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November 29, 1947/2017 – 50 Years

by Rabbi James Prosnit

November 29, 1947/2017 –50 years, Are we more partitioned than ever?

When Wendy and I lived in Israel during my first year in Rabbinic school we lived next to a street in Jerusalem named caf tet November. Caf tet would be the Hebrew term for the number 29. At the time I had no idea why a street would be called November 29th St.  29th St., yes – but November 29th St.!  What was that all about!

I came to learn that it was so called, because on the 29th of November in the year 1947 the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to create two states in Palestine, one Jewish and one Arab. If you’re doing the math that would mean that this past week marked the 70th anniversary of that historic UN vote and as many of you know, the former history teacher in me likes to acknowledge such round anniversaries.

70 years ago, Jews in Palestine and around the world danced in the streets upon hearing of the UN’s decision. Arabs in Palestine rioted. David Ben Gurion, who had reluctantly supported the partition agreement as the best the Jewish people could hope for at that juncture, warned his aides that blood would soon flow. The War for Independence became imminent.

He was right, of course, and the conflict with Palestinians and some of Israel’s Arab neighbors has not ceased from that day to this. Even Ben Gurion could not have foreseen that 70 years after the vote, issues of partition and division would remain at the top of the agenda.

Interestingly, the news media reported earlier this month that the Trump administration is preparing a US plan to resolve the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians, or at least restart the peace process. We certainly wish them well even as we are sobered to the many failures up till now. 

In 2017 as in 1947, most Middle East experts agree that the terms will undoubtedly include some sort of territorial compromise; some sort of partition —  the  “two states for two peoples” formula endorsed by the UN 70 years ago will once more be on the table.

Complicating the matter, however, are divisions in Israeli society that have become even more complicated over the ensuing years. Israeli President (not PM Netanyahu), but President Reuven Rivlin’s addressed the annual assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America two weeks ago, where he forcefully articulated his conviction that Israeli society is changing “from a society made up of a clear Zionist majority” to one with  four ‘tribes’: Secular Jews, national-religious Jews, hareidim, and Arab citizens of Israel. Each maintain separate school systems, live in separate towns, are informed by different media, and “hold different ideas about Israel and its values.” About 50 percent of the first-graders in Israeli schools this fall are Arab or hareidi and these groups as Rivlin says, “do not necessarily sing Hatikva.” He called this a demographic “earthquake.”

How can one have a Jewish state in which a quarter of the citizenry is not Jewish and rejects that definition of Israel through and through, and another quarter that is Jewish (the Hareidi), but in the name of Judaism, rejects the legitimacy of the State and its institutions? Neither group will fly the Israeli flag or celebrate Israeli Independence Day.

And also of great concern is that in the main none of the four groups President Rivlin mentioned teaches its children to understand and respect the other sectors.

70 years after partition and in the spring 70 years after independence we Jews are in a terrible bind. 

But in a blog post this week, Arnie Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theologiocal Seminary had a reaction to Rivlin’s sobering remarks. He stated, “while it is not for Diaspora Jews like us to tell Israelis how to escape the bind, North American Jews—as a “fifth tribe” have something to offer. They can support Israel as being both a democratic and Jewish state and join in the many initiatives that bring Israeli Jews together with one another and with Palestinian Israelis. We can expose more Israelis to the varieties of Judaism that have developed in North America in recent decades, in the face of assimilation and signs of growing anti-Semitism. And we can work harder to understand—and play a greater part in—the development of new forms of Judaism and Jewishness in Israel, which as a sovereign state offers possibilities for Jewish fulfillment unavailable outside the borders of the Land.”

Here let me put in a plug for our guest speaker on Monday night Anat Hoffman – who has combined some of her Israeli born chutzpah – with some values she took back from her years in the states and is an example of one making a difference in the land. I urge you to be present to hear her.

We Jews have long wrestled with challenging aspects of our experience. We are the heirs of a tradition that seeks truth and not just self interest.

This week’s Torah, tells of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious assailant – but in the end, Jacob prevails. There is much to worry about on this 70th anniversary—but things to celebrate as well.

Incumbent on us is the commitment to stay engaged.