The Rabbi Reports from Israel

Sermon delivered November 3, 2006, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Two years ago, at this season, I was privileged to travel to Israel with our Jewish Federation of San Antonio. Our mission filled a bus, as a diverse and intensely interesting group of folks toured the Jewish State together. I had hoped to join another Federation Israel mission this fall. Nobody organizes a deeper, more meaningful Israel experience for adults than our Federation Director, Mark Freedman. Unfortunately, this year, our Mission had to be cancelled because of lack of registration.

For reasons I explained on Rosh Hashanah Eve, I remained determined to go to Israel this fall. For me, going to Israel at this time was a mitzvah, a religious obligation. I needed to stand with Israel, in Israel, in the wake of the reign of rockets that fell upon northern Israel in July and August.

When the Mission was cancelled, I asked Toni if she would go to Israel with me. On the Mission, I would have been away ten days. However, if Toni and I were going to leave Robert and Daniel in San Antonio, we would have to make a much shorter trip. We would be away six days, spending four nights in Israel and two on airplanes. Some called us meshuggah for flying so far for such a short time. One friend quipped: “Only diplomats do that!”

Nevertheless, Toni and I enjoyed a very special visit to Israel this past week.

On our own “mission,” if you will, Toni’s and my most important purpose was to be with our family in Shorashim, in the Galilee, right in the middle of the area that was under constant bombardment this summer. Toni’s brother and sister-in-law live there. Their three young adult daughters were home for our visit, two from the Army. We spent our first two and a half days with the family, and then almost two days in Jerusalem. Simply being with family – our own family, and the family of the Jewish people in Israel – in the wake of war, that was Toni’s and my mission in Israel.

Our secondary purpose, fulfilled in the extreme, was to support the Israeli economy. My new cuff-links, made by our favorite Israeli jeweler, are a tiny representation of what I would have considered vile and imprudent spending anywhere else. Toni was quite surprised by my willingness to buy things, and she took full advantage.

Finally, I was very eager to see Israel for myself, at this juncture in the history of the Jewish State. I wanted to be able to report to you, the congregation of Temple Beth-El, on the welfare of Israel in the fall of 2006.

I’m pleased to report that Israel is quiet and normal this fall. Yes, the cabinet was realigned this week. Yes, we saw where bombs had fallen, where destruction had been wrought in northern Israel. Nevertheless, neither the government nor the war, neither the peace process nor politics, seems to be at the forefront of Israeli minds today.

During the War, Thomas Friedman wrote a column, in which he contrasted the states of mind of Israelis and Islamist extremists prior to the outbreak of hostilities. Friedman said that, on the eve of the war, while Hezbollah was obsessed with the destruction of Israel, Israelis had been focused on an exciting economic success. Warren Buffett, our nation’s most famous capitalist/philanthropist, had, for the very first time, bought controlling interest in a non-American company, and he did so in Israel. One might say that Israelis were focused on the fulfillment of the Zionist dream: to be a normal people, with our own land, achieving mundane successes in freedom.

One could argue that this Israeli passion for happy normalcy was partially responsible for the challenges Israel encountered in prosecuting the war. Passion is surely an advantage. On the other hand, the Israeli attitude has doubtless helped Israel survive this past summer’s war, strikingly returning to normal, almost immediately.

Normalcy could be seen everywhere. My brother-in-law Todd strove mightily to show me the war’s devastation, but mostly in vain. We did see the burned out portion of a field, perhaps 500 yards from the family home. When Todd pointed out a building, which had lost several windows, the damage was visible only because the new windows have a different tint, probably temporary. Todd reported that, when a highway was damaged by a rocket, road crews were on the scene almost immediately. Highways were almost never closed, and if they were, the closure was brief. Restoring normalcy was and remains a very high priority, splendidly achieved.

On Saturday, we had dinner in Kiryat Shmonah. This town sits on the Lebanese border, and it suffered the war’s worst devastation, with hundreds of rockets falling there, often scores in a day. But I have been to Kiryat Shmonah in the past. The only difference I could discern last weekend was in the remarkable advances in modernization there. Years ago, I would never have imagined eating good sushi in Kiryat Shmonah!

The Israeli economy continues to thrive. To be sure, the war put a dent in the tourist industry. And yet, when we were in Jerusalem, we noticed that hotels and restaurants were bustling. The stores weren’t doing badly either, and not just thanks to Toni and me. On Sunday and Monday alone, we encountered Jewish community solidarity missions from San Francisco, Omaha, Jacksonville, and Greensboro. Toni and I felt a bit ashamed that San Antonio wasn’t among them.

Despite these positive signs, the tourist industry, which was finally getting back to pre-2000 levels before the war, will probably struggle for a little while longer. Nevertheless, progress continues in high tech, in biomedical fields, and in manufacturing. During a horrendous delay at Ben Gurion airport, Toni and I struck up a wonderful acquaintance with a man from Phoenix. Craig is an International Executive with Intel, which has one of its largest chip manufacturing installations in Israel.

Two years ago, everywhere I went, I saw political signs. No election was in progress, but our group saw literally hundreds of billboards and thousands of bumper stickers and signs on the side of the road, proclaiming support for, or opposition to, disengagement from the Gaza Strip. I expected to see similar numbers of signs this time. I had read that the current government is most unpopular, that Israelis are angry about the conduct of the war this past summer.

I did not, however, see one sign calling for the ouster of the Minister of Defense, even though he is apparently most unpopular even in his own Labor Party. I saw less than one handful of signs referring to the addition of a far-right party to the governing coalition. I didn’t even see the Israeli equivalent of a “support our troops” sticker, though a few stores have posted discounts for soldiers, which I don’t recall from the past.

Perhaps the lack of political activism betrays a degree of fatalism. Israelis could continue to argue about whether and how to make peace with the Palestinians, but many Israelis understandably don’t believe that would make a difference. The extremist element controlling much of the Muslim world is a grim danger to the entire western world, and Israeli is the front line.

But maybe the absence of partisan ferment means something else more important, represented not by what was absent, but by what was present.

What I did see, hand painted in blue – on bus stop shelters, on roadside walls and barriers, on signs; in Tel Aviv, in the north, and in Jerusalem; in what appeared to be the same handwriting everywhere – these three words: Am Yisrael Hai, the people of Israel lives.

The words bespeak defiance: Iran is developing nuclear weapons, while its President speaks of his desire to wipe out the Jewish State and its people. Nevertheless, the people of Israel lives.

The words represent the drive for normalcy: Israel endured more than a month of violent bombardment in the north, wrought by extremist allies of Iran. Nevertheless, the people of Israel live as they did before the war.

The words represent a commitment to the future: Some will always seek to wipe Israel off the map. Nevertheless, the people of Israel will continue to live.

Am Yisrael Hai, the people of Israel lives.