I Love Israel- High Holy Days Sermon

Posted on September 9, 2021

My best friend from childhood, David, is a Tottenham Hotspurs supporter. Now I know that I’ve lost some of you already, but to translate that means he roots for an English soccer team known affectionally as Spurs. I, on the other hand, am a lifelong Liverpool supporter. They are, of course, Boston’s team as part of the Fenway Sports Group. Anyway, back in 2019, Liverpool faced Tottenham in the final of the UEFA Champions League. This is the biggest club game in European soccer, and we were on either side of the divide.  

Now while Dani Rojas, of Ted Lasso fame, might tell us that “Football is Life,” which sometimes feels true, we know that there is much more to life than that. And so, while David and I were rivals for 90 minutes, we spoke extensively before the game and then, we compared notes afterwards. We might disagree about football, sorry soccer, but that doesn’t make us enemies; it doesn’t mean we can’t talk to each other; it doesn’t present an insurmountable divide.  

This might seem like a silly story to share, but I worry that our world and our society are heading in a direction where people attempt to pinpoint and highlight a singular area of division and then to create an impervious boundary or border between “them and us.” They might do it in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way around sports– just checking we have no fans of that team from New York in the community today– but there are a whole host of other issues which are becoming markers for inclusion or exclusion. And in these cases, it is becoming a serious matter which is causing real divisions and tensions within our community and on the outside.   

The one that keeps me up at night and causes me to worry is Israel. And if this were true before the recent fighting with the Palestinians in Gaza, it is even more clear in the aftermath of those events. 

A person’s support of Israel appears to have become a litmus test for a whole range of issues and causes unrelated to that subject. How can you support Israel while supporting Black Lives Matter? How can you believe in the legitimacy of the Jewish State while believing in equality? How can you stand for the rights of Israelis and the rights of Palestinians? The fact that these questions can even be asked demonstrates, at best, a misunderstanding of Israel and Zionism, and at worst, it is a modern manifestation of antisemitism; targeting and treating Jews differently from all other groups.   

I spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about Israel. Many of my family and friends live there; it is one of the countries of which I am a citizen, and it is the place that I most often daydream about. I will say it loudly and proudly: I love Israel. I love so much of what she stands for. I love so much of what she aspires to be. And I love so much of what she has already done to make the world a better place. And just like the love that one feels for a family member, this does not mean that I do not see her faults. She can frustrate me like no other place, I frequently don’t understand the decisions that she makes, and I am saddened when I think about the place of Reform Judaism there.  

She is not perfect, but what country is? And if we look back over her 73 short years of existence, it is clear to me that Israel and her citizens have made an overwhelmingly net positive contribution to the world. And yet this is not the picture that is so often painted of her. The amount of time spent at the United Nations debating Israel and her actions is completely disproportionate to a country that has a population of less than 9 million; what is with the obsession? The situation between Israel and Palestine is immensely problematic and difficult; but why is it that only Israel is being threatened by boycotts, divestment, and sanctions for her actions, while the human rights abuses in Syria, Iran, China for example are not given the same attention or energy? And why is there never any recognition that when offered peace rather than war, Israel has always been willing to make the necessary and painful sacrifices to achieve it, even when that has meant uprooting her own population? 

In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, adopted a non-legally binding “working definition” of antisemitism. In specifying what should be considered, they wrote: “Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”(1) To those people using Israel as a litmus test, criticizing her in a way that they challenge no other country, and attacking her supporters with hate and vitriol – I ask you: Why is it only the Jewish State that you attack in this way? And unfortunately, I suspect that I know what the answer is deep down.  

And while this should call us to attention as we respond to rising anti-Israel feelings and statements outside of the Jewish community; today I want to talk about the way it has become a divisive issue within the Jewish community. As they say: 2 Jews, 3 opinions; but the fervor and division that we are seeing around Israel is of a different magnitude. You are AIPAC or J-Street, you support Israel or you hate Israel, you are with us or against us. There is no room for nuance; there is no room for reasoned debate; there is no room for multiple opinions to exist in the same space. We see this division play out along political lines, sometimes along denominational lines, and often along generational lines. And while we should always be worried about the ways that they, those outside the Jewish community, might try to attack or destroy us, I am always more fearful about the way in which we might destroy ourselves. We’ve done it before and I worry we could do it again.  

When I listen to debates or arguments within the Jewish community about Israel, I often feel like we are talking about two different places. There is the small Israel that is surrounded by hostile Arab countries who would like to wipe her off the map  This Israel is forced to invest in her military might, because she faces a very real threat from neighbors who actively seek her destruction. This is the small, scrappy Israel surrounded by a sea of hostility; constantly forced to be on guard, ready to defend herself from unexpected and unprovoked attacks. And then there is the strong and mighty Israel with a cutting-edge military. She has defeated her Arab enemies whenever they have attacked, conquering land and subjugating the populations there. By virtue of her military might she rules over the Palestinian people and her future is secured through billions of dollars invested in the Israel Defense Force. 

How can these two Israels be the same country?    

Both are Israel, both views have elements of truth within them, and both tell limited parts of the story. These two characterizations demonstrate the fact that often our relationship with Israel is defined by the perspective that we have. For many who first encountered Israel before 1967 or even around the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Israel will always be in a fight for her survival against Arab enemies who seek her destruction. For those who have grown up with Israel over the last two decades, they see a country that is militarily secure and prevents the Palestinian people from having their own independent state. This is the generational divide, and this is a cause of great concern for me.  

When these two generations talk about Israel it is as though they are speaking a different language; failing to understand or truly hear one another. With no dialogue, they end up rejecting one another, further entrenching the division and the enmity. And then Israel becomes a litmus test – one generation throws out the accusation: “you are self-hating Jews” and the other generation responds: “you are racist, anti-Arab Jews.” And the talking is done, the divide between them grows that bit further and the internal threat our community faces greatly increases.  

We must find a way to talk to each other.  

I see myself as existing between the two generations. I grew up with an Israel who pursued peace with her Arab neighbors. This was the Israel of the 1990s who made peace with Jordan, made agreements with the Palestinians, and offered Yasser Arafat a Palestinian State. This is the Israel that moved right in the face of Palestinian terrorism, and then left when there was even the glimmer of a chance of peace. This is the Israel that withdrew from Lebanon and received Hezbollah rockets and withdrew from Gaza and received Hamas rockets. This is an Israel that is militarily secure and mighty – she is not going anywhere; but her population still lives in fear of suicide bombers and attacks from hostile regional powers.  

I think that we need to lay down some ground rules for what we are debating and discussing so that we might try to come together, despite our disagreements. 

  1. This cannot be a debate over Israel’s right to exist. While we can debate what should happen to the land conquered in the 1967 Six Day War, this cannot be a discussion about the rights and wrongs of 1948 and the War of Independence. The Jewish people have a right to a State and a national homeland, living in peace and security just like everyone else; and for this discussion we might add explicitly that this includes the Palestinian people. The voices that reject Israel’s right to exist have no place at the table. As my friend and colleague Rabbi Rachel Timoner wrote: “you can’t be against nationalism when it comes to the Jewish people and in favor of nationalism when it comes to the Palestinian people.” (2) This is a necessary position from which to begin the conversation, because a debate about Israel’s right to exist suggests that Jews are being offered different rights and freedoms from every other group, and as the definition makes clear that is antisemitic.  
  2. This must be a debate that accepts things are not black and white – it’s complicated. On more than one occasion I have stood here and suggested that we need to take a position around Israel that accepts “both-and.” Israel is complicated, Israel is messy, Israel is a work in progress. She is not David and she is not Goliath – she is probably something in between. We can zoom in to focus on Israel as the larger, more dominant party in relation to the Palestinians, or we can zoom out to see Israel as the smaller, weaker party in relation to the Arab world. Both pictures are accurate, both are incomplete for telling the full story, and both are necessary for us to find a way to talk to each other. We should share our stories and perspectives, but it is even more important that we listen to the stories and perspectives of those with whom we differ. We need to really hear each other, without making assumptions, without rushing to rejection, without shutting down because there is something with which we disagree. The very name Israel has a meaning relating to wrestling; that means this conversation should be uncomfortable and unsettling.  
  3. This should be a debate that moves beyond politics. It saddens me that Israel is so often regarded solely through the prism of a peace process or relations with her Arab neighbors, and so the spotlight only shines on her at times of conflict. Israel is so much more than this. I want us to get to know the Israel behind the headlines. I want to talk about Watergen, a company that extracts moisture from the air to produce clean water for people to drink. The founder’s vision is informed by the values of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) and Tzedakah (charity), (3) and their products are making a difference in deserts in Africa, America and around the world. I want to talk about the Israeli rescue team who rushed to Miami after the collapse of the Surfside Tower to help with the search and rescue efforts after that terrible tragedy. (4) And I want to talk about the Hand in Hand schools, established in 1998 with a mission for Jews and Arabs to learn together; they now have seven campuses serving over 10,000 people every day, proving that we can live together in peace and harmony. (5)   

We must reject Israel being used as a political football and oppose the unfair, one-sided treatment of her outside the Jewish community. And, while we cannot fully control what happens out there, we do have a power over what happens in here. We have to reject this external approach spilling over into the Jewish community – we cannot adopt the Israel litmus test. If we allow our divisions on Israel to widen any further, I fear that it will cause a chasm within our community that will be almost unbridgeable. This will not be good for us, not good for Israel and certainly not good Judaism. 

We have a choice; we can entrench ourselves in our positions of enmity and opposition, or we can build bridges so that we can come together, talk to each other, but most importantly– listen to each other. I still believe that Israel can be a source of unity. It is not about coming to an agreement on every issue, but it is about agreeing on a framework within which we can disagree respectfully, committed to Israel and her people as members of our Jewish family and part of our community.  

When my friend David and I watch soccer, we wear different jerseys to support our respective teams. But we both love soccer and ultimately, despite our different allegiances, it is one of the things that brings us together. There are a lot of ways to be a Zionist, go back throughout history and this has always been the case. The difference is that in the past we would agree to disagree on elements of our Zionism, because we were united in our love of Israel, our commitment to the Jewish State, and our dedication to help her thrive. We need to return to that situation today.  

I love Israel like I love a member of my family: she can frustrate me, she can challenge me, she knows how to push my buttons, but ultimately, I still love her and I want to be able to share that love with you, with all of you.