Posts Tagged ‘hope for peace in Israel’

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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