Why Israel?

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5783/2022
Congregation Mishkan Israel, Hamden, CT

75 years! Next April we will celebrate Israel’s 75th birthday. I’m sure our local celebrations will feature Falafel, Israeli Salad, hummus, and Israeli music. While we will acknowledge that Palestinians call this day their “Catastrophe, the Nakba,” and for them this is a day of mourning, we usually reserve Yom Haatzmauut in the Jewish Community as the one day of the year free of criticism of who Israel was, is, or could be, and celebrate the fact that a Jewish state simply exists – the realization of a 2000 year old dream. Yet many Jews, young and old won’t participate in Yom Haatzmaut, they won’t criticize or celebrate. Their lack of participation doesn’t stem from animosity, but rather apathy. 75 years after the birth of the Jewish State, 78 years after the Holocaust, the connection to Israel for many Jews has faded. Likely they will ask, and we ask ourselves on this Rosh Hashanah, “Why Israel? Why should we care about Israel?”

We first ask, does the Reform Movement care about Israel? While many Jews, young and old are feeling more disconnected from Israel, the major denominations of Judaism including the Reform Movement continue to express support. In 2009 the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, stated, “Throughout the Reform Movement’s history, in times of peace and in times of strife, we have spoken out in unequivocal and unconditional support of the State of Israel and her people.[1]

When Rabbi Jacobs spoke of the history of the Reform Movement, however, he meant the history of the Reform movement since the birth of the State of Israel in 1948. 50 years prior, in 1897, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the CCAR, rabbinic leaders of the Reform movement, issued a different unequivocal statement: “We totally disapprove of any attempt for the establishment of a Jewish State.[2]” Entrenched in modernity 1900 years since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, these early Reform Jews considered creating a new, Jewish State, to be an anathema.

Over the next four decades, as antisemitism flared in Nazi Germany and America turned away Jewish refugees, as Ken Burns reminded America last week, attitudes changed quickly and drastically. With the need for a safe-haven for Jews again crystal clear, in 1937 the CCAR reversed course and declared “in the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.[3]” The dramatic shift in attitude from our Reform ancestors in just forty years, spanning only one generation, can inform how we examine our relationship to the Jewish State on the eve of Israel’s 75th birthday.

Israel has now been a State for 2-3 generations, and today attitudes are again shifting quickly. While our movement leaders continue to offer unequivocal support, a growing majority of American Jews are asking themselves, “Why Israel?”

The ‘why’ for Israel is complicated. Why do we have a Jewish State? Why do we tolerate the occupation? Why does the American Jewish community continue to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to Israel each year [4]? Why do we lobby the US government to send military aid? Why do we continue to talk about Israel in the synagogue? Why does Israel impact American Jews? Why do we as American Reform Jews, the largest denomination in the US, align ourselves with a country that does not recognizes us as legitimate? Why did God promise Israel, of all places, to our ancestors?! The list of ‘whys’ continues.

For years I have argued that Jews, no matter where we live, are existentially connected with our homeland and, therefore we have no choice but to engage with Israel. I argued this even while living in Israel almost 15 years ago as a rabbinical student. I was bombarded with people telling me that Reform Judaism is illegitimate or that my plans to return to America were harming the Jewish people. I continue to argue our existential connection even as the occupation persists and Israel continues to expand settlements, defend those who terrorize Palestinians with violence, and push against efforts to recognize non-orthodox Jewry. That Israel is pretty, is home to important Jewish historical sights, has chosen Hebrew as the language, has a thriving tech sector, are all nice, but none of those atone for its modern-day sins.

As more Jews struggle with these transgressions and find themselves powerless to make change, support for Israel is beginning to wane. In 2021, the latest Pew study reported that only 48% of US Jews between 18-29 felt very or somewhat attached to Israel, a major shift from only seven years earlier, when 61% of this demographic felt very or somewhat connected.[5] 48% – fewer than half of all Jews under 30. The attachment levels for older Jews, those 50 and older, declined as well, from 72%-64%. As a child that Israel was a perfect place, only to learn about her imperfections in a way that felt as though a rug had been pulled out from under me. My story is not unique, and many of those who share this narrative have simply disengaged.

Yet I still believe that American Jews, or any Jews for that matter, must engage with Israel. Even though we have no control over Israel’s politics, Israel continues to affect us in the United States, whether we want to or not, often unfairly. Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and the occupation fan the flames of antisemitism.

On Yom Kippur I will speak about the rise of antisemitism in the United States, including that many of our allies cross from anti-Zionism to antisemitism with ease. When it relates to Israel, however, our mainstream Jewish organizations use accusations of antisemitism to avoid wrestling with Israel’s policies. Writing in the New York Times this summer, Peter Beinart argues that these organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, which does essential work to eradicate hate and antisemitism, have in some cases pivoted from defending with Human Rights issues to primarily defending Israeli policy, even when that policy clearly violates others human rights. They claim that almost any criticism of Israel equates to antisemitism. Beinart notes that these organizations, and others, immediately invoked antisemitism to discredit both a Human Rights Watch and an Amnesty International report which claimed apartheid in Israel[6]. Beinart compares this tactic of isolation to when China claims an anti-Chinese bias to explain negative reports from these same organizations. Yet we, unlike the Chinese, do not live behind a great firewall of misinformation. We can read the news stories ourselves.

Instead of embracing the nuance embodied by our Jewish ancestors, when mainstream Jewish organizations use the broad stroke of antisemitism to silence critics, they drive more Jews away from engaging with Israel and even with involvement with mainstream Judaism. We witness this here in New Haven, as right at this moment a group of anti-Zionist Jews called the Mending Minyan are observing the High Holy days in the Palestine Museum. They have even engaged a rabbi from the mainstream Reconstructing Judaism movement. Mending Minyan advertises themselves for people “who don’t feel welcome in traditional congregations that support Israel.[7]” They are part of a small, but growing, national trend. For two thousand years Jews have approached each situation with critical thought and multiple perspectives, and we should approach Israel with the same critical approach.

For the future of the Jewish people, we need to examine why. Why, in 2022, with our foundations solidly laid in the United States, should we, as modern, Reform Jews, care about Israel? Spoiler alert, I strongly believe that we should.

That I love Israel, proclaim myself a Zionist, strongly condemn the occupation, and work toward a two-state solution one might accuse me of hypocrisy. Which is OK, because our Jewish ancestors fully embraced hypocrisy. We devise methods to work around our commandments that cause the most inconvenience, like the Shabbat elevator that is permissible to use so long as we do not press any of the buttons and therefore must gaze longingly at each of the preceding floors before arriving at our destination, or Rabbi Hillel’s prozbul, a legal document from 1800 years ago allowing us NOT to forgive debts every seven years as clearly commanded in the Torah. Jews have been hypocritical for the same 2000 years as we have dreamed of a return to Jerusalem.

Even when Rabbi Jacobs declared “unequivocal and unconditional support of the State of Israel and her people,” he the continues in that same statement to express that “This support stems from a love of the land and an understanding that the destinies of the Jewish people and of Israel are intertwined in an unbreakable connection. These ties remain enduring even when our love for Israel compels us on occasion to express disagreement with government policies on issues such as the peace process or on behalf of full rights and support from the Government of Israel on behalf of all streams of Judaism.[8]

We express unequivocal support and criticize at the same time, just like a complicated family relationship born of steadfast love.

Since declaring unequivocal support in 2009, the Reform Movement has approved several resolutions criticizing the Israeli Government for continued settlement expansion in the occupied territories and pressuring the Israeli government to recognize Reform Judaism as a legitimate Jewish expression. How can we possibly offer unequivocal support yet strongly condemn and criticize Israel at the same time? Why would we continue to invest our monetary, political and intellectual resources supporting an Israel that continues these transgressions regardless of our rebuke?

We begin to answer the question, why, by looking at a 1500-year-old teaching from our Talmud, “Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another. [9]” This statement forms the basis for our collective responsibility to help other Jews. This help comes in the form of tzekdah, charity, and also tochecha, rebuke. In Leviticus, just before our oft-cited “Love your neighbor as yourself,” we are first commanded, “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Rebuke your kin but incur no guilt on their account.[10].” הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙, offer rebuke. Our Torah commands us to help others avoid transgressions ourselves by pointing out the sins of others and helping them make teshuvah, a return to the right path.

Our responsibility toward one another forms the basis of our existential connections to the people and State of Israel. When the State of Israel approves settlement construction in the West Bank, when it continues to deny Reform Jews the same rights and opportunities as the Ultra-Orthodox and when it passes laws that impede the peace process we are obligated to speak out and fulfill the mitzvah of tochecha, rebuke.

Ten years after articulating unequivocal support, in 2019, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, poignantly expressed how he, as a modern, Reform Jew, lives with this tension:

“Let me be perfectly clear:” he writes, “As a lifelong Zionist, I believe in the justice and rights of the Jewish people. I also believe in the justice and rights of the Palestinian people. That’s why I believe in two states. As the leader of the largest Jewish movement in North American life, I and so many of my colleagues have been anything but silent in the face of the painful reality for Palestinians living under occupation…One can be deeply committed to Israel’s security and well-being and fully supportive of the right of Palestinians to a homeland that is side-by-side with Israel.[11]” Even the current Prime Minister of Israel, Yair Lapid, declared at the UN last week: “An agreement with the Palestinians, based on two states for two peoples, is the right thing for Israel’s security, for Israel’s economy and for the future of our children.[12]

Yet before we can articulate our own positions of Israeli politics, we must first articulate why. Even if are or decide to become anti-Zionist, positing that a Jewish State shouldn’t exist, decide to stand with Israel no matter what, or take a nuanced approach, we still need to determine ‘why’.

To help us answer “Why” as both individuals and as a community, this fall we will engage in a series of discussions utilizing a curriculum from the Shalom Hartman Institute, based in Jerusalem. Their mission is to strengthen Jewish peoplehood, identity, and pluralism; to enhance the Jewish and democratic character of Israel; and to ensure that Judaism is a compelling force for good in the 21st century. Our president, David Silverstone, has attended their seminars for many years, both here in the US and in Israel and I am always uplifted when I hear the transformative learning that you experience.

Starting Sunday, October 30 at 10am, we will consider what it means to be a member of the Jewish people, the core values that animate Jewish peoplehood, and the contemporary challenges to Jewish unity. We will examine the forces dividing the Jewish people today, including nationalism, antisemitism, dual-loyalty, and identity politics; and imagine new conceptual frameworks that can help sustain and grow the story of our people for a new millennium. This class is part of their iEngage series that we used in 2018 and I am excited to learn with you as we reimagine our relationship with the State of Israel. Information is in your handout and you can sign up at cmihamden.org via the “learn” tab.

The State of Israel, the politics, the innovation, the conflicts, both the good and the bad, affect Jews around the world, and they affect us here in New Haven, CT. Kol Yisrael Aravim Ze ba Zeh, all of Israel is Responsible for one another. May we begin the year 5783 with intentionality and love for one another.

Shanah Tova u’metukah.

[1] [1] https://www.urj.org/what-we-believe/resolutions/support-israel

[2] Shmuel Almog, Jehuda Reinharz and Anita Shapira Zionism and Religion. 1994. Pg 180

[3] https://www.ccarnet.org/rabbinic-voice/platforms/article-guiding-principles-reform-judaism/

[4] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/american-jewish-contributions-to-israel

[5] 3% margin of error: https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/05/11/appendix-a-survey-methodology-4/


[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/26/opinion/antisemitism-israel-uae-saudi.html

[7] https://www.nhregister.com/news/article/Meet-the-student-rabbi-who-will-join-a-New-17280234.php

[8] https://www.urj.org/what-we-believe/resolutions/support-israel

[9] Bavli, Shevuot 39a

[10] Lev 19:17-18a

[11] https://reformjudaism.org/blog/issue-remains-two-states-two-peoples

[12] https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/israeli-pm-lapid-backs-two-state-solution-with-palestinians-2022-09-22/