Israel Independence Day
1. Shabbat Shalom
2. As Israel celebrates 64 years of independence, the one question that Rabbis all over this country are asking is “Why is it so hard to have a civil discussion about Israel?” No matter where you go and no matter what you read, there seems to be no middle ground when it comes to Jews’ discussion of Israel.
3. On the one side are what I call the “hard core Zionists.” These are the Jews who remember very vividly what the world looked like when there was no State of Israel. Every battle for Israel was hard fought and they will not give an inch to those who have opposed Israel in any way.
4. Sixty-five years ago, as we worked so hard to make the vision of a Jewish state a reality and as we tried to build that state from the ashes of Europe after World War II, we remember the hatred for Jews in Europe. Even though the Nazis were gone, Jews who attempted to return home after the war in Poland and Russia found others living in their homes that were unwilling to give back what the Nazis had stolen. Jews who fought for what was once theirs were murdered in the streets. The defeat of Nazi Germany did not end European anti-Semitism. Jews who had opposed Zionism in the past were all killed in the gas chambers. The nations of the world were ready to give the Jews a chance to build their own state. We have taken on that challenge and we will let nobody stand in our way to making our state one of the great nations of the world.
5. On the other side are, what I call the Modern Zionists. They do not look at the history of Zionism; they look at the State of Israel today and hold up a candle to see what it has become. Like all political states, Israel is a messy mix of politics and policies. These Zionists don’t like the kind of state that Israel has become
6. Over the past sixty-four years, Israel, like any nation, has had to make some hard decisions. Unlike other nations, living in a state of war for all of her life, Israel has had to make some compromises to democracy in the name of national security. Certain civil liberties had to be suspended. Newspapers had to be censored; and there were political prisoners that had to be jailed. There were controversial decisions about the role of ultra-orthodox Jews in the political process of the Jewish State. How could democracy and theology exist in one country? How could there be egalitarianism in Israel and still have separate seating for women in the synagogue? Was there discrimination in our Jewish state against the Sefardim, against woman, against Ethiopians, against homosexuals? These Modern Zionists were unhappy that their concerns were buried under the constant state of war and the need for national unity. They want change in the very fabric of Israel in order to make her more like the great democracies of the West.
7. Over the years, first, the two sides started bickering, then arguing, then drawing lines in the sand and now, today, they shout at each other as if the one who yells the loudest wins. AIPAC declares a crisis if there is a hint about any possible space that might compromise the American – Israel partnership. Their insistence on bipartisan support for Israel has indeed made the relationship between the United States and Israel an unbreakable bond. Their work has been a great service to Israel for many years.
8. J-Street, a newer model of Israel support, tries to build a partnership between Israel and the United States based on mutual understanding and peace. They see Israel as a work in progress and that America has a lot to teach Israel. They raise concerns that if American support for Israel is used to make the forces that undermine democracy in Israel stronger, then such support will not help Israel, it will ultimately hurt her. Will this willingness to engage in discussions about the social fabric of Israel open a wedge between Israel and Americans? So far it has not, but what happens if it does affect American support in the future? Without the questions J-Street asks, however, will Israel be able to continue as a democracy?
9. Recently, The Shalom Hartman Institute, under the direction of Rabbi Doniel Hartman and his father, the philosopher Rabbi David Hartman, is making an effort to find a third way to discuss Israel, one that does not depend on yelling and shouting. Through their I-engage program, they are using a new approach to understanding Israel, cutting through the posturing that makes a normal discussion so hard to conduct. They propose that the way to keep Israel a Jewish State and still discuss the ideals of a secular democracy is to use the Judaic practice that Jews have always used to navigate the differences between our tradition and the secular world.
10. Judaism has been for centuries, the practice that Jews have used to find their way through the secular world. Each time a new idea appeared, Judaism tried to find a way to incorporate that idea into Jewish life. Judaic practice helped change the way we look at business law when the world moved away from agriculture and into a more urban world. Judaic practice changed the way we look at religious leadership as priests gave way to scholar and sage. Dress codes in Judaism were modified as Judaism encountered Europe after the Enlightenment. The laws of Shabbat were modified as Jews in America moved from the cities to the suburbs. Laws relating to the role of women in Judaism changed as the role of women in society changed.
11. When it comes to Israel, we need to use our faith to find our way in a new world where Jews once again are rulers of our own country. How will the country defend itself when there are religious soldiers in the ranks? How will we settle the land where there are disputes about borders and land ownership? How can political parties compromise when alternatives are incompatible with their understanding of the world? Jewish civil law, found in the Talmud in massechtot like Sanhedrin and Bava Metzia, can do much to further our understanding of the issues of today and how they might be solved.
12. It seems self-evident that the Jewish state should use Judaism to find answers to the sticky issues that plague her today. Judaism discusses the relationship between Jews and non-Jews declaring that there has to be one law for everyone. Judaism teaches that learning and studying Torah are ideals but it does not exempt anyone from getting a job, supporting their family, paying taxes and not being a burden to society. On the other hand, Judaism does not allow people to act immorally. Crime must be punished; the government must keep people safe and provide for their needs. Life has to be sacred and so does marriage. The “anything goes” attitude of Tel Aviv is just as wrong Jewishly as the discrimination in Bet Shemesh.
13. I can understand how an Arab member of the Knesset could have a hard time singing the words of Israel’s national anthem. I can understand why a Masorti congregation would want the same governmental support that the Orthodox community is given. I can feel for the couple who are not allowed to marry because of other Jewish laws that no longer have any meaning in Jewish life, laws that prevent a cohen from marring a divorced woman, laws that chain a woman to a husband who no longer cares about her; laws that demand a brother-in-law have the first “right” to marry a widow who did not have any children before her husband died. Shouting will not solve these problems, but members of the Knesset can find solutions if they look to the sources in Jewish law.
14. Jewish law is about tradition and change. It is about God and our relationship with God both as individuals and as a society. It is about what God wants of us and at the same time making sure that we understand what God wants always needs to be “just and moral”, even though the definitions of “just and moral” can sometimes change. The Talmud teaches that when two people grab hold of a tallit, and each one declares that “It is mine”, the law requires that the tallit be divided and each person gets a half to keep. You can’t win it all when both sides have a valid claim. Israeli lawmakers could learn a lesson from the Talmud, and for that matter, our Congress could stand to learn that lesson too. There is always a middle way in life, and more often than not, we will find Judaism waiting for us in the middle. That was the wisdom of the Sages and it is why we still study them today.
15. Happy Birthday Israel; may your differences be your source of strength and may the faith of the people who fight and die for you, also bring you honor and hope. May God bless you, your leaders, those who fight for your defense and those who support you around the world. May you be a source of blessing to all of us and may we be a source of blessing to you as we say …
Amen and Shabbat Shalom