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On Boycotts, Binary Thinking, and Genocide – Vaetḥannan 5781

If you will allow me to take the anachronistic liberty of ascribing a contemporary movement to an ancient text, Devarim / Deuteronomy is easily the most Zionist book of the Torah. Moshe is delivering a series of lectures to the Israelites after they have been wandering through the desert for nearly four decades, and now they are perched on the far side of the Jordan river awaiting for the instruction to cross over and re-enter the land that has been promised to them.

And Moshe’s message is intimately connected to the land, with constant reminders that an essential part of our people’s berit / covenant with God is the inheritance of this land. For example, as we read this morning in Parashat Vaetḥannan (Devarim /Deuteronomy 6:1):

וְזֹ֣את הַמִּצְוָ֗ה הַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֛ה ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶ֖ם לְלַמֵּ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֑ם לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת בָּאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתֶּ֛ם עֹבְרִ֥ים שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ׃ 

This is the mitzvah, the laws and the rules, that God has commanded [me] to impart to you, to be observed in the land that you are about to cross into and inherit.

The land and the mitzvot are intimately connected in that Divine relationship between God and the people of Israel; they go together. And it is this sense of connection which inspired our ancestors over the last 2,000 years, in all their wanderings, to remain loyal to our tradition, to keep the memory of the land of Israel in our hearts and minds and on our tongues. It is the ancient yearning for the perfection of this holy formula which yielded the best-known poem of Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, who in the 12th century, the story goes, left Spain (“sof ma’arav,” the end of the West, according to him) to journey across the Mediterranean. He certainly arrived in Egypt, and a legend has it that he died in the Land of Israel, trampled by a horse as he kneeled to kiss the holy earth of Jerusalem. 

In more contemporary times, in the middle of the 19th century, before any steel emerged from Pittsburgh factories, this ancient yearning spurred the first wave of our people to escape the misery of the shtetl and move to Ottoman Turkish Palestine.  

And it is this ancient yearning that brought greater numbers of aliyah following the wave of Czarist programs in the early 1880s, and again in the early 1900s. And in particular, after the Shoah, when European Jewish refugees and displaced persons needed a safe haven, there was Palestine. Now in British hands, there was a well-developed economy, agricultural collectives, and bustling cities. Survivors of the European attempt at genocide defied the British blockade to enter the land of their ancestors, and soon fought for and won independence.

It is with great dismay that I read this week of the account in Jerusalem, at the location adjacent to the traditional Kotel / Western Wall that has been set up as a temporary location for egalitarian prayer. A Masorti (that’s the Conservative movement outside of North America) group was holding a service for Tish’ah BeAv, chanting Eikhah, the Book of Lamentations, when a group of zealous Orthodox folks invaded the space and set up a meḥitzah (the separation barrier between men and women found in Orthodox synagogues), shouted and sang and disrupted the Masorti service. It is especially upsetting that on the day on which we commemorate the destruction of the Second Temple due to sin’at ḥinnam, baseless hatred, that at the very spot where the Temple stood until the year 70 CE, that such intolerance would be on display so vividly.

Ezrat Yisrael, the egalitarian prayer space by the Western Wall

And it is with even more dismay that I learned of Ben & Jerry’s decision to suspend sales of their ice cream products in West Bank settlements. It makes me wonder if they have also suspended sales in other disputed territories such as Crimea, North Cyprus, Kashmir, Tibet, and so forth. 

The move is clearly only symbolic – who cares whether or not residents of Ma’ale Adummim have access to Cherry Garcia? And, by the way, you’ll still be able to buy New York Super Fudge Chunk in Jerusalem, a short drive away. But it points to the powerful voices of Israel’s critics in calling attention to who does business in the territories, a plank in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.

צ’רי גרסיה

But my greatest and most surprising source of dismay this past week, by far, was from a poll produced by the Jewish Electoral Institute, a non-partisan group which, according to its website, is “dedicated to deepening the public’s understanding of Jewish American participation in our democracy,” primarily through polling. This survey found, among other things, that in a recent poll of 800 Jewish voters, 25% agreed with the statement, “Israel is an apartheid state,” and, more shockingly, 22% agree with the statement, “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.” 

In its coverage of the survey, the Forward noted that while the Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow is comfortable with the “apartheid” label, even they were surprised by the “genocide” statement.

To be clear, as in all democratic countries with heterogeneous populations, Israel struggles with inequalities within society. But there is no government policy of racial segregation. However, hearing Israel described as “an apartheid state,” or a “colonialist settler state,” as is fashionable in some circles, is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

Certainly some of our South African members can reassure us that Israeli society is nothing like the apartheid era in South Africa. Most likely, when I went before an Arab judge in Family Court in Israel for approval for the child support agreement for my Israeli son, that judge would have been very surprised by the “apartheid” descriptor. And so too the Arab doctors and nurses who worked in the hospital in Beersheva where my son was born. And so too the Druze soldiers who bravely and loyally serve in the IDF, and Justice George Karra, the Christian Arab who serves on the Israeli Supreme Court, and of course Member of Kenesset Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am party, now the first Arab and the first Islamist party to join the majority coalition of the Israeli government. I don’t think any of those folks can credibly use the word “apartheid” to describe Israel.

But “genocide”? We, the Jews, we know genocide, and however you may feel about Israel and the Palestinians’ failure to come to a negotiated settlement, we know that applying the word “genocide” is obscenely hyberbolic, and plays on anti-Jewish stereotypes. 

My father-in-law survived Auschwitz; many more of my relatives did not. Where are the camps in Israel? Where are the cattle cars delivering non-Jews to the gas chambers? Where are the laws preventing Arabs from going to school, or owning property, or holding government positions, or even dating or marrying Jews? Where are the fields of slaughter, the Einsatzgruppen, the ghettoes?*

There are none of these things, of course. So how could it come to be that 22%, 176 of the respondents to this poll agreed with the statement, “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians”?

The only possible answer, hevreh, is that we have failed. We have failed in the education of our own people, and we have failed just as much in getting out in front of the message. For people who know only ongoing conflict in the region, and who only see the reported body counts, of course Israel looks like the bad guy. But it is perversely reductive to see the side with the higher body count as the victim and the other as the bad guy.

We have failed when those of us who do not know our history are hornswoggled by extreme voices applying the word genocide to Israel and consequently to Jews. We have failed in relaying the admittedly very complicated history of the establishment of the State of Israel, and the wars and terrorist attacks she has faced.

And of course this challenge is only made worse by the current political climate in America, where it seems that left and right are increasingly living in different worlds. Our political discourse on many issues seems like skewed lines: no chance of intersection, no apparent intention to ever seek common ground. I checked out Twitter this week for the first time in a while, and all I could see, for miles of tweets, was binary thinking. You’re either on this side or that side. There is no middle way. No attempt to reach out, only to score points against the other.

In this environment, we are going to lose the battle for the hearts and minds not only of Americans, but American Jews as well. Certainly, the majority of us still support Israel, and majorities of non-Jewish Americans as well. But the challenge of the binary approach to all things will make this battle even harder.

How might we approach this? I do not think that attempting to label anti-Israel speech as hate speech is the right path. Likewise, Israel advocacy, which is certainly good for Israel at least in the American political arena, will not solve this challenge either. 

Rather, what we need is thoughtful engagement with history and the facts on the ground. And we also need to figure out how to get out in front of the message.

So how do we do that? 

We need to make sure that we are teaching our students about Israel, presenting them with accurate material that gives an unbiased, factual telling of the Zionist project, both its strengths and its pitfalls. Perhaps there are organizations like the Peres Center for Peace in Israel who would be willing to create a curriculum for a broad audience – Jewish and non-Jewish – that would teach that story. We need to lean into the idea of peaceful coexistence – not too long ago that seemed like a nascent reality, and it can be again. We need to support institutions that are bringing people together for positive engagement between people, engagement that will lead to real partnership, and ultimately to peace.

Boycotts – by ice cream companies or against them – will not achieve anything other than more binary thinking, more Twitter-esque polarization. Our ancestral yearning for that land, and our sense of justice as Jews necessitates seeking new, creative approaches. We have the resources. Let’s do it.

בַּקֵּ֖שׁ שָׁל֣וֹם וְרׇדְפֵֽהוּ / Baqqesh shalom verodfehu, says the Psalmist (Tehillim / Psalms 34:15). Seek peace and pursue it.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, morning of Shabbat Naḥamu, 7/24/2021.)

* It has been pointed out to me, subsequent to my delivering this sermon, that genocide can take different forms; the method of the Nazis was not used by the Hutus against the Tutsis in Rwanda, for example. Nonetheless, what unites different forms of genocide, according to the United Nations’ definition, is the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Israel’s military response to Hamas rocket fire, for which she has received much criticism, does not meet that definition. If it were the IDF’s intent merely to kill innocent Palestinians in Gaza, it would certainly not, for example, provide warning signals of various types to residents of targeted buildings which contain terrorist infrastructure.

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A Light Unto the Nations, With a Touch of Grey – Shemini 5778

Israel turns 70 years old this week. 70 years of independence. 70 years of “lihyot am hofshi be-artzeinu” – of being a free people in our land. 70 years of inspiration to millions of Jews around the world.

Pirqei Avot 5:21* reports that 70 is the year of “seivah,” grey hair. As nations go, Israel is still fairly young, and for 70 she’s looking pretty good. Nonetheless, there are few 70-year-olds who can look back over their lives and see a perfectly-rosy picture of simplicity and wholeness. Life does not work that way. Democratic nations REALLY do not work that way. As with the grey hair, it’s mixed. But there is certainly much to be proud of, and to celebrate at this time.

A very curious news item crossed my desk this week. It was about the chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who released a statement appealing to Jews and leaders of all religions to take a stand to help the Syrian people and prevent, in his words, genocide.

Israeli Chief Rabbi berated for comparing black people to ...

Of note, he referred to the Syrians as enemies, but that we need to help them anyway:

As Jews, we cannot be silent. Let the call come out from here: we cannot move on from genocide, not in Syria nor anywhere or with any people, even if they are not our friends… We are all human beings. I call on you, leaders from all religions—lift up your voices. Let each person use their influence. If this happens, perhaps we will be able to prevent such atrocities.

Now, as is the case with most of the world, Israel is reluctant to be involved in Syria’s civil war, and certainly the stakes are much higher for Israel than, say, France or the US.

But Rabbi Yosef’s point is hanging out there, staring us in the face. I do not have the time to explain the complexity of what is going on in Syria, but the most salient fact is that as many as half a million Syrians have been killed, most by Syrian government forces under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad, some with the chemical weapons that splattered across our screens this week. More than 5 million have fled what remains of that country and are living in Turkey, Jordan, Europe, the US and elsewhere. More than 7 million have been displaced within Syria.**

With all of that upheaval, with all of that killing and displacement, how can we in the West simply stand by and let it continue? There is a record number of refugees in the world right now, perhaps 60 million people, affecting the social and political landscape across much of the globe. It is not up to us to find a solution, but we are nonetheless obligated to make sure that we urge our leaders to do so. We cannot look the other way.

And, in particular, Israelis cannot look the other way as their neighbors slaughter each other. And they have not: Israeli hospitals have treated over 4,000 wounded and sick Syrian citizens, and supplied food, fuel, construction materials and other items to Syrian areas near the border.

Rabbi Yosef, whose theology and approach to Jewish law is vastly different from my own, used his position to take a moral stand on the value of human life. And all I can say to that is, “Kol hakavod.” (“All the honor to you.”) If rabbis in this world are not going to stand up for saving lives, then who will? (I refer you back to my discussion a few weeks back regarding the easy availability of semi-automatic assault rifles, and our responsibility vis-a-vis the prime directive of Jewish life, that is, the principle of piqquah nefesh, saving lives.)  

What was most surprising to me, however, was Rabbi Yosef’s use of the word, “genocide,” in Hebrew, השמדת עם “hashmadat ‘am.” This is a particularly loaded term in Jewish life, and all the more so in the history of the State of Israel, because we do not take the term “genocide” lightly. Genocide requires an organized approach to killing, a systematic attempt to eradicate a people. The Nazis were guilty of genocide. The Turks attempted to kill all the Armenians in Turkey (and, by the way, the Nazis studied their methods). Tribal killing in Rwanda in the 1990s. The Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. I am not sure that what is happening in Syria is a genocide (there is debate on this), but I am sure that it is not a word that Jews should use capriciously, particularly when critics of Israel egregiously apply that word to Israel’s ongoing struggle against Palestinian terrorism.  

Nonetheless, Rabbi Yosef has a point: the world needs to help Syria find a solution. Now, I have expertise in neither military strategy nor in statecraft, but the great powers of this world have many such experts. And regardless of our religion, regardless of who is at war with whom and for how long and over what piece of land, we need to try to prevent humanitarian catastrophe when we can.

But the even greater point, and the one that goes to the reason that we celebrate 70 years of the State of Israel, is that underneath his message is the essential Jewish imperative to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations. It is a principle that (roughly) quotes a line from the book of Isaiah (49:6):

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר נָקֵ֨ל מִֽהְיוֹתְךָ֥ לִי֙ עֶ֔בֶד לְהָקִים֙ אֶת־שִׁבְטֵ֣י יַעֲקֹ֔ב וּנְצוּרֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לְהָשִׁ֑יב וּנְתַתִּ֙יךָ֙ לְא֣וֹר גּוֹיִ֔ם לִֽהְי֥וֹת יְשׁוּעָתִ֖י עַד־קְצֵ֥ה הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

God has said: “It is too little that you should be My servant in that I raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel: I will also make you a light of nations, That My salvation may reach the ends of the earth.”

As with the principle of piqquah nefesh, the obligation to save a human life, which outweighs just about every other mitzvah, another Jewish value is in play here: the obligation to stand up for what is right. While immigrants and refugees are roiling European governments, while the United States argues with itself about our responsibility to needy neighbors, while Medinat Yisrael / the State of Israel herself struggles with the challenge of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, the chief rabbinate of Israel stands up and speaks the truth. We may not be able to resolve Syria’s internal mess, but Israel could save even more lives by setting up dedicated field hospitals at the border, by sending in more aid. Crates of flour and chickpeas and cooking oil with huge Israeli flags proudly displayed on the side.

That is what it means to cast light in this world. That is what it means to be a Jew, to radiate some light in the darkness.

Slate Path | Flickr - Photo Sharing!

And yes, like the grey hair of the 70-year-old invoked in Pirkei Avot, reality is complex. Being a sovereign nation is difficult. Sometimes the light we cast is not pure; sometimes it is inflected with a touch of grey.

70 years after David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence, we are still figuring out what it means to have a Jewish state and what that state looks like. But although it’s a work in progress, although we in the Diaspora continue to examine and re-examine our relationship with Israel, the good news is that, 70 years later, Israel is still strong, and her light will shine as a beacon to all the nations of the world.

Let’s continue to work to make the State of Israel better. And there are many ways to do that, but the best way by far is to go there, to learn about Israel and the land and all the people who live there. We are celebrating Israel’s 70th birthday tomorrow evening with a Yom Ha’Atzma’ut program including a dance troupe from Karmiel/Misgav, sponsored by Derekh and the Federation. There will be food; come join us at 5 PM.

But even better than that, and also a Derekh project, in the Israel portal, is an actual trip to Israel for adults. We’ll be going there as a Beth Shalom group from October 28th to Nov. 8, and the goal will be to provide an Israel experience for the whole self, mind and body. It’s not a family trip (we’ll get around to doing one of those eventually), but whether or not you have been before, you should join us on this trip. (Click here to check out the itinerary!Click here to check out the itinerary!)

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/14/2018.)

***

 

* Pirqei Avot (literally, “Chapters of the Fathers”) is a book of the Mishnah, the earliest piece of rabbinic literature, dating to roughly the 2nd century CE in Israel. It is a collection of wisdom about how we should conduct ourselves, and emphasizes learning and teaching Torah as an essential imperative in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE and the consequent end of the ancient Israelite sacrificial cult and priesthood.

** Over 3,000 non-Syrian residents have been killed, and the vast majority of those have been Palestinians.