with Israel’s neighbors. He was portrayed as an Anakite, a giant who would destroy the peace that had already been achieved. The truth is far more complex.

Let us think back to that euphoric moment when the late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and P.L.O. Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn. Shimon Peres, then the Foreign Minister, was the Israeli architect of the agreement signed that day. The world was elated. Most Israelis were not. Oh yes, the majority of them were pleased, but not elated. Experience had taught them that bloodshed had not ended.

In the three years that have passed, Israeli public opinion has swayed back and forth. As extremist Palestinian terrorism continued, many Israelis wondered about the benefits of negotiations. Why, they asked, should Israel give up occupied lands, if the killing does not stop in return? Then, last Fall, an Israeli extremist who opposed the peace process assassinated Prime Minister Rabin. Public opinion turned in favor of preserving Rabin’s legacy. When terrorism again struck in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, though, the Israeli spirit was deeply wounded. The result was the almost evenly divided vote for Prime Minister two weeks ago. Nearly half of Israel’s population voted to continue the Rabin-Peres peace process, full steam ahead. Slightly more than fifty percent voted to take it more slowly.

I confess that I was personally horrified when I heard the results. Fifteen months ago, in Jerusalem, I sat in a room where Shimon Peres inspiringly described his vision of peace. Hours later, I heard Benjamin Netanyahu deride that peace with angry and divisive words. More recently, I was shocked and outraged by many of the statements made by Netanyahu and his supporters during the campaign. He said that he would not even meet with Arafat. His supporters suggested that he would cancel treaties already ratified.

To be sure, many in Netanyahu’s slim majority wish that the entire peace process would go away. It will not. The agreements signed on the White House lawn in 1993, and those sealed with the King of Jordan in the desert thereafter, were binding international agreements. Netanyahu might not have signed them, but he now admits that he can not abrogate them. They were executed by the legitimate, democratically government of Israel, ratified by the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and witnessed by the world.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s statements since the election have been almost uniformly responsible and moderate. Though he, like most Israelis, is very cautious about the peace process, he knows that there is no going back. The information scouts who told us to despair of Netanyahu’s election might have been wrong, and my own initial reaction too emotional. We can faithfully hope that Netanyahu is no Anakite, no destroying giant who will undo that which has already been achieved.

If there is a dangerous giant to be feared in the results of the recent elections, it is the success of the fundamentalist Orthodox parties. These Israeli Orthodox politicians are unlike our good friends in the San Antonio Orthodox Jewish community. They seek to impose their religious will upon the majority of Israeli Jews who are not Orthodox. Because of the structure of Israel’s government, they may have unprecedented power in the years ahead.

In Israel, the Knesset can vote the Prime Minister out of office. Prime Minister-elect Netanyahu’s party does not have a majority in the Knesset. In order for Netanyahu not to get voted out of office, he will have to make a coalition agreement with many smaller parties, probably including these Orthodox parties. He will have to give them some of what they want to keep them on his side.

As it stands, Orthodox authorities control all marriage and divorce among Jews in Israel. Although Christian and Islamic clergy can perform recognized weddings in Israel, Reform and Conservative rabbis can not. Only about a sixth of all Israelis voted for the Orthodox parties. We must urge the Prime Minister-elect to resist them. He must not restrict further the religious freedom of the majority of Israelis who are not Orthodox.

Moses’ spies had no faith. They failed to believe that God would fulfill the Divine promise to bring them safely into the Land. God, who had caused the ten plagues upon Egypt and divided the Red Sea for them, should certainly have been trusted to defeat the Anakites, no matter how giant they be.

Let us not be like those faithless spies as we consider this critical juncture in Israel’s history. We do have reason for hope. Let us remember that the 1978 Camp David Accords, bringing peace between Israel and Egypt, were negotiated by Menachem Begin, the right-wing spiritual father of Benjamin Netanyahu, not by Yitzchak Rabin or Shimon Peres. Let us affirm that the Israeli people have survived great trials in the history of the Jewish State, from economic hardships to wars threatening Israel’s very existence. Let us recall that Jews have long had religious differences, and yet managed to unite in times of greatest need.

The Israelites in the desert believed the faithless spies, and despaired of God’s saving power. Their punishment was forty years of wandering, during which their entire generation died. Actually, though, two of that generation were allowed to enter the promised Land. They were Joshua and Caleb. Of the twelve spies, they were the only two who believed that God would subdue the Anakites.

Like Joshua and Caleb, our hope is that God will be our partner when we confront the giants before us. Our faith is that God can use even very strange and war-like instruments to make peace. Our prayer is that Benjamin Netanyahu, with God’s help, will lead Israel into the promised Land of shalom.

Amen.