Reflections on Israel

IYYUN FOR SHABBAT

DELIVERED MAY 14, 2021

RABBI JONATHAN BLAKE

WESTCHESTER REFORM TEMPLE, SCARSDALE, NY

Shabbat Shalom and welcome.  I want to begin these comments, intended to address the situation, and the escalating violence in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank with a little bit of what we call in Hebrew Hakarat Ha-Tov.  It’s a phrase that means “acknowledging the good,” and it’s a kind of spiritual discipline—to recognize that even in difficult circumstances, our Jewish tradition calls us to seek God and God’s blessing.  

So, first, let us acknowledge that today, exactly, marks the 73rd anniversary of independent Israeli statehood – that on May 14, 1948, in the late afternoon—also, just before Shabbat—Ben Gurion stood before an assembly of leaders and officials and proclaimed the birth of the State of Israel, a miraculous new reality for the Jewish People.  

Let us never take for granted that we are blessed to have an Israel, blessed to have a sovereign Jewish homeland.  This hasn’t always been the case.   History is replete with precarious times like these, when Jewish People feel endangered and vulnerable; but for most of Jewish history, we haven’t had an Israel, a place of refuge and safety for all Jews.  

The recently established fact of the Abraham Accords—marking the warming relations and thawing hostilities between Israel and a significant number of Arab nations—the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan—is another blessing worth acknowledging and even celebrating.  The relationship between Israel and these Arab nations is surely being tested now, but it’s still holding strong, which is noteworthy and deserving of our gratitude.  In fact, earlier this week, an Iftar celebration of break-the-fast marking the end of Ramadan was held in Washington, DC, and Israelis, Bahrainis, Emiratis, and Morrocans all showed up at the table.   And even as the rockets fly from Gaza into Israel, and violence consumes the streets of towns and cities in Israel with mixed Arab and Jewish population, these countries continue to sit at the same table with Israel.  This represents a meaningful and positive shift in the balance of power in the region, and in Israel not feeling abandoned as it defends itself.

So that’s our Hakarat Ha-Tov, our recognition of the good.

Now for the hard stuff.  

  • We are allowed to be upset at the factors that led Israelis and Palestinians into this horrific situation, for which there is blame to be shared on both sides.  Indeed, I believe that Judaism’s insistence on acknowledging the humanity of the person who disagrees with you—even your sworn enemy—requires that we acknowledge that both Israelis and Palestinians, and especially leaders of both peoples, should be held accountable for moral failures that caused the current conflict to escalate, when it likely could have been tempered.
    • To wit, the dangers of fanaticism have been on full display leading up to, and during, the present exchange of rockets and military counterstrikes, and in the mob violence between fanatical groups of Jews and Arabs in some of Israel’s mixed-population towns.  Again, the dangers of religious and nationalistic extremism have been brought to the fore by both Israelis and Palestinians, and, to my outrage, by certain religious and political leaders of both.
    • Moreover, you’d have to lack a heart, you’d have to lack a soul, not to be moved by what’s happening both in the streets in Israel and on the ground in Gaza.  It is absolutely heart-wrenching.  Let us never dehumanize even our enemies by characterizing them as “collateral damage.”  God’s children in Gaza are hurt and suffering and too many already have been killed.  God’s children in Israel are hurt and suffering and too many already have been killed; and, what’s more, an entire population feels terrorized by the current onslaught.

Which takes me to my main point tonight:

Now that more than 2,000 rockets have been fired into sovereign Israeli territory — fired indiscriminately on Jews, Muslims, Christians, and on plenty of people who don’t care about religion, all of them, together, the citizens of Israel; now that Hamas has targeted Israeli homes, kibbutzim, schools, hospitals, densely populated cities, with Hamas’s singular, unchanging goal, which is to kill as many Israelis as possible, and to terrorize and traumatize those it cannot kill—then our calculus must change.  

Let me be perfectly clear.  You don’t fire thousands of rockets toward civilian targets—at Tel Aviv and Ashkelon and Jerusalem—if your goal is to seek justice for the provocations of Sheikh Jarrah or Al-Aqsa, much less if your goal is peace or two states for two peoples.  You don’t use foreign aid money that should have been spent on desperately needed humanitarian assistance toward the building up of an infrastructure of terror—building tunnels whose sole purpose is to convey militants into sovereign Israeli territory to carry out kidnappings and killings—if your objective is Palestinian self-determination and an end to the enterprise of settlements in the occupied West Bank, for example. We must remain clear-eyed and level-headed about what Hamas is after, which, as its own charter declares, is the destruction of the Jewish State.  And its rocket barrage can only be understood as a means toward that end.  Even if Hamas knows it cannot inflict a military defeat on Israel, it can demoralize a population, earn the sympathy of much of the world by calling attention to themselves as victims, portray Israel’s leaders as both callous and ineffectual, and, further, raise Hamas’s own stock among Palestinians, including in the West Bank where the Palestinian Authority, their political rivals, are increasingly seen as weak and ineffectual. 

And as for Hamas, it’s important to realize that they have already “won” in terms of accomplishing their short-term objectives:

  • They’ve demonstrated that they have the ability to send rockets into Israel’s capital.
  • They’ve reasserted their own power and relevance, and underscored the irrelevance/weakness of Fatah (the Palestinian Authority, or PA).

So now, Israel sees its own need to re-assert its deterrence capabilities by degrading Hamas’s abilities to inflict further damage.

Let us acknowledge with appreciation, as well, that the Biden administration has been very strong in supporting and defending Israel in this campagin, against intense pressure both internationally and domestically.  Biden and his team have been pushing back on pressures for Israel to “stand down”; and we can expect for these pressures—whether from countries like Norway, or Tunisia, or the UN, or from within the left flank of the Democratic Party—to continue. 

But invariably, this is how this conflict will end—be it in a matter of days, weeks, or more:

Hamas will launch a final barrage of rockets and declare victory.

Israel will declare that it has also achieved “victory,” at least by accomplishing its military objectives—to degrade Hamas’s ability to inflict damage.  And perhaps when both parties are nearing that point, they’ll be open to a cease-fire, probably one proposed by a foreign ally and supported by the United States.

That much is clear enough.

But how things “end” here in the US is a different matter:

  • We may not be fighting “on the ground” with weapons, but we American Jews are most certainly part of a fight over the narrative.
    • This is a fight between people who want to blunt America’s support for Israel and people who want to bolster it.
      • The first sign of trouble in Congress is when we see our friends going quiet, or “hedging” their bets.  Observe Andrew Yang, who, earlier this week spoke out strongly in support of Israel, and then bowed to pressure to walk his comments back.
  • Political activism is something that each of us, members of WRT, people who care about Israel and who care about our civic engagement, can flex, individually and collectively.  We have elected officials who need to hear from us now.
    • On that subject, please remember that our goal—whatever our political leanings or affiliations—should never be to vilify members of the “other” political party, but rather to shore up support for a pro-Israel Congress and a pro-Israel approach to foreign policy from our elected officials.
  • And finally:  above all, we need to remind ourselves that EMPATHY can co-exist with MORAL CLARITY, but that the two are not interchangeable with each other.  Our hearts can break for every single one of the Palestinians who have been killed, maimed, and who are suffering, and yet we still are able to understand why Israel cannot, from a moral standpoint, tolerate indiscriminate rocket attacks aimed at terrorizing, traumatizing, injuring and killing its citizens.

My friends, I want to leave you with what we call in Hebrew a nechemta, a word of comfort for these harrowing hours.  The following meditation was composed by my dear friend Lisa Grushcow, Rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El in Montreal.  She says so much of what’s in my heart right now, and I am grateful to share her words with you.

Reflections on Israel by Rabbi Lisa Grushcow

Friends, my heart is heavy.

Nothing I say here could – or should – influence what is happening in Israel and Gaza.

What I can say is this:

For friends and family running to bomb shelters, I am praying for your safety.

For those who have no bomb shelters to run to, I am praying for your safety too.

For progressive Jews outside Israel, feeling dismayed at some of the Israeli government actions which helped spark this flame, and also feeling betrayed by the anti-Semitism they are seeing all around them, I hear you and am here for you.

For Jews of all political stripes, we hold our breath together for the land that we love, knowing our destinies are intertwined.

For Muslim dialogue partners and friends, I know we are probably getting our news from very different places, and feeling very different emotions.

Whatever those differences, our work of building bridges goes on. 

May this time, which is usually one of celebration for both our faiths, help us hold onto hope. 

I am not trying to cover all my bases, or say everything that could be said. But I am privileged to have a wide range of people in this space, and I am grateful for all of you, especially in times like these.

Be strong and of good courage, friends.

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