Seeing Israel Through Mayor Castro’s Eyes

Sermon delivered August 12, 2011

by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

In May, I received an exciting telephone call from Robbie Greenblum, Chief of Staff to Mayor Julian Castro.  The Mayor had never been to Israel, and he was eager to go.  He wanted a small group to accompany him.  The visit would be business-oriented, as the delegation would establish links that would hopefully bring Israeli investment to San Antonio and build partnerships between the two “lone star states.”  The Mayor’s visit would be sponsored by our Jewish Federation, which would organize the program with the Israeli consulate in Houston.  Rabbi Chaim Block would also participate, giving us the opportunity to bring San Antonio’s Jewish religious harmony to a place where Reform and ultra-Orthodox Jews do not mix.
I have long admired our Mayor.  He has been kind enough to join us at Temple for important occasions.  He is a man of vision and integrity; a source of great hope for our city’s future.  I very much wanted to be part of the group that would share Israel with Mayor Castro.

Last week, we read from the Torah about the ancient Israelites, approaching the Promised Land after having left Egyptian bondage.  The people come to Moses and ask that a delegation be sent to scout out the land:  Is the land good?  Is it beset with enemies too great to conquer?  The spies bring back a mixed report:  The land does flow with milk and honey, but the people there are giants.  The Israelites are disheartened. They refuse to follow God’s command, to enter the land of our people.

As I set out for Israel with Mayor Castro and a delegation of 25 business and community leaders, I wondered:  What kind of report would this group of scouts bring back to San Antonio?  Would our Mayor and these distinguished fellow travelers see how good the Land of Israel can be?  Would they conclude that Israel’s troubles are too great, that there is little hope?  The Jewish State is constantly in the news, and not all of that news is good.  Too often, Israel is made out to be an oppressor, which is a highly selective, biased reflection of reality.  Our Mayor would expect to see Israel as it really is, as well he should.  At the same time, I hoped he would come away with a picture of the Jewish State as a thriving democracy, struggling to find peace and security in a hostile geopolitical neighborhood.

I need not have worried.  Israel sells itself.  Our Mayor and his partners, Jewish and otherwise, are an intelligent and perceptive group of people.  I was privileged to see Israel through Mayor Castro’s eyes.

And what did our Mayor see?

News reports have led the world to imagine Israel to be a war-torn country.  Indeed, Israel does face significant challenges, internal and external, and Mayor Castro was shown the evidence.  Our group went to the Golan Heights, and stood where Syrian sharpshooters perched for 19 years, from 1948 to 1967, shooting down on the Israeli agricultural communities below.  We heard the story of massive loss of life in the heroic battle to take the Golan in 1967.  We walked through the bunkers from which the Syrians picked off scores of Israeli commandos who braved adverse conditions to bring peace to the valley.  We stood on a perch in Metulla, on Israel’s extreme northeast border, surrounded by hostile territory on three sides.  With the naked eye, we could see the locations of offensive munitions placed by Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist group that rules Lebanon these days.

All the same, one after another of the first-time travelers to Israel in our group mentioned that they were overwhelmed by the peace they experienced in the Holy Land.  Any apprehension they had about traveling to a reputedly dangerous land melted away as soon as they began to interact with Israel and Israelis.  Armed guards do not roam the streets.  Guns are not evidently ubiquitous.  The Israelis we met were friendly and accommodating, eager to meet us, to learn from our city and to share Israel’s successes.

Torah teaches that the Land flows with milk and honey.  Perhaps that is meant to be taken literally, but I would interpret those words as poetry.  Israel offers milk, which represents basic sustenance.  Torah and the teachings of three great monotheistic religions emanate from Israel, together with a Jewish spiritual and cultural renaissance that nurtures our people everywhere and all humankind.  And Israel offers honey, which represents sweetness.  The love of the people for the land, and the way that the land has received a people dispersed and exiled for 2000 years, is a love that is infectious, touching all who visit.

Our first time visitors repeatedly emphasized that they did not find the dangerous, war-torn land they expected.  They found instead a land flowing with milk and honey.

But make no mistake: Mayor Castro and the delegation were not treated to Israel through the “rose colored glasses” alleged by an ignorant Express-News guest columnist. Our Mayor and his partners were shown the truth, and they can handle the truth.  Our group heard from speakers across the political spectrum.  Israel faces difficult challenges.  Even with increasing security in recent years, life in Israel can be tough.  Israelis argue over how and whether to come to agreement with the Palestinians.  The land controlled by Israel will not have a Jewish majority forever, so the challenge is demographic.

Moreover, fault lines within Israeli society continue to challenge the Jewish state.  The Israeli Declaration of Independence calls for full equal rights for the Arab citizens who make up 20 per cent of Israel, apart from Occupied Territories.  But what is really equal for Arabs in a Jewish State?  Also, many mainstream Israelis are fed up with ultra-Orthodox Jews, some of whom do not serve in the military and do not work, but are paid by the government to study in yeshiva.

One evening, a strident left-wing columnist used harsh, caustic words to describe these issues facing his nation.  Our delegation was tense, or at least the Jews in the group were.  While I generally agreed with the speaker’s views, his tone was disturbing.  I was concerned:  Did our non-Jewish first time visitors know enough about Israel to put this tirade into context?  Would they be turned off to the Jewish State?  I need not have worried.  After the speaker left, I was privileged to discuss the matter with three thoughtful participants in the Mayor’s Mission, Assistant City Manager Pat DiGiovanni; Dr. Mauli Agrawal, Chairman of the Engineering Department at UTSA; and Chris Eugster, Chief Sustainability Officer for CPS Energy.  All three were invigorated by the rigor of the program, and none was disillusioned.  Dr. Agrawal clearly articulated the take-away message from the evening:  Israel is a robust democracy.  Like in America, people who love their country can disagree viciously about what is best for the nation.  Israel is fortunate to have bright, cogent thinkers to debate the critical issues.

Most of the time and energy of the Mission was not dedicated to politics.  Instead, we focused on business.  As often as I have traveled to Israel over the last 35 years, this Mission gave me the opportunity to learn something new about the Jewish State.  In many ways, the Mayor’s Mission was a visit to “Start-Up Nation,” the title of a book by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, which I will be reviewing here at Temple on the 24th.  Start-Up Nation describes Israel as home to the world’s most start-up businesses per capita, and explains how Israel has become such an economic power house.

From the earliest days of his tenure two years ago, Mayor Castro has put tremendous emphasis on clean energy technologies.  The Mayor’s vision includes transformative initiatives at CPS Energy and at SAWS, while also multiplying the number of renewable energy jobs in San Antonio.  Israel is a pioneer in renewable energy and conservation strategies, and in building business and growing jobs in those high-paying sectors.  Solar powered water heaters are on every rooftop.  Low-volume toilets are the norm.  We visited an enormous desalination plant.  Israel will soon produce so much fresh water that it will be able to export clean water without further draining the Sea of Galilee and Jordan River.

San Antonio’s largest industry and strongest employer is the biomedical sector.  Israel is a world leader in that field, too.  When our group visited Hadassah Hospital, we met Dr. Roy Eldor, who would be moving to San Antonio with his wife Noga and their three children just weeks later, so that Dr. Eldor could take up a fellowship with Dr. Ralph DiFronzo at our own U.T. Health Science Center.  The senior diabetes researcher at Hadassah, Dr. Raz, made clear that San Antonio and Dr. DiFronzo are the world’s leaders in diabetes advances, Dr. Raz’s most important collaborators.  Dr. Eldor shared with us exciting developments in which he was already involved:  San Antonio-Israel partnerships that are sure to grow.  He is now on the ground in San Antonio, where he plans to work and learn for the next two years, having replaced his predecessor, an Israeli Arab physician who has returned to Israel now that his training is complete.

In short, Mayor Castro and the delegation saw an Israel that is on the cutting age of biomedical, green energy, and communication technologies.  We saw an Israel that is a great source of intellectual energy and business know-how, a generator of growth for Israel and its partners.

Thankfully, the 25 of us on the Mission were not the only San Antonio residents who were offered the opportunity to see Israel through the Mayor’s eyes.  The San Antonio Express-News provided a tremendous service by sending an outstanding reporter, Tracy Idell Hamilton.  Hamilton’s thorough and accurate reporting enabled San Antonio readers to visit Israel with our Mayor and his delegation, to see the Jewish State at its finest.

Israel – the Jewish State, indeed all the Jewish people – is enjoined to be or laggoyim, a light unto nations.  For five days in July, Israel shone brightly on San Antonio and upon America.  Our Mayor saw the light of living in the face of tremendous challenges.  Our Mayor witnessed the light of a vigorous democracy.  Our Mayor saw a modern nation moving forward with vision.

Our Mayor also met a great man of vision:  President Shimon Peres.  At age 88, Peres is the Head of State, an honored position not involved in day-to-day government affairs.  Still, Peres is active, and he shared his vision with our young mayor.  I was privileged to be among the half dozen of our delegation who were honored to sit in on their dialogue.  Late in his 9th decade on Earth, the President is focused on the future.  He talked about nano-technologies, even as he shared political lessons learned from David Ben-Gurion decades ago.  He counseled Mayor Castro, “Always dare.”  Our Mayor dreams and he envisions a better future for San Antonio.  We may be proud and prayerfully confident that his encounter with Israel will help Julian Castro dare to make San Antonio’s dreams become real.