Many people have asked me why I don’t often speak about Israel. There are a lot of reasons that Israel is not the first topic I gravitate to when I begin planning my lessons on Shabbat. First of all, I don’t consider myself a political commentator. Cable Television and Talk Radio have full time commentators that are able to put their full time into examining and researching the nuances of international politics. They do a far better job of analysis than I can do. Second, Judaism is a vast and intricate way of living and Israel is only one part of it. I have to balance my time covering the ritual, historical, spiritual, moral, communal and private aspects of our faith. Israel is a part of this, but it isn’t the only part, so I split my time between them all.
But the biggest reason that I don’t often speak about Israel is because I know that when I do, I make a LOT of people angry with me. I don’t think it is wise to have my congregants come to synagogue to get angry at the Rabbi, so I don’t often venture into the realm of politics.
But I am going there today. This was a very interesting week for Israel, for the United States and for all the pundits and bloggers who comment on every blip in politics between these two countries. There was a bit of a spat last week. Vice President Biden went to Jerusalem. He went to show his support for Israel as indirect talks with the Palestinians was about to begin. But in the middle of his visit, the Interior Minister of Israel decided to announce that there would be 1600 new homes to be built in East Jerusalem. The announcement not only angered the Palestinians, it embarrassed the Vice President. Everyone got angry but as the week ended, our President called the whole thing just a “disagreement among friends”. But if you were reading the papers and listening to the news, one would have thought that we were about to break diplomatic relations with Israel.
The Right wingers here and in Israel saw this as another example of how the Obama Administration is trying to undercut Israel. The Left wingers saw this as another example of Israel snubbing the United States and preventing a Middle East peace agreement. Which one was right? In my mind, neither of them. While they all can point to a myriad of “proofs” that their side is correct, the truth is, as usual, somewhere in-between.
My opinion? Israeli politicians play a vicious kind of hardball that goes far beyond any right/left argument in this country. I have little doubt that the Shas and Yisrael Beytainu parties were looking for a way to embarrass Prime Minister Netanyahu. He needs them for his coalition and they could act with impunity to undercut any talks with the Palestinians and to promote the building of settlements. Now the Prime Minister can’t overturn the announcement without causing the government to fall. He can apologize but can’t give the US a freeze on building in East Jerusalem. The US will not send its envoy, George Mitchell, to Israel; the Palestinians will boycott even indirect talks and the world gets a chance to condemn Israel one more time. Only it gets scarier. This week, for the first time in quite a while, a rocket was fired from Gaza and it killed a Thai worker on a Kibbutz.
Hamas, yes Hamas has asked groups not to fire rockets. Now the Al-Qaeda militants, with whom Hamas has allied themselves, have challenged Hamas to stop them. Hamas buildings in Gaza have been bombed by these extreme militants. Hamas will now have to assert some control over Al-Qaeda; but if they do, they could be seen as being “soft” on Israeli aggression. If they don’t, Israel could invade again and destroy more of the Hamas infrastructure. Hamas is now squirming as much as Netanyahu. This is not good for peace, and it brings both sides way too close to killing each other again.
I generally feel that Israel has to play the same kind of hardball that the Palestinians play. I don’t like it but then, I don’t live there. My opinion: leave this kind of political posturing to the experts in Israel. Between the nuances of diplomacy and the unknown factors that come from Israeli intelligence which we will never know, we should not be telling Israel what to do.
But I don’t feel that Israel is always right. This past week, one of the ultra Orthodox members of Knesset introduced a bill to give full control over conversions in Israel to the Rabbanut. It would also not allow those who converted out of the country to become citizens of Israel. We had barely 48 hours to stop this bill. The outcry from Jews, all over the world was so loud that the bill was pulled from consideration for now. The Jewish Agency, UJC, Federation, Reform and Conservative/Masorti Jews are now in discussions with the Prime Minister’s office to prevent this bill from getting back on the floor of the Knesset. Israel’s Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, has expressed his support to kill this bill. So far, it is off the table.
But the issue of freedom of religion for Jews in Israel is still on the table. Every attempt to get State money to build synagogues for Conservative and Reform communities is defeated. Any attempt to get our Rabbis on the local religious councils is subverted either legally or illegally. In some cases, rabbis properly chosen for the council find that the Orthodox rabbis refuse to call a meeting. Even rulings by the Israeli Supreme Court have been ignored by these groups who deny basic religious freedom to Jews who are not as frum as they are. These Orthodox groups are rioting over civil rights for people they don’t agree with. They are rioting over parking lots open on Shabbat and are rioting to close industries that dare to be open on Shabbat. They are way out of control and no one, not the Army, the police nor the Government of Israel seem to have the nerve to stop them. They throw chairs at women at the Western Wall who dare to pray wearing tallitot. They have attempted to steal the Torah scrolls from non-Orthodox synagogues and there have been a series of fires at some Conservative synagogues, multiple attempts at arson. So far, nobody has been caught. In this country, these would be hate crimes. In Israel, they happen almost every day. If you want to know why Americans don’t make Aliyah to Israel, look at how Conservative Jews and Reform Jews are treated like second class citizens, being spit upon by Orthodox Jews, and the State does little to help.
On the issue of whether or not Israel is treated fairly by other nations, here I can see where a little paranoia is warranted. Some countries just can’t say anything good about Israel. No matter how many acts of terror Israel endures, she is still told that it is her own fault. No matter how much the Israeli Army tries to fight a war in a humane way, it is never enough. No matter how many humanitarian missions Israel sends to poor countries and to disaster sites, Israel is never given credit. Israel seems to be the country everyone loves to hate.
What I find interesting is how some countries have now had to back away from this stand. Governments sometimes say and do things for all kinds of political reasons, but Western countries can’t fool their citizens for long. England just had a really serious bout of Anti-Semitism and it has so embarrassed the country that they have softened their criticism of Israel. France had Moslem youth rioting in the streets. Jews there are told they should not wear a kippa outside because of the danger. French Jews are leaving France and immigrating to Israel. France is so embarrassed by all of this that the French Prime Minister, in spite of his own problems, has said some things in support of Israel. Turkey says one thing publicly against Israel but still sells Israel vitally needed oil. Saudi Arabia, no friend of Israel, in the face of its own terrorism, has stopped broadcasting hatred for Israel. Even Abu Dhabi, where the Mossad may or may not have killed a Hamas leader, has condemned the Israeli government for the murder but has not condemned the entire country.
Israel has trampled on the civil rights of many citizens. Not just Palestinians but her own Arab citizens, as well as homosexuals of all faiths. There is culture of corruption that we can compare to our own Dade County where politicians are found guilty of all manner of scandals; stealing money, sex scandals, giving no show jobs to friends, bribery etc. They run again for office at the next election and get elected by promising to give more money to those who get out the vote. Arab citizens in Israel get precious little justice in Israeli courts and some elements in the Israeli army seem to think that they can harass Palestinians with impunity.
So you tell me. Am I on the right or on the left when it comes to Israel? Do I believe in the Jewish State, no matter if she is right or wrong? Not hardly. Do I condemn her at every turn for her policies? Never! Do I insist on peace at any price? Nope. Do I advocate killing all the Arabs and ending this long war? No again. Do I believe that Israel has made some mistakes? Yes. Do I think that Israel deserves its bad reputation in the world? Nope. Israel is clearly held to a standard that no other nation is required to hold. Sometimes I agree with Israeli policy, sometimes I don’t. I lend my voice to the most outrageous claims, and roll my eyes over the rest. Israel is just another country trying to make the best decisions it can. Sometimes they do it right, sometimes they don’t. Their track record is no better or worse than any other country. When she gets it right, I am first in line to cheer her on. When she is falsely accused, I am first in line to defend her. And when she is wrong, democracy tells me I can offer my critique and vent my frustration.
So, after all this, I can say without any hesitation. I love Israel. It is the only real democracy in the Middle East. It is the one place where Judaism can be practiced openly. It is the political stage where Jews make a difference in world politics. It is the best refuge for Jews all over the world who are in danger. The existence of Israel makes Anti-Semitism harder in any country since Jews can count on the support of Israel, a State prepared to rescue Jews in danger anywhere in the world. In just a few more years, there will be more Jews in Israel than in any other country in the world. We are first in agricultural research, in technology, computers, reversing desertification, and Israel even has a pretty stable economy in spite of her high taxes and constant state of war. Israel is a miracle, a miracle that I proudly support.
I pray every day that God gives Israel’s government the courage, wisdom and strength to meet every challenge and to be true to her values and faith. May this be our constant prayer, as we say… Amen and Shabbat Shalom