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Again, A Summer of War

by Rabbi James Prosnit
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5775

Death silenced a number of prominent voices this past year, and for me significant on the list was Leonard Fein the social activist, founder and long-time editor of Moment magazine and inspiration behind Mazon, a Jewish response to world-wide hunger that to this very day ensures food and nutrition for thousands around the world. He was also a progressive Zionist and Ohavei Yisrael, lover of Israel.  There was a time early in my rabbinate when Wendy quipped, “what would you do without Leonard Fein it seems that you quote him in just about every other sermon you deliver.”

So in honor and in memory of Leonard or Laibel Fein as he was known to many, let me dedicate these words to him and begin with a story he told in a book he wrote entitled Where are We: The Inner Life of American Jews. It’s his fantasy version of the origins of Zionism.  He begins:

The year was 1860 or maybe it was 1870.  The town was Minsk – or possibly it was Pinsk.  Wherever, whenever, there was a group of Jews who would get together for some good talk.

And what did they talk about? Well it was the same conversation all the time. They spoke of Jerusalem.  They imagined the city – its climate its culture – every aspect of its environment. They did this with great detail and delight.

Except of course, for one skeptic in the group, Beryl who every once and while would say, “Can’t we please, just this once change the topic conversation.  If we’re really serious about Jerusalem we should move there – and see what it really is like. Enough of all this talk.”

The others respond, “Beryl, don’t be naïve.  Life here in Minsk (or Pinsk) is much easier, much safer.  Think of how hard it would be for us to start all over living there.”  Beryl would drop his suggestion for a short time and join in the conversation.

Now the group of Jews was worldly, sophisticated group – and one way that you knew that in 1860 was the fact that they had non-Jewish friends.  And from time to time their non-Jewish friends would join in the conversation.

One evening as their guests were leaving, one of the Jews asked one of the gentiles, “What do people like you think of people like us?”  And after responding with gracious praise the non-Jew did admit that there was one problem. He said, “With all due respect, your people seem to believe that you’re morally superior to everyone else.  Now I don’t think you’re any worse than average, but your moral conceit is frightfully annoying.”

To their credit the Jews did not deny the accusation, but sought instead to explain it.

And they explained it by way of example. They said, “we do indeed think we are your moral better and the reason we do — is that Jews don’t hunt! And that make us better than you.”

Their guests laughed and stormed at them. “You silly, trivial people – of course you don’t hunt! We don’t permit you to own guns.”

When the guests left Beryl’s friends turned to him and said, “Tomorrow we pack, then we go up to the land, to Jerusalem where we shall prove that even with guns we will not become hunters.”

Sadly, we know it was an unrealistic, naïve dream of Beryl and his Zionist friends.  And as Ari Shavit points out in his book My Promised Land that many of us read and discussed this past year;  Beryl and the boys were also somewhat blind to the inhabitants of the land to which they were returning.   Still for a long time we lived on the images of the first kibbutzniks tilling the orange groves and then the battered Holocaust refugees making the desert bloom.  We were inspired when the citizen soldiers prevailed during the War of Independence and then again, during the Six Day War.  And though she probably never said it, we put a quote into Golda’s mouth, “I can forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, I can never forgive them for forcing us to kill theirs.”

And I do believe that for a long time Israel tried to keep its moral chutzpah intact.  But in a part of the world that condemns your existence and begrudges just about everything you do we have come to understand that you cannot live on milk and honey dreams for ever.  Once again, this summer we saw how hard it is to exist in an unstable and hostile region and how challenging it is to live up to the moral standards you may even have set for yourselves.

I assume that for you like for me, there were many, many conversations this past summer in which we spoke of the war in Gaza. We mourned the murders of four teenage boys –three yeshiva students and one Palestinian; we marveled at the technological genius behind the iron dome that protected so many Israelis from indiscriminate rocket fire; we shuddered at the reality of a sophisticated network of tunnels designed not for smuggling goods but for kidnapping and bringing terror inside Israel’s borders; and we expressed sadness at the death of Israeli soldiers and a tremendous number of Palestinians.

Many of us found it perplexing when charges of disproportionality were leveled against Israel – by both Jewish and non-Jewish friends; even as we tried to remind those friends that it was only disproportional because Hamas was not capable of inflicting the death and destruction it sought.  Their foundational principle remains the destruction of Israel and their intention to unleash terror on a civilian population was clear from the start. We said, “thank God the protective Iron Dome prevented more proportionality” and we laid the higher numbers of causalities at the door of those who fired weapons from schools, mosques and apartment houses. At the same time in keeping with my remarks from yesterday evening, we couldn’t ignore a sense of empathy for the nightmare that must be Gaza.  When cease fires came and went and now have come again, there was relief for the Jews — and Arabs.

Some of us also winced at the treatment of Israel in the media.  Images of suffering Palestinians were lead stories week after week, while far more grievous actions and horrors in other parts of the world were largely ignored. A double standard does exist, but I have long thought that we Jews have done a lot to foster that double standard and in our heart of hearts we are proud of it.  After our long, grievous and at times tortuous experience a position of power, a strong army with advanced weaponry is not unappealing.   But somehow many of us still have come to expect that our use of power be more compassionate than the next guy.  We are called to be a moral light to the nations and as a result know the infliction of pain even in warfare is not a Jewish attribute.  In Leonard Fein’s description, “we would rather live by our wits than by our weapons; we would love to live a vegetarian dream and never have to enter the world of the carnivores.”

Jewish tradition in a talmudic discussion understands the difference between two types of wars.  The milchemet resheet and the milchemet mitzvah.  The former was a discretionary war one entered with very strict parameters because it was to expand boundaries and to build up the prestige of the ancient kingship. This in ancient days was a legitimate reason to go to war, but the criteria as to how the war was fought were very specific and there were significant limitations on how it was to be waged. The milchemet mitzvah was different.  It was literally a commanded war, a war to defend oneself against mortal enemies; a war of national self-defense.

Long standing doves in Israel and throughout the Diaspora, me included have come to understand that the war in Gaza was necessary and justified.

To those of you who are about to say ‘Rabbi, I told you so!” — No I don’t regret past sermons where I have criticized Israel’s settlement building, encouraged territorial compromise and spoken of a two state solution. To me reflective criticism both inside Israel and without has always been done with an eye toward ensuring a secure Israeli future. Yes I hoped that the rejectionist elements in the Arab world would soften and transform a view that the Middle East is a place for Arabs only.  But recent reality, the savagery of the Islamic State or ISIS and the very real threat of a nuclear Iran has turned me four square behind Israel’s protective mission.

In an article this summer in the Times David Brooks put the Israeli – Palestinian conflict into a more global context. He writes, “The violence between Israel and Hamas, …, may look superficially like past campaigns, but the surrounding context is transformed. …Big regional convulsions are driving events, including the conflict in Gaza. … Make no mistake, Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become just a stage on which the regional clashes in the Arab world are being expressed…. They take shots at Israel … but the rivalry is between Arab authoritarians and Islamists… Hamas is sending rockets at Tel Aviv, while aiming in essence at Cairo.”

In this context the conflict is no longer the age old divide of how to share the limited land and how to bring about some form of mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestinians.  The context is how to respond to terrorist organizations that are trained, organized, funded and equipped like armies and aimed not just at Israel, but at values seen as antithetical to an extreme Islamic world view. Israeli’s rightfully worry about who truly speaks on behalf of the Palestinian people and wonder what they really want. Are there partners for peace or is the voice represented by this radical form of Islam spreading through the neighborhood.

Complex, some would say existential questions.   This may not be the way we would have chosen to enter the year 5775, but we Jews have never chosen the circumstances we have confronted throughout our history. We simply continue to be hopeful, embracing the belief that every day provides an opportunity for change and a departure from the events that surround us.

We were sobered by the anti-Semitic incidents that took place throughout Europe this summer and reassured by Angela Merkel’s appearance just last week standing beside Jews and non-Jews at a rally in Berlin.  She said, “It is a monstrous scandal that people in Germany today are being abused if they are somehow recognizable as Jews or if they stand up for the state of Israel. I will not accept that and we will not accept that. … It’s our national and civic duty to fight anti-Semitism. … Anyone who hits someone wearing a skullcap is hitting us all. Anyone who damages a Jewish gravestone is disgracing our culture. Anyone who attacks a synagogue is attacking the foundations of our free society.”

Of course we wish there were more voices throughout Europe saying these things.  I was especially heartened that she drew no distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.  Under the veil of legitimate political commentary, many have sought to draw a distinction between the two.  But Merkel’s pointed remarks make it clear that the line between hatred of Israel and that for Jews in general, has long since been erased.  That does not meant that Jews and non Jews cannot have legitimate critiques of policies of a particular government or even how the IDF wages war.

Goodness knows I have and continue to have many myself and we all know that the most vibrant disagreements take place among Israelis themselves.  But to suggest that there is no eternal linkage between land and people, between our faith and a Jewish State is to fail to grasp a core understanding of something basic to the Jewish experience.  God, Torah and Israel is our version of the trinity – and to lose one piece is to lose something vital to the whole.

Many of you have heard me speak before of my love for Israel and for my feelings of being home as soon as I step off the plane at Ben Gurion airport.  I won’t replay that sermon now, other than to say, yes Israel remains an ingathering and haven for the persecuted and distressed Jews of the world.  When Diaspora life threatens these days we have Israel.

But Israel is also a beacon to those who wish to add meaning and spiritual content to their lives.  Even in the midst of the war a number of our High School students experience this this past summer.

You can be ripped off by a rude cab driver, perplexed by the control of the ultra religious over some areas of life and concerned with the treatment of its Arab citizens – but on a Friday afternoon as light sparkles off the Jerusalem stone and you hear the call of the muezzin summoning Muslims to pray, watch Christian pilgrims walk along the via Delarosa, the path Jesus took with his cross and see Jews of all colors and dress scurrying to the Western Wall for Kabbalat Shabbat – you know this is a unique and vital place.

But there is something else vital and that is the continuous search for peace.  Daniel Gordis who in some respects has taken the place of Leonard Fein for me in terms of wise thinking about Israel writes, “I was raised by my tradition to “seek peace and pursue it.” As distinct from other commandments which we are only obligated to fulfill when it is possible to do so, in the case of peace, we are mandated to pursue it, to work to shape reality… peace is not merely a value but a need which I am obligated not merely to support , but something whose absence I must mourn….”

He bemoans the reality that these days he is more alone than ever in understanding this value.  “Everyone wants peace, but fewer are pursuing it. I was raised in an Israel” he writes,  “whose culture was grounded on this aspiration. ..We used to sing about peace, about the end of war and how next year would finally be dramatically different.  We have stopped singing these songs, We are not writing new ones.”

But unlike Fein’s friends from Minsk or Pinsk, Gordis is not naïve.  “I am obligated to pursue peace, but I am not obligated to make peace….. it is critical that we create space for all of us who know that despite our commitment to peace, there is a time for peace and a time for war.  That sometimes, war, with all of its destruction, is not merely an instrument of survival, but also of peace itself.

As we enter the New Year, we are commanded to be honest about whom we are, but at the same time, hopeful about whom we can become.  One of my hopes is that we as a congregation never lose sight of that inextricable link between ourselves and the land and people of Israel. Israel is central to our faith, a focus of our prayer and an expression of our yearning.  I think we need to work harder in our efforts to support and in our commitment to understand that powerful bond and that crucial connection.

This is not an Israel right or wrong view; or even a left wing or right wing view.  I have long contended that our engagement will be more meaningful if we discuss Israel without demonizing those who hold a different position, or without being so entrenched into our own thinking that we fail to listen to the views of others.

Certainly many in a younger generation are grappling mightily with what it means to support a Jewish State.  Some have checked out completely. Listening to them, encouraging a form of critical Zionism, may be a better path to engagement than the knee jerk Zionism of the past. A bit of hesbon hanefesh – personal soul searching is warranted at this time of year regarding our views and visions of Israel.

I hope, even for those of us who choose to live here, that the New Year finds us educating ourselves in every way, increasing our philanthropy and making plans to visit Israel so we can respond with renewed determination and to support her vitality and security.  (A trip is being planned for next winter).

To love Israel is to stand with it in good times and in bad times.  To love Israel is to worry about its safety and to work to protect it.  To love Israel is to believe in and work for a different tomorrow.  To love Israel is to believe that peace is possible.

Fein, Leonard, Where Are We: The Inner Life of American Jews, Harper and Row, New York, 198, p. xiii

Brooks, David, No war Is an Island, New York Times, July 28, 2014

Merkel, Angela, quoted in Commentary blog by Jonathan Tobin

Gordis, Donniel, To Be a Peaceaholic