Israel’s Worst Enemy

This sermon was given on Shabbat Vayeira 5776 (10/30/2016)

Two weeks ago Rabbi Arik Asherman was picking olives in an olive grove owned by Palestinians in an effort to further peace with his Arab neighbors.  This olive grove sits at the bottom of a hill, atop which sits an outpost of the settlement Itamar, located 22 miles from green line.  This settlement, deep in the West Bank, has been the center of many horrific attacks claiming dozens of lives of both Israelis and Palestinians and fueling great tension in the area and throughout Israel.  As the director of Rabbis for Human rights, Rabbi Asherman believes in the importance of building relationships and partnerships with Palestinians as an avenue towards peace.  The Palestinian ownership of the land in question is not disputed, but routinely settlers descend the hill and harass the farmers, preventing them from picking olives which fuel their livelihood.  Usually, Rabbi Ascherman claims, when he shows up with other rabbis and settlers begin throwing rocks the police more readily intervene.  In the cool, late afternoon breeze of a fall day, a masked man began throwing rocks at Rabbi Ascherman, and then continued to walk up to him and begin to shove him.  When Rabbi Ascherman fought back, the man brandished a knife.  The masked, cowardly attacker was Jewish.  He was Israeli.

In an op-ed in Haaretz, Rabbi Ascherman reveals his thoughts in this moment of peril: “Soon the man was on top of me, his knife hand free.”  The man could have murdered the rabbi.  But he didn’t, he kicked and punched the rabbi, and then retreated back up the hill to his Jewish enclave.   Rabbi Ascherman continues: “I would like to think that this moment in which my attacker was an instant away from becoming a murderer caused him to ask himself how he came to be on a hilltop in the Occupied Territories, so angry that the Israeli army had protected Palestinian farmers harvesting their olives, that he was driven to lash out.”  Rabbi Ascherman alludes to our Torah portion, when Abraham raised his knife above his bound son and and angel cries out “NO!  Stop!”  Perhaps the masked man heard the same voice and the spell of hatred was broken.[1]

I received news of this event via a congregant who said that she could no longer discern the real enemy.  To me, the enemy is clear and the worst possible villain in all of humanity – sinat chinam, baseless hatred.  I have given three sermons about Israel from this bima, all with the same theme: during times of struggle we pray for peace and we must not let sinat chinam cause us to divide our community.  The rabbis of the Talmud blame the destruction of the first and second Temples on sinat chinam between Jews and they implore us lo titgodedu – don’t make factions!  No matter how much we disagree, we must always be able to reconcile the fact that we are all Jewish and have a responsibility to one another.

Jew against Jew attacks are not new in Israel, but usually then involve spit, or shoving, or yelling over disputes about how we follow the Torah.  They happen everywhere, in the streets of the ultra-orthodox neighborhoods, in the markets, even against Rabbi Black while he sang out in prayer at the Western Wall this past summer (you can find his video online). Rabbi Ascherman’s stabbing, however, made me sicker to my stomach that other incidents.  Perhaps it was the lack of responsibility by the Israeli government.  Initially, this attack was categorized as a confrontation between a left and right wing activist.  Yet, as the CCAR recently stated: “Rabbi Ascherman defended himself and others in his group, and tried to chase the attacker away, but did not otherwise confront his assailant in any way. Rabbi Ascherman did not brandish a weapon, as his attacker did.”  But even the CCAR refused to use the ‘t’ word, so I will.  The man who attacked Rabbi Ascherman was a terrorist.  Terrorism is alive and well by both Jews and Palestinains in Israel.  It has invaded our sacred homeland like a virus that infects someone and spreads throughout.  Certainly the Palestinians have perpetrated more terrorism lately than have Israelis, but we cannot use other’s actions as excuses for our own failings and let fear turn to hatred.  This cowardly act filled with hatred was eerily reminiscent of a murder 20 years ago this week.

On November 4th, 1995 during a peace rally, a Jewish Israeli man shoved through the crowd, drew his gun, took aim at the man preaching peace on the stage, pulled the trigger twice, and Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was dead, shot in the back.  Rabin had fought during the war of independence and the six day war.  During much of his life he was hawkish – he didn’t believe in true opportunities for peace.  Yet when he learned about the Oslo accords, conducted in secret, he decided to move forward into uncharted and dangerous waters believing that perhaps he could help bring peace between the PLO and Israel.  The Oslo accords didn’t explicitly call for two-states, however they laid the groundwork for reconciliation via the PLO’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist and Israel’s withdrawal from the West Banks major cities.

When Rabin was assassinated the settlements were not nearly as extensive as today.  Currently 400,000 Jews call different areas in the West bank home.  No matter the various scenarios envisioned by those who call for Israel to help create a sovereign Palestinian state many Israelis living in the West Bank will continue to live in their homes.  It would be un-realistic to completely withdraw, especially as some of the “settlements” are actually suburbs of Jerusalem, as close to the Old City as when I lived there in 2007.  Yet the status quo cannot continue for the sake of Israel’s future.

Two nightmare scenarios could emerge without a Palestinian state.

In the first scenario, which is advocated by Jewish Voices for Peace and other far-left-wing organizations, Israel becomes a unified democratic nation encompassing all of the occupied territories.  Millions of Palestinians will be granted the right citizenship and the right to vote.  As early as 2020, the Palestinians could reach a majority population and could take over the country via a democratic process.  I don’t have much hope that a Palestinian-majority Knesset would remain a Jewish State or would even allow Jews to remain.

In a second scenario, championed by far-right-wing organizations, Israel could continue to refuse Palestinians in the territories citizenship and the right to vote and as early as 2020 Israel would become a country with a Jewish minority and a Palestinian majority – with limited civil rights. In this scenario, Israel would probably lose the support of most Western nations and of many of the Jews in the Diaspora and we wouldn’t really have a place that we could feel proud to call home.

Based upon these two horrible options I believe that we desperately need a two-state solution, a key concept for which both AIPAC and J Street work to achieve.  I speak of the need for two states because I truly believe that a two-state solution is the only way to ensure that Israel remains a Jewish and Democratic State long enough for my children to experience the same love and admiration for our Jewish homeland as I do.   I want Israel to exist for my children and their children and their children and their children.  Since Rabin was assassinated, there have been no real overtures for peace from either side, especially from Hamas.  But Israel doesn’t have the time to wait for a partner for peace.  With each passing day we come closer to scenario one or two, one without Israel.  Time erodes the possibility of a future Jewish homeland and we must confront the reality that some of the settlements are literally roadblocks to peace.  Israel can take meaningful steps towards peace by helping to move people out of settlements like Itamar which could never exist inside of Palestine, ending any additional settlement construction, and help Palestinians build their own peaceful cities, neighborhoods and schools so that they don’t feel that violence is the only option.

At last week’s peace rally in our Sanctuary, the chair of the JCRC said that because Palestinians are terrorizing Jews it would be inappropriate to criticize Israel.  Yet there has been no time in Israel’s brief history that she has not been under external existential threat, whether from Iran, Syria, Hezbolla, Hamas, Eygpt, or Jordan.  But the worst of all threats facing Israel is the internal threat of sinat chinam, baseless hatred within the Jewish community.  Sinat chinam has already destroyed a Jewish Jersualem twice, we must not let it destroy it again.

In Rabbi Ascherman’s Haaretz Article, he writes that once fully healed he will return to rotation of parents guarding his children’s school since the recent attacks by Palestinians began.  Thankfully, no one here tonight lives under threat of attack like our Israeli brothers and sisters are experiencing at this moment.  We don’t experience air-raid sirens on regular basis and we don’t construct buildings with bomb-shelters.  But this is no excuse for standing idly by.  We have the moral responsibility to speak out when we see self-destructive behaviors taking place in the land that we love.  We must not simply pray for peace, we must help Israel act for peace even if it means acting alone.

When Rabin was shot, he was carrying a poem in his pocket.  The final verses read:

“Lift your eyes with hope
not through the rifles’ sights
sing a song for love
and not for wars

Don’t say the day will come
bring on that day –
because it is not a dream –
and in all the city squares
cheer only for peace!”[2]

On the 20th yartzeit of Prime Minister Rabin and while Rabbi Ascherman heals from his wounds, we must not let their efforts towards peace be in vain.

Shabbat Shalom – may this be a peaceful Shabbat and may we taste the perfection of the world to come.

[1] Rabbi Arik Ascherman: What I Wish for the Settler Who Attacked Me With a knife,

[2] Shir L’shalom, lyrics by Yaakov Rotblit 1969