A Very Difficult Sermon, December 30, 2016

A Very Difficult Sermon

December 30, 2016


To say that I have struggled with this sermon is an understatement.  The prelude to this was my anxiety over my Israel Bonds Appeal, which I delivered to you on Rosh Hashanah morning.  My apprehension is rooted in my deep personal struggle over how best to support the State of Israel while opposing its elected government with which I disagree on many issues.  Allow me to explain.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is presiding over the most right wing government is Israel’s history.  The cabinet minister’s ideology reflects that of the Settler movement which advocates for a Greater Israel, one state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.  The right wing ministers share their ideology with the incoming new ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, President elect Trump’s bankruptcy attorney who is a funder of right wing yeshivot in the settlements.  To quote one of the most astute observer of Israeli politics, the writer J.J. Goldberg, “One thing that unites this movement is the attachment of its leaders to Hardal, an offshoot of Modern Orthodoxy, a right wing movement emphasizing stringent religious observance while retaining Religious Zionism’s engagement in modern society.  The movement first emerged in the 1970s as the religious ideology of the West Bank settler movement.  It later spread more widely.  Its nerve centers are in Kiryat Arba near Hebron and Beit El, twenty miles north of Jerusalem.  David Friedman is president of the American friends of Beit El.  What defines Hardal is its radical take on religious Zionism, seeing Israel as a divine miracle and the West Bank as a sacred patrimony which Israel must rule forever or risk divine punishment.”  [i]

No wonder this government has refused to implement the accord it made with the Jewish Agency, Women of the Wall, and the Reform and Conservative movements last January 31, promising to create a new area by the Kotel, the Western Wall, where non-Orthodox Jews are able to hold mixed prayer services for men and women.  The Reform and Conservative movements would be represented on a new public authority responsible for operating the new prayer plaza.  Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners threatened a government crisis if the agreement was enacted.  Recently, Orthodox Knesset members have submitted a bill “that would not only outlaw the new egalitarian prayer space but would ban egalitarian prayer anywhere near the Kotel.  It would prohibit women from wearing tefillin and prayer shawls, blowing the shofar and reading from a Torah at the site, with offenders facing jail time or heavy fines…Forced with a revolt within his coalition, Netanyahu was forced to choose between keeping Conservative and Reform Jews happy or keeping his government intact.  Millions of American Jews, he decided, were expendable.”[ii]

Needless to say, I am already furious with the current Netanyahu government and am even more outraged by his response to UN resolution 2334 and to President Obama.  I say at the outset that UN has a despicable record on Israel and that Israel has valid reasons to distrust it.  Upon reading the resolution, however, I find very little with which to disagree.

The resolution advocates for a two state solution and condemns terrorism.  It states that the Security Council “calls for immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror, as well as all acts of provocation and destruction.”  It reiterates “its vision of a region where two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, live side by side in peace within secure borders.”  The key to the resolution, and Secretary of State Kerry’s recent remarks, is the support for a two state solution, a idea to which Prime Minister Netanyahu has given lip service while supporting the building of more settlements and the goal of the settlement movement.  The two state solution has been United States policy since 1967.  Its reiteration by Secretary Kerry does not mean that President Obama is anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.  How can anyone rationally accuse this administration of being anti-Semitic when it just signed a $38 billion dollar military aid agreement to Israel, the biggest amount ever given to an ally of the United States?

Well known Israeli writer Chemi Shalev wrote this week in Haaretz, “Resolution 2334 shatters the government induced illusion that the settlement project has been normalized, that is passed the point of no return, that it is now a fait accompli that will remain unchallenged…You can have your cake and eat it too, the government implied:  thumb your nose at Washington and the international community, build in the West Bank and still get $38 billion in unprecedented military aid.  The so called Formalization bill recently approved by the cabinet, which sought to legalize outposts that Israel had once vowed to uproot, was one bridge too far.  US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power singled it out as one of the catalyzers of the Security Council move.”[iii]

In 2008, I was part of a clergy group from Baltimore that met with the Palestinian Prime Minister in Ramallah for a two hour meeting.  We met with an impressive man, Salam Fayyad, a PhD in economics from the University of Texas who previously worked for the World Bank in Washington, D.C. before heading the Palestinian government.  I saw a burgeoning economy, an incredible amount of building, and a significant amount of cooperation and trust between Israeli security and the Palestinian police.  In fact, Israeli police and Palestinian police cooperate on a daily basis to apprehend terrorists with some success.  As we know too well, it is practically impossible to stop all terrorism, especially by lone wolves.  My point is that there is already a de facto Palestinian state with which Israel has good relations.  Building more settlements is an obstacle to future negotiations leading to a secure and peaceful future between Israel and Palestine.

The one state solution is demographically untenable.  There are 1.7 million Arabs already living within Israel.  There are another 2.8 million Arabs in the West Bank.  Let me do the math for you.  That adds up to 4.5 million Arabs in the one state compared to the current 6.3 million Jews.  Given the higher birthrate, in a couple of generations Arabs will outnumber Jews in Israel.  Then Israel either becomes a kind of Middle Eastern version of 1960’s South Africa, an Apartheid state, or it ceases being a Jewish state and a state of the Jews.  Both outcomes ultimately lead to the end of a democratic and Jewish Israel and perhaps even the destruction of the state itself.

One’s position on the resolution, and Secretary Kerry’s remarks warning Israel that it cannot allow the status quo to continue, depend on our personal ideologies.  This, my friends, is what concerns me the most- we are in the midst of an internecine Jewish ideological civil war.  More and more American Jews are Orthodox religiously and conservative politically.  The Friedman nomination as ambassador has brought this rift to the surface.  The extreme wing of American Orthodoxy, including Friedman, Jared Kushner and so many others, will have a champion in the White House, or perhaps I should say Trump Tower, just three weeks from now.  President elect Trump has twitted that as of January 20, everything will change, inferring that the two state solution is dead.  Netanyahu, who supported Trump’s candidacy, is beaming from ear-to ear.  While he may continue to build settlements, even naming one of them Har Trump, this policy will only bring continued international condemnation and internal dissension.

Many years ago, around the time of the Lebanon War, I read a book by an Israeli general who coined the term “Masada complex.”  In brief, he said that Israel is a small state dependent on having strong allies such as the Unites States.  He wrote that Israel should not conduct itself in a way which alienates itself from its allies and boxes itself into a diplomat corner without a way of escape.  That’s exactly what the defenders of Masada did, those who hated the Romans so intensely that they allowed themselves no means of escape from the Roman assault, assuring that they would die either by their own hands or that of the Romans.  My fear is that Israel cannot continue to alienate most American Jews, the American government and its international allies by pursuing its current policy of building settlements which are an obstruction to eventual peace negotiations with the Palestinians.  Netanyahu’s government is boxing Israel into a corner.  I pray that it will not ascend a figurative Masada so that there will be an eventual peace between two democratic, secure and peaceful states in the Middle East, Israel and Palestine.


Amen and Shabbat shalom

[i] J.J. Goldberg, The Forward, December 30, 2016, page18.

[ii] Judy Maltz, Haaretz, December 27, 2016.

[iii] Chemi Shalev, Haaretz, December 25, 2016.

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