Archive for September, 2014

The Dreamer


I grew up with a dream – a dream of Israel. From my earliest memories Israel has been part of my life, my soul. That is because of my dad. I remember sitting on his lap as a 5 year old, watching Walter Cronkite narrate a “20th Century” episode about the 1956 war in Sinai. It was a sweeping victory for Israel and I remember my dad explaining to me why Israel was such an important country. He told me how this was an amazing victory for Israel. I knew even as a 5 year old that Dad took special pride in Israel. So I did too.

Why was Israel so special to Dad? It was the place he had wanted to live. As a Jewish teen in Germany he belonged to the Hashomeir Hatzair – a Zionist/socialist youth movement that trained young Jews for kibbutz life in Israel. Dad expected to immigrate to Palestine, but his family could not get permission due to the British restrictions placed on Jewish immigration to Palestine in the late 1930’s. America was his second choice – the place he fled to out of the desperation caused by Krystalnacht in November 1938. Even though Dad became a very patriotic American, who loved this country and served it as a GI in World War II; he never, ever gave up his dream of Israel. He took his first of many trips there in 1969. It was emotional, exciting, and I remember pouring over every picture he and Mom took upon their return. I could not wait to go myself.

My Mom, while not the Zionist Dad was, also had a deep connection to Israel. My mom is from a small town in Germany called Greidel. Her family was spread among the many villages in that area of Germany. Her older cousins were among the founders of Kibbutz Hazorea in 1934. Mom left Germany as a 6 year old in 1936. During their 1969 visit to Israel they went to Hazorea. Upon entering the office one of the kibbutzniks saw my mom and exclaimed, “Ach, das ist ein Greidel punim!”   It had been 34 years since any of the American part of her family had seen the Israeli part, yet the recognition was there. That story represents a truism about American Jews. We are all connected to someone in Israel.

My own commitment to Israel really began, probably like many of my generation, in 1967 as a result of the Six Day War. I remember well the tension leading up to the war: the closing of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping by Nasser of Egypt, the failed attempt by President Johnson to organize an international flotilla to open the straits. I remember the report of this broadcast by Nasser on May 27, 1967, the day of my bar mitzvah, “The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are stationed on the borders of Israel….We intend to open a general assault. This will be total war. Our basic aim is the destruction of Israel.” The threat of war in Israel loomed over family conversations that weekend. Of course, miraculously, Israel won. A new pride as a Jew and as someone who also dreamed of Israel was ignited within me.

In 1971 my desire was fulfilled. I spent almost 8 weeks on a NFTY in Israel trip called Mitzvah Corp. There were about 50 other teens on the trip, one of whom was Audrey. We spent 4 weeks living and working at Ben Shemen, a youth village near Lod. We spent one week working on the archeological dig at Beit She’an, and the balance seeing the sites one must see in Israel. It was a summer filled with emotion. I knew I was doing at 17 what dad was not able to do at my age. I went to Hazorea for a weekend and met my family. In Jerusalem I went often to the Kotel. But one episode really stood out. One night we were taken to Lod airport, where we saw a plane filled with immigrants from the Soviet Union. They had managed to escape, make their way to western Europe and get to Israel. I watched as they deplaned, many of them bending down to kiss the ground. We were able to greet them after they came through immigration. I met an older gentleman whose son had already come to Israel. He spoke no English. I spoke no Russian. I had studied some conversational Hebrew as did he, so we spoke in our pidgin Hebrew. He apologized that his Hebrew was not very good. When I told him that was not important, that the only important thing was he was in Israel and would soon see his son, he cried and hugged me. I had experienced his dream of Israel.

That trip also was the beginning of a more complex relationship with Israel. One of the reform rabbis who briefed us about Israeli politics, was an Israeli – Tuvya ben Chorin. From him I first learned of an Israeli peace movement that had ideals and perspectives a bit different than the narrative on which I had been raised – a narrative that the Arabs were the implacable enemies of the poor, overwhelmed Jews. It was the first time I was challenged to see the problems of Israel’s founding, the problems of Israel’s recent occupation of territory inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. He spoke of a peace of acceptance, of a dream in which Palestinian and Israeli saw each other as humans, not as enemies.

In college my relationship with Israel deepened. After my freshman year, in May 1973, I went back to Israel on a father/son trip. Kibbutz Hazorea was our home base. We explored the country together. In Tel Aviv, while visiting with his former Hashomer Hatza’ir leader, (who by the way had an amazing career as a Mossad agent), Dad learned that his best friend from Germany, a Polish Jew named Harry Mandel, had made it to Israel and was living in Tel Aviv. Dad had not seen Harry since 1938 when he helped his family get their luggage to the train station, having been forced by the Nazis to leave Germany. So in Israel after 35 years Dad was reunited with his friend. Only in Israel.

That fall was the 1973 Yom Kippur War. For 2 weeks I worked, whenever not in class, raising money for the Magein David Adom – to provide medical relief for Israeli victims of the war. It was the first time I feared for Israel’s existence, as it was clear they were struggling to get the upper hand in the conflict. It was in 1974 that I first heard the idea of a two state solution, a Palestinian state living alongside a Jewish state, for the first time. I was being challenged to change my dream of Israel, to make room in it for a Palestinian dream. Frankly, that was really hard.

I would not return to Israel until I began rabbinical school in June of 1996. Life, marriage, raising a family, involvement in business; all conspired in a way that kept us from taking a trip there. The Israel I encountered in 1996 was shockingly different from the Israel of 1973. Physically, it had transformed. The no man’s land that stretched from the back of the King David hotel to the walls of the Old City was now filled with luxury condos and apartments. The Jerusalem I lived in for the next year was a city of art cinemas, shopping malls, and exploding suburbs. Politically, the hope of the Oslo accords with the Palestinians was just beginning to fray. The assassination of Rabin by a radical, religious Jew, the ascension of the first Netanyahu government committed to expanding the West Bank settlements, and the first suicide bombings were changing Israel’s reality. During the year I went to school in Jerusalem I rode the number 18 bus – the route that experienced two deadly explosions – every day to class. I remember seeing the police handle a chefetz chashud, a suspicious package. When the bomb squad came and exploded it, it turned out to be a box of clothes. In a typical Israeli way a fellow next to me said, “There goes somebody’s laundry.”

However, the dream of Israel was still a very real and deep experience. I lived it by being a Jew in a country that operated on a Jewish rhythm. Hardly a car was in the streets on Shabbat. On Kol Nidrei, when I left my apartment for shul, the streets were bustling with traffic. When I came out after services, not a car was in sight. Instead, the streets were filled with Israelis walking home, greeting each other, stopping in the middle of the road to talk with each other. On Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembering Israelis killed in its wars, the sirens went off, stopping traffic. I stood and prayed silently with the Israelis who got out of their cars, stood up in the street to show silent respect for the fallen.

And, for a brief moment I thought I was seeing the dream of Israel at peace become a reality. Especially when travelling in Jordan, I saw guide books printed in Hebrew. I spoke with an Israeli tour guide in Petra who told me how wonderful it was to work with the Jordanians. In 1997 we were told that Israel had the 13th highest standard of living in the world. Combine that with what seemed to be acceptance by a portion of the surrounding Arab world, and I believed that the dream of peace and prosperity was within reach; especially when an Israeli friend of mine, a Likud supporter no less, whose business was conducted completely in the West Bank, spoke glowingly of his close relationships with his Palestinian customers. My dream for Israel could now include a Palestinian state that would bring a measure of justice to that displaced people as well.

What followed was not peace, but an intifada, seemingly endless suicide bombings, an Israeli government that sanctioned more and more West Bank settlements as well as land grabs from the Palestinians. The withdrawal from Gaza went sour when Hamas won an election and took control. A war against Hezbollah in Lebanon and repeated mini wars with Hamas in Gaza – all of this has conspired to sully the dream. Yet, I love being in Israel. I love being in the land, seeing our friends – just living the overall rhythm of the country. I love that after 5 days my Hebrew starts to kick into gear and I am speaking again. However upset I might become with the growing religious radicalism in Israel, or with the seeming intransigence of the Netanyahu government, I still cry when Israel cries and cheer when Israel triumphs. I know it is not logical, but could a lifetime of dreaming about Israel be any different?

Now we come to this summer. It has presented me with a challenge. Not the challenge of war, but the challenge of understanding, maybe for the first time, the difficulty of reconciling two seemingly conflicting demands. The first is the need to defend Israel against those who would question her very right to existence. Those voices are growing. The second is the need to fully face some of the realities of the history of Israel, the consequences of the manner in which it was established. Those two demands are symbolized by two items I read this summer: Ari Shavit’s book “My Promised Land,” and the position paper by a group of Presbyterians called “Zionism Unsettled.”

Shavit’s book; which links his family’s history, dating back to the earliest settlements in the 20th century, to the overarching development of modern Israel. A consistent undercurrent to the book is how, from the earliest Jewish settlements, Jews and later Israelis did not allow themselves to really “see” the native population. A lot of this was benign neglect. Some of it was outright discounting of Palestinian needs and desires in light of the needs and desires of the Jewish settlers. It all comes to a disturbing head in his chapter about the battle for the town of Lydda. Shavit, through interviews with Israelis who participated in the 1948 battle, details the outright slaughter of part of the town’s population and an expulsion of the rest. While there was no stated policy of coordinated expulsion of Palestinians from their homes, there are documented cases in which this did happen. In later chapters, through interviews with Israeli Arabs, Shavit shows the underlying resentment that still exists as well as the feeling among Arabs, that Israel has created a state that, in its modernity, is out of sync with the natural history of the land. They see it as a European creation forced onto Middle Eastern culture. All of this makes reconciliation that much harder.

I do not have the knowledge to analyze everything in Shavit’s book, but this much I can say. We, Jews and Israelis, need to wrestle and come to terms with a narrative of Jewish settlement and the 1948 war that includes expulsion of Palestinians from their homes; not ALL Palestinians from ALL of their homes, but enough that we must face the reality that Israeli actions, account for a significant piece of today’s problems. I do not say this to question the legitimacy of Israel. Quite the opposite. If we are to defend Israel’s legitimacy, to speak publically about Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself; we have to face the reality and the complexity of its history.

To me, this is no different than Americans facing the reality of our history concerning Native Americans. That is a history of brutalizing the native population in ways far worse and more consistently than anything Israel did to the Palestinians. We do not question the legitimacy of the United States, but in understanding our country we have to honestly face a very checkered past that includes our treatment of Native Americans, black slavery, and the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in World War II, just to name a few things. It is exactly the same with Israel. We must honestly face its history.

By facing Israel’s history, our history, we then begin to move off of a habit of just loudly defending the narrative we were fed growing up – the narrative of the poor, defenseless Jews taming an untamed land, facing off countless evil enemies. While there is some truth in that narrative, it is not the complete truth. It is just a narrative. By facing the truth of our history, maybe, just maybe, we can listen for a moment, to the Palestinian narrative and understand it just a bit differently. Maybe, if we stop to listen just a little bit, instead of shouting our positions, we will inspire some Palestinians to do the same, to listen to our narrative.

In contrast to all the thoughts and emotions stirred by “My Promised Land,” is the perfidy of the document “Zionism Unsettled.” Published by a pro-Palestinian group within the Presbyterian Church, it was used by many members of the church to successfully push the vote for the PCUSA to divest from three companies that do business in Israel. I must state that “Zionism Unsettled” is not an official publication of the church, but a group within the church. It was posted on the PCUSA website but then removed. It is intensely disturbing because it represents a growing segment that just wishes Israel did not exist. I could do a whole sermon analyzing what is wrong with “Zionism Unsettled,” but I will share just a few points to illustrate.

First, it engages in outright falsehood. A very malignant example is the misuse of a quote by Rabbi David Hartman z”l. In a Washington Post article a few years back, he was describing the growing frustration among Israelis by suicide bombings. He said more were feeling they should just “wipe them out.” Hartman, a strong proponent of peace with the Palestinians, was describing and lamenting this growing feeling among Israelis. “Zionism Unsettled” presented this as Hartman’s wish – a blatant lie. Second, it presents the Jewish desire for a homeland in Israel as a regression to a more primitive form of Judaism. It superimposes how a particular group of Christians would like to portray Judaism, onto Judaism; thus degrading our theology and our history. It only discusses the Six Day War in terms of the aftermath of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It gives no context of the run up to the war or Israel’s offers to return all of the land for peace in the immediate years afterwards. It pins the beginning of the problem to the 1948 war of independence, of course blaming Israelis for everything. All the history of the modern Zionist movement is ignored. The undercurrent of “Zionism Unsettled” is that Israel should not even exist – that it is a mistake of history needing to be rectified.

Can you sense the dissonance I felt by reading these two pieces? On the one hand I want, no I need to wrestle with aspects of Israel’s history. I want to face it honestly, to understand it. On the other, I am appalled by the growing number of voices who just want Israel to no longer exist. This is accompanied by an increase in anti-Semitism, showing that especially in Europe, the old hatreds of Jews still bubbles just below a more civilized veneer. So I must, I need to stand with my people, and with Israel. Indeed, in three different recent forums, in local Tallahassee churches, I did just that. At one of them I was confronted with someone who justified the actions of Hamas, who believed that justice meant the disappearance of a Jewish state.   So the dissonance remains and I then begin to wonder, does my dream of Israel still exist? And what exactly is it if it does?

My answer is an emphatic “yes!” I cannot help it. I am a dreamer. I cannot shake the grip Israel has on my heart, forged at my father’s knee, strengthened by times being there, and tempered by the realities of history. I still dream that there are Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims who are willing to cast aside anger and prejudice and to forge a new possibility. I still dream there are Jews and Israelis ready to honestly wrestle with our history, not to condemn who we are, but to learn about who we wish to be. I dream because every now and then I see a small glimmer of hope.

On September 11, just two weeks ago, I traveled to North Florida University to appear in an interfaith program called, “Difficult Conversations.” Along with my friend, Dr. Parvez Ahmed, I was the featured speaker. We talked to a room filled with students and professors of all faiths, including Jews and Muslims. We spoke about the need to forge friendship. We spoke about the need to stop shouting and to listen to the other side. We spoke about starting from a place of respect. When we were done, a young man, a member of Parvez’s mosque whose parents are from Egypt, came up to me and told me he agreed with my opposition to the movement to boycott Israel. As Parvez and I were about to leave, the presidents of the Muslim student association and the Jewish student association, were exchanging phone numbers, planning to get together for lunch – to begin to talk. Parvez turned to me and said, “Jack, today we had a victory.” So we did.

Yes I am a dreamer. I grasp at small episodes like this to strengthen the weakening embers of hope. I know I cannot change the reality of Israel all by myself. But I believe that if I do the work of outreach here, to use my role as a Jewish leader to listen as well as defend – that my work just might make a difference. I do not mind being called a dreamer. As we begin the year 5775 I simply ask you, won’t you join me? Won’t you dream too?

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It has been an interesting week. In the aftermath of a summer that began with the ill-timed and ill-begotten Presbyterian resolution to divest from some companies that invest in Israel, followed by the horrifying war between Israel and Hamas, I find I am spending more and more time speaking to non-Jewish groups about Israel. In addition, because of the editorial I co-wrote in July on the Gaza conflict with my friend, Dr. Parvez Ahmed, I find I am one of small group that actually interacts with Muslims. The editorial made first page of the Huffington Post. Parvez and I both lament the tensions and realize our responsibility to model a different way to engage in interaction. What made this week interesting is that in two speaking engagements, I saw the poles of the Israeli/Palestinian problems – one that was discouraging and one that was hopeful.

On Sunday morning I was asked to speak at First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee. I was one of two speakers and my task was to present the Israeli perspective on both the most recent conflict as well as the overall issues with the Palestinians. The other speaker, presenting the Palestinian perspective, was a member of the “Students for Justice in Palestine,” a student group not only on the Florida State campus, but many campuses across the country. I had heard of the group but never interacted with it, as my only reason to go on campus is when I am a guest lecturer for a class. The speaker was a young woman, a Christian, whose grandparents lived in Palestine until 1948, when they were forced to leave.

I was asked to speak first. I said it was hard to give a single Israeli perspective for two reasons. First, there are a lot of opinions within Israel about the conflict and how it came to be. The official position of the Netanyahu government is different than the editorial pages of Ha’aretz, for example. Second, the problem is very complex, despite many people’s attempts to force it into simple axioms. Different people, depending on the narrative they wish to convey put the start of the problems at different times, 1967 (aftermath of the Six Day War), 1948 (Declaration of the State of Israel and the resulting war), 1916 (Balfour Declaration). I suggested that to understand the conflict one had to realize there have always been Jews living in Palestine, not a majority of the country, but they have always been there; and that the modern increase in Jewish presence leading to the eventual creation of Israel has its beginning in 1894 – when Herzl witnessed the Dreyfus trial.

To summarize the Israeli perspective I stressed three things. First, that one must not conflate the Palestinian people and Hamas. Hamas is a terrorist organization but the Palestinian people have legitimate needs and grievances. Second, that the death of civilians especially children, was deeply tragic; third, that I oppose attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel but I disagree with much of the policy of the current government. I ended my 15 minutes by saying once again it is a multi-layered problem that should not be reduced to simplistic statements.

Then it was the young woman’s turn from the SJP. She gave a moving account of her grandparents’ story, how they were forced to leave their home in Palestine in 1948. This clearly drove her emotions as she then proceeded to continually condemn the “Zionists” for taking Palestinian land, for driving out the people, for destroying what she described as a lovely kind of utopia where Jews, Christians and Muslims all got along. That was only one of her historical mistakes. She showed no real acquaintance with the history leading up to 1947. She stated that Jews were only 1 third of the population of Palestine in 1947 yet got 56 % of the land under the UN partition plan. While technically true, much of that land was the Negev desert. Most of the partition plan awarded each people the land where their population was the most concentrated.

During the question and answer period, it got worse. She stated that Hamas had the right to do whatever it wished as it was fighting for the liberation of an oppressed people. No acknowledgement of its anti-Semitism or its religiously radical agenda that brands it outside the pale. She advocated a one state solution, but offered no way how to get there.

I was faced with a choice. Do I go into direct debate with her, contradicting her “facts” and allegations? Or, do I just try to state very reasonable embracing positions, emphasizing my sympathy for the deprivations of the Palestinians. I chose the latter. I felt at that point I did not need to speak to the Presbyterians, but to her. She needed to see and hear a Jewish leader who was not a chest thumper, but who would give a reasonable, balanced presentation. To correct all of her facts (I did offer a couple of corrections) would have made it seem like the older man being condescending to a young woman. That was a no win path.

Yesterday, Thursday, I had a very different experience. The director of the interfaith office at North Florida University in Jacksonville, where Parvez teaches, asked if we would speak at a weekly gathering they have called “Difficult Conversations.” Having read our editorial, she felt we might be able to model how a Jew and Muslim can speak about the Israeli/Palestinian issue. She said usually 30 to 35 students and faculty attend and she thought that might go up to 40.

First, I met Parvez for lunch. We had our usual conversation about the latest in Philadelphia sports. This week we relished an Eagle victory to open the season. We then went to campus to attend the event. When we walked into the room it was already overflowing. In the end 65 attended, double what they usually have. The crowd was diverse racially and religiously. We spoke about our friendship, how that relationship allows us to speak honestly about issues. We stressed that we find much common ground as we are sensitive to the sufferings of each other’s people. We talked about not trying to prove a narrative, but to try to understand the other person’s perspective – why someone feels the way they do. We spoke about the uselessness of shouting at each other and chest thumping. Most of all we emphasized the need to form relationships, friendships.

The students were wonderful in their responses and their questions. It was clear they heard and appreciated the message. What moved me the most was that the presidents of the Muslim Student Association, and the Jewish Student Association, both came. Neither had been to this forum before. Neither had met the other before. When the session was done I found the two of them exchanging phone numbers and deciding to have lunch together. Parvez and I both encouraged them to seek a better path. They agreed. As we left the event Parvez said to me, “Jack, today we had a victory.” I agreed.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo tells of the declaration of blessings and curses from the tops of two mountains. The blessings are to come from the top of Mt. Gerizim, the curses from the top of Mt. Ebal. The tribes are divided into two groups, with one on each mountain. A valley yawns as a gulf between them. This week I took a turn on the top of each mountain, one of curse and one of blessing. I pray that one day, if more of us can spend time on the mountain of blessing, we can bridge the gulf.

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