Rabbi Larry Freedman
Erev Yom Kippur
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
It all began with my boys complaining and my ignoring them. They were talking about summer camp. Ethan went to Eisner, Lev to Crane Lake and they loved their experiences but when it came to Israel at camp, they both complained. They hated the way Israel was taught. They complained that camp presented Israel as Disneyland, a happy shiny place filled with goodness and positivity.
At this point, my boys had been to Israel a couple times for bar mitzvah trips so they had seen Israel as a happy shiny place filled with goodness and positivity. But as is the case for any country, they had also seen some of the problems Israel faces. Along with the influence of a cynical father they were a little suspicious that any country, especially a country in the news all the time, could be just so perfect. And now so was I because while I admit I didn’t quite believe them, I took them seriously enough to look in to it.
And you know what? Turns out they were right. We are teaching Israel badly at camp and not only just at camp. We’re teaching Israel badly everywhere. We are teaching it in a way that is turning off most Jews under the age of 30 and probably a generation or two older than that as well. As we enter into Yom Kippur with a willingness to be reflective and self-critical, we need to do the same with how we talk about Israel. The reason we need to do that is simple. If we love Israel and we want others to love Israel, we need to be honest about Israel
Where to start? How about we start with the understanding that not everyone in this room loves Israel. Truth is a few of you do, many of you have some sort of positive association, a whole lot of you are completely passive and a sizeable minority of you are suspicious if not hostile towards Israel. It’s difficult for me to explain why I love Israel. It’s the place of my history and my mythology. It is a place of vibrant Jewish culture that exists naturally and outside of a synagogue. Knowing Hebrew I have a thrill using my Biblical and modern Hebrew for purposes holy and mundane. And it is a thrill to see what our people has developed, the country our people has created in just 68 years. I could go on and on but that’s another sermon -- and that would be the problem. Just telling you how wonderful it is no longer cuts it. It is an amazing place and you do need to go but until you trust me and do that, we have other problems and that’s what we need to talk about.
The tale of Israel’s founding was a story so good if it were fiction no one would believe it. A secular newspaperman is energized into activism after covering the trial infused with anti-Semitism. Tales of quixotic diplomatic derring-do are combined with tragic stories of 19th century Russian Jewish farmers. And then World War II came and out of the ashes the small Jewish community of Israel maniacally brings in any Jew they can breaking naval blockades and other skullduggery. And then 1948 came with a war that showed the world how quickly Jews can go from striped death camp garb to soldiers’ uniforms. What a tale! What a story! And it’s all true! Amazing! Jewish kids in America who used to get beat up going to school walked a little prouder. And then, catastrophe hit. We got too good. In 1967, during the course of the Six Day War, Israel took over the West Bank and we became military occupiers. Now things got tricky.
At first it wasn’t too much of a problem because surely this was just the temporary result of war. But as the military occupation dragged on, we became something other than the underdog. Now there were Arabs under Israeli military rule not in the course of battle but day in and day out and these Arabs developed a sense of Palestinian identity and they did not like being under Israeli control.
And now, 50 years later they are still under Israeli control and they still don’t like it and this is where the problem arises. You can say that the Palestinians have chosen a violent path to attain their own self-determination. You can say that other Arab countries have done little to nothing to alleviate their plight. You can that the Palestinian Authority is rife with corruption and you can say that the PA and the PLO before it, having been founded in 1964, before there was any occupation let’s remember, are focused on the dissolution of Israel over and above solving the problem of the Palestinians. You can say all that and you would be right but it wouldn’t matter.
The problem with teaching Israel today is that we Jews have the hardest time acknowledging one basic fact. Palestinians are suffering. Life is really bad for a Palestinian in the West Bank. Check points all the time, arrests all the time, work permits restricted or removed. Harassment by soldiers, by settlers, a terrible economy. There really isn’t any justice for the Palestinians.
Jews who support Israel usually say, well, whose fault is that? Fair question. The PA has a lot to answer for what they’ve done to their own people. The UN has a lot to answer for as well. Here’s a fun fact. The UN has an amazing office called the High Commissioner for Refugees. They have done tremendous work all over the world setting up temporary housing for refugees and then, in a reasonable amount of time, resettled those refugees. The High Commissioner for Refugees alleviates the suffering of people within a reasonable amount of time. But in the West Bank, the UN set up the UN Relief and Works Agency in 1949 when the West Bank was part of Jordan. Let that sink in. This agency was set up exclusively for the Palestinians and redefined the word refugee just for them. For Palestinians “refugee” was no longer something we think of as a temporary condition of people fleeing danger but a permanent status. When it was set up there were 700,000 Palestinian refugees. Today there are five million because UNRWA declared that the children of refugees through the male line are themselves considered refugees and that means that a native born American whose grandfather lived in Nablus before moving here counts as a refugee. Let that sink in, too. Generations of Palestinians who live in Jordan or Syria or Lebanon are considered refugees. This stretches the limits of what we commonly think of as “refugee” but there it is. We should know that. And we should know that UNRWA’s mandate is not to resettle the Palestinians which would end their existence as refugees. UNRWA has tragically kept the Palestinians in some kind of limbo, neither resettling them nor helping them rebuild their lives in the West Bank. In some refugee camps, there is still sewage running in the streets to this day. That’s UNRWA’s fault. Many, including Arab leaders, have suggested that they stay this way as a permanent thorn and intentionally keep the Palestinians suffering because a settled and satisfied Palestinian is one who does not demonstrate and commit violence against Israel. You can look it up. But we’ll see why in a minute why that won’t matter.
Where did these refugees come from? We don’t talk about this much but we should. In 1948, during the War of Independence, many Palestinians became refugees. Some of them were the elite wealthy who escaped early knowing war was coming. Some were told by Arab leaders to leave their villages in order to get out of the way of the advancing and presumably victorious Arab armies. Some were indeed expelled from villages by the Israeli Army. It is estimated that 15% of Arab villages were evacuated in this manner. That means 85% weren’t but still, 15% is note worthy. And then, like in most conflicts, the vast majority of Arabs became refugees because they were running away from the conflict.
To the extent we even talked about it, Israel education only focused on Arabs fleeing the conflict on their own or the Arab nations telling them via radio and loudspeaker trucks to do so. We never spoke of the Israeli Army chasing Arabs out of their own villages. First, because we didn’t want to (and it was an open secret) and secondly, because the State archives held these documents as classified. But in the last decade, the State of Israel has declassified documents and Israeli historians have been studying and publishing these things openly. So now we can’t ignore it and we should talk about it because Yom Kippur is a time of honesty and we should talk about it because others are talking about it. We don’t have a choice anymore.
You’ve heard of BDS? Boycott, Divestment and Sanction is a movement that speaks for justice for the Palestinians but really has as its goal the end of Israel. Their goal is to plant the idea that Israel is a rogue nation and ought to be a pariah, that Israel among all the countries in the world is the worst offender of human rights. Not North Korea, not China in Tibet, not various dictators around the globe. Israel. It would be laughable if it weren’t working. BDS is making inroads and they are getting Americans of all persuasions to listen to a new narrative. It is a narrative of a brutal Israeli army viciously murdering Palestinians. It is a narrative of Israel stealing land and houses, of Israel cruelly working to destroy Palestinian life and treating Palestinians as second-class citizens. If you are a Jew and wishy-washy on Israel, there is a strong chance that the BDS narrative has reached you.
BDS often fails when reason takes over. When trustees of universities look at the reality of Israel they vote down these calls for divestment. Outside of the boardrooms, they are having more success because they are able to take a small bit of truth and twist it into something massive and our people, our children who go to college campuses, are unprepared and caught completely off guard. BDS will tell them that the Israeli army committed ethnic cleansing in 1948. That is, of course, false but since it is true that some Arabs were kicked out of their villages and BDS has no interest in context or nuance, they gain the ears of our kids. Just as the American army had Abu Ghraib, Israel had Deir Yassin. However, the US Army should not be judged by Abu Ghraib alone and neither should Israel for Deir Yassin. But our kids don’t know that. They never heard of the things BDS says and so they can’t refute the charge. And don’t forget, we have taught our children to care for the oppressed. We should be extraordinarily proud of how we have taught them to be decent human beings and care for the oppressed and alleviate suffering. What do we expect when someone comes up and says, “did you know this suffering is going on?”
They don’t know what to say except, and I have personal experience with this, they come back at their teachers angry and hurt and frustrated. They want to know why we betrayed them. Why didn’t we tell them the truth? Why didn’t we tell them what is really going on in Israel?
And why didn’t we? They need to know that Israel is great and the very notion of self-determination of the Jewish people after 2000 years in exile is an awesome thing. And they need to understand the difference between the State of Israel and a government of Israel. They need to know that criticizing the governmental policies of the State of Israel is fair game. Criticizing the legitimacy of the state to exist is a different thing entirely. We need to acknowledge and teach that Palestinians are suffering because only when we acknowledge that will our children be willing to investigate the complex reasons as to why.
The enemies of Israel today are those who are committed to alleviating the suffering of Palestinians. The real enemies of Israel no longer come with tanks. They come with moral outrage. They are the enemy of Israel because they do not care why Palestinians are suffering only that they are and it must end. Let me repeat that. For those seeking justice for Palestinians, how their suffering came to be is of little consequence. The Palestinians are suffering, Israel is maintaining a military occupation, end of story. Why Israel maintains a very tough occupation is of no interest to them, only that it does. That it is in response to violence taking the place of diplomacy, that without the wall or fence Israelis would be murdered daily, that suicide bombings are just not acceptable to Israel and that Israel maintains the responsibility to keep its citizens safe from being hacked to death with a cleaver is of no interest to those laser focused only on the suffering itself and the moral outrage against this suffering translates as a desire to see the end of the State of Israel.
On Yom Kippur, a day of introspection, we should teach Israel in a way that acknowledges some responsibility for the suffering of the Palestinians or we will lose the support of those who weep for the pain the Palestinians truly feel, those good souls who don’t like to see suffering, like for instance, our children and a lot of you. We need to be honest that the current Israeli government has a settlement policy that little by little removes the chances of a State of Palestine from ever being realized. When you look at the map you see a land mass that looks like Swiss cheese. No country can be formed out of this and we need to acknowledge what is happening because the BDS people find our kids and adults and scream how Israel, the Jews, are the ones who are no partner for peace, that the Palestinians just want a country and it is the Israelis are uninterested in two states living peacefully.
You can say it is for security and you can say it is for this reason and that reason and you might be right but the bottom line is that the policy of the Israeli government is making the prospect for two states a diminishing hope. If the idea of two states goes away then there will be a catastrophe. Palestinians will either have to be given citizenship in which case they could vote Israel out of existence in a couple decades or they will have to be occupied by the military forever and the military will have to use strong and brutal methods to keep down the resistance. That is how it works. A single state can either be democratic or Jewish but it can’t be both. Only two states will allow Israel to be Jewish and democratic. Israelis talk about this all the time. We have to talk about this, too.
There is a new approach to teaching Israel. It is an approach of honesty. It is an approach that recognizes the grievances of the Palestinians and doesn’t pretend they don’t exist. The new approach is to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that Israel is no longer the little underdog but a mighty force. The new approach does not absolve the Palestinians from their own misery. It does not absolve the neighboring countries who, did you know, have laws that forbid Palestinians from full employment and even citizenship regardless of how long they’ve been in those countries. The misery of Palestinians is real and hardly only Israel’s fault. But for too many of us, we were never taught that their misery was even real and so when learning of it and being told it’s all Israel’s fault, we have very little to say. We just don’t know enough because we were never taught the whole truth.
The new approach is an honest approach, a fuller approach. Mind you, some of those who weep for the suicide bombers whose mothers give proud interviews praising the death of their children in the service of killing Jews, some of them could stand to be more self critical as well. Seeing Palestinians as innocents is as foolish as thinking Israel is perfect. They need to be reflective and honest as well. But for now, since it’s Yom Kippur, it’s our turn for reflection.
Let’s be honest and talk about Israel honestly. Let’s not get sucked in to the claims of our haters but let’s teach ourselves to understand what they are talking about. Let’s teach ourselves to be sympathetic because suffering is suffering and no decent person can just ignore that. Let’s teach ourselves not only the gloriously uplifting Israel -and it is gloriously uplifting- but also the trials and tribulations a real country endures. And let’s teach ourselves to be honest so that we can understand the difference between legitimate criticism and straight up anti-Semitism. But if we are not honest with ourselves we will never be able to do that.
And finally, let’s commit to getting ourselves to Israel. Go see it for yourself. If you are ready, we could have a trip in two years, plenty of time to prepare and save up. We can hear a variety of voices and meet a variety of people. We can do it if we’re brave and honest. Let’s be brave and honest.