Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the astoundz
Rosh Hashanah Day
Rabbi David Lyon
October 3, 2016/5777
Congregation Beth Israel
“Preparing for Israel’s Future”
In April of this year, New York Times columnist, Arthur Brooks, wrote, “Liberals should be liberals and conservatives should be conservatives. But our duty is to be respectful, fair and friendly to all, even those with whom we have great differences.” The title of the article was “Bipartisanship isn’t for wimps, after all.”[i] Brooks is right even when we apply his logic to the subject of Israel. Our goal can’t be a unity of opinions on Israel; our goal can only be to seek unity about what we want for Israel. We want peace! Arguing about it comes easily. We always debate issues we hold dearly in our hearts and souls; but, our tradition urges: if we’re going to argue, argue for the sake of heaven.
How do we know if we’re arguing for the sake of heaven? In the 17th century, a rabbi taught, “This is how you know: if the [debaters] love each other completely in heart and soul, that is a sign that their argument is for the sake of heaven. But if they are enemies, and they bear hatred for each other — that is not for the sake of heaven, and Evil will live inside them.”[ii]
When Jews on the left and right disagree about how to reach peace in the Middle East, we can’t regard the other with contempt. With love in our hearts and souls for Israel, the land, we have to have love in our hearts and souls for Israel, the people, too. There’s too much at stake.
Geographically. In Lebanon to the north — Hezbollah has more than 150,000 rockets and missiles pointing at Israel. Their rockets can reach nearly any point within Israel. In Syria to the northeast — ISIS trains terrorists to attack throughout the region; and, ISIS shares responsibility for the death toll of nearly half-a-million in a lengthy civil war. In Iraq — ISIS controls nearly 20% of its territory. In Iran — the government received access to more than $100 billion in previously frozen assets; it actively inflames the Syrian civil war, and destabilizes Iraq and Yemen. In Egypt — the Sinai Peninsula is increasingly lawless, with militant Islamists growing in power every day. In the West Bank and Gaza — Hamas is acquiring weapons and rebuilding attack tunnels. Currently, there are rockets fired from Gaza strip into Israel. Fears are rising that an election in the West Bank would put Hamas in power there, too. In Saudi Arabia — the country is embroiled in Syria and Yemen conflicts. In Jordan — they’re battling a surge of jihadist extremism and ideology; absorbing approximately 1.4 million Syrian refugees, creating enormous economic and social challenges.
Recently, Israel engaged in peace talks with Egypt and its Arab neighbors; but it isn’t fueled by Arab interests in Israel. It’s fueled by their fear of Iran and ISIS spreading into their lands. It’s self-preservation. In its wisdom, Israel accepts them as peace partners. Peace with them now, if even short-lived, is better than constant threats from long-standing neighbors. But, real peace with its neighbors remains elusive. No Arab leader has ever prospered if he made real peace with Israel. Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin shared the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize for the peace treaty they signed between Egypt and Israel. On October 6th, 1981, nearly 35 years ago to the date, Sadat was assassinated by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
If détente between enemies across notoriously battle-ridden Middle East borders is possible under any circumstances, then it shouldn’t be so difficult for Jews who love Israel to imagine agreements between themselves, too. It has to be. There’s no other choice.
Many of us live with Israel in our heart and soul; but, don’t assume that it’s the same for everyone. Ironically, there is a generation of Jewish young people whose support for Israel is flagging. They don’t know how to stand up for Israel. Worse, there are those who disparage Israel and agree with Israel’s detractors. How could it happen? I’ll offer two explanations.
First, since 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was signed by President Johnson, and despite its difficult beginning, a movement began to take shape. It gave rise to new voices and new causes. Among them, demonstrations for peace during the Vietnam war, advocacy for women’s rights and the Equal Rights Amendment. Over the last 40 years, American law has changed. Women are enjoying more equal rights than ever before; and for the first time, a woman is the Democratic national candidate for President of the United States. Though civil rights are still challenged, opportunities for minorities are still growing. Little more than a year ago, gays and lesbians won the support of the Supreme Court to marry their partners. And, Jews in America face virtually none of the social barriers of the past.
This is the world WE prayed for; this is the world We worked for so that our children and grandchildren would have the world of our dreams. Bravo!
But, when we ask them to join us in our love for Israel, many of them can’t do it. Why not? This is not the world THEY worked for; not yet. This is the world we gave them. They’re not necessarily moved by the Holocaust like we are. They’re not moved by Israel’s wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973, let alone more recent conflicts. When they look at Israel, they might see only today; they might not see a land that saved Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe. They might not understand Jewish history well enough to know that a return to the Land of Israel was our people’s hope for 2000 years.
Without a strong Jewish education they didn’t receive before they left for college, they’re bound to understand only what they hear on campus. The loudest voice they hear on college campus comes from the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” movement, also known as BDS. BDS is defined, and I quote from their own sources, as an effort “to increase economic and political pressure on Israel to end Israel’s occupation and colonization of Palestinian land and the Golan Heights, full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and respect for the right of return of Palestinian refugees.” The BDS strategy is to convince corporations, universities, and governments not to do business with Israel. In reality, BDS is an insidious attempt by anti-Israel detractors and pro-Palestinian radicals to delegitimize Israel, and deny Israel’s right to exist.
The gravest problem is that college campuses have become hunting grounds. BDS advocates prey on young people, including young Jews. Untrained to respond, young people fall prey to BDS propaganda. To blunt the effects of BDS, AIPAC and ADL, Hillel and AJC work together to advocate for the truth. In some cases, proper training and good information help lead Jewish college students back to a position where hearts and souls can love Israel, even when they disagree about how to reach peace.
Second, young Jews are being alienated by Israeli society. Israel’s internal civil rights fail to meet the high standards we’ve set for minorities, women, and the LGBT community in America. In addition, the integration of Jews who didn’t immigrate from Europe or the Iberian Peninsula, but who came from the Former Soviet Union or African countries instead, have had a particularly difficult time accessing economic and other resources though the Law of Return. Young people, who have been reared on expanding civil rights in the U.S., feel dislocated from Israel, a place we hoped they would love, when they see that civil rights are threatened in Israel. It stems from the tight grip of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel who govern religious rights. The Chief Rabbinate denies full religious rights to Jews who are not ultra-orthodox, nearly 90% of the country. This includes Reform and Conservative Jews and their rabbis on matters of conversions, marriages, divorces, burials and ritual mikveh.
The Progressive Movement in Israel provides two remedies. First, there is the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism, or the IMPJ, led by Gild Kariv. He’s a Reform Jewish leader and attorney in Israel. The IMPJ’s aim is “to strengthen the connection of our People and its loyalty to Jewish heritage, and to reform the State of Israel according to the principles of the individual and social morality of Judaism.”
Second, Rabbi Uri Regev, a friend of mine and of our congregation, leads an organization called “Hiddush”. Its mission is the advancement of “freedom of religion and conscience” and “full social and political equality without distinction on the basis of religion.” Hiddush is committed to “fully realizing the promise of religious freedom [to] strengthen Israel both as a democracy and as a Jewish state, and [to] bolster Jewish Peoplehood and Israel/Diaspora relationships.
Hiddush published a survey of Jewish Israeli opinion. It revealed that, while the battle over freedom of worship at the Western Wall is a justified and important battle; [data shows that] if [we] are interested in strengthening [our] partnership with Israeli Jews, and we are, it is critical for us to understand that Israelis attach far greater importance to the struggle against the Orthodox monopoly over marriage and divorce. These are issues that affect millions of people’s lives. These are the issues that undermine their dignity and civil liberties.
Israelis want us to participate in their battle for religious freedom. Data show that 62% of secular Israelis believe that Israel should listen to our positions on matters of religion and state, [including] marriage, conversion, and worship at the Western Wall. Most revealing is that 71% of Israeli Jews, including 59% of voters for the Zionist Orthodox Jewish Home party [in the Knesset], believe that the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage and divorce in Israel alienates Jews from Judaism.
Rabbi Regev of Hiddush, will be in our congregation October 28th and 29th, and IMPJ leaders are planning trips to Houston, too. I want you to meet them. I want you to ask them what you can do to bring the next generation into the fold of advocates for Israel. The issues are complex; but, the answers don’t have to be. We just have to ask the right questions. There will always be anti-Semites; but will there always be lovers of Israel? If we are smart and persistent in our efforts to educate our children and grandchildren, we can almost guarantee that there will future lovers of Israel. We begin by leading by example.
First, when our children leave home for college, they must be knowledgeable about Israel, its past and its present. Congregation Beth Israel provides an excellent resource through our Israel Advocacy programs and our Miriam Browning Jewish Learning Center. And, Kehillah High, our community-wide Wednesday night program for 8-12th grades is a center for deep and engaged learning on Jewish history and Israel. Kehillah High should be a non-negotiable requirement for post-bar/bat mitzvah children.
Second, our children should learn how to advocate for civil and religious rights here and in Israel. I want you to join me with your high school or college-age children for the AIPAC Policy Conference, in Washington D.C., in March 2017. Last year, we had 40 delegates. In 2017, I want to double that number with Israel advocates who thirst for facts, understanding and knowledge.
Third, our children should be led by their parents and grandparents, who support Israel through our congregation, Houston Jewish Federation and branches of the Reform Movement.
To accomplish such goals, we have to support education on Israeli and Jewish issues. We have to get involved in progressive Jewish movements. We have to show young Jewish adults how to be part of Israel’s future.
Though our passion is great, there have been many doubters. America and Israel, alike, were built despite those who said it couldn’t happen. And, then it did. The wildly popular Broadway hit, “Hamilton” puts a spotlight on the matter. One of the play’s most popular songs, “The Room where it Happened,” depicts a conversation between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton about Hamilton’s involvement in an important political decision and Burr’s burning desire to be a part of American history.
Hamilton, who was in the room, says:
“God help and forgive me/ I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me”
All Burr can say is,
“I wanna be in the room where it happens / I gotta be in the room where it happens”
The song resonates so strongly. It speaks to our own personal duel between potential power to shape the future and actual power to create a legacy. We want to use the power we’ve been granted. We want to create a legacy. But, we can’t just show up in the room where it happens. We have to participate. We have to build something that’s “gonna” outlive us.
In the opening song, the character of Aaron Burr wonders:
“How does a…/Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a / Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence / Impoverished, in squalor / Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
The answer is simple, but profound:
“The ten-dollar founding father without a father / Got a lot farther by working a lot harder / by being a lot smarter / By being a self-starter.”
Like America in its early days, the tiny nation of Israel had to work harder as a smarter, self-starter. In just 68 years, that ethic produced the modern miracle of Israel we protect and promote. Every generation must ensure the security of the Land and the future of our People.
We lead by example. We also learn from example. In recent days, Shimon Peres died. He was a great leader of Israel. His life and service to Israel and the world ended as the year 5776 ended. Now, as the New Year 5777 dawns, his legacy is entrusted to us. In personal words he once shared with President Obama, and which the President shared with the world, Peres advised him, “That while people often say that the future belongs to the young, it’s the present that really belongs to the young. ‘Leave the future to me,’ he said, ‘I have time.’” President Obama said, “Shimon always looked to the future. He was guided by a vision of human dignity and progress that he knew people of goodwill could advance together. He brought young people from around the world together because he knew they could carry us closer to our ideals of justice and equality.”
Speaking at her father’s funeral, Tzvia, Peres’ daughter, said, “My father, you were a lover of life, who sprung like a lion at daybreak to fulfil his mission.” His son, Nehemia, said of his father, “You always preferred the possibilities offered by the imagination to clinging to memories of the past. The legacy you leave to us is the world of tomorrow. We will travel the path of light you left us.” His son, Yoni, said, “When asked what he would like to have inscribed on his tombstone after death, [his father] said, without hesitation, ‘He was too young to die’.”
Israel is too young to die. Israel lives in our hands, not just in our hearts. Israel lives in our actions, not just in our words. Israel lives through us all, not only our children. For the sake of heaven, let us argue over the future of Israel where every Jew and all people may find real Shalom, real peace. This is the room where it happens and Israel is our legacy. Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s will.